Tech giants asked about Russia tilting Brexit

LONDON • Britain's Parliament is asking Facebook, Twitter and other Internet companies for information about Russian efforts to use social media to influence the British vote to leave the European Union, expanding on several parallel US congressional investigations around the election of US President Donald Trump.

The British inquiry adds to mounting pressure for more disclosure from the Internet giants, which have already acknowledged broad Russian efforts to influence national elections in both the United States and France.

Any indication of Russian meddling in the British vote last year could raise doubts about the integrity of the outcome, further complicating the vexed domestic politics surrounding the departure, commonly called Brexit.

Russia, which has long viewed the EU as a threat, had a strong interest in promoting the groups that favoured Brexit. And the most visible tools of Russian propaganda, like English-language broadcaster RT and news agency Sputnik, heavily supported the initiative. The "leave" camp won with 52 per cent of the ballots cast, about 1.3 million more votes than the "remain" side drew.

"Any interference in the democratic process of the United Kingdom by people acting illegitimately is a serious matter," Mr Damian Collins, a Conservative who heads a parliamentary committee leading an inquiry into "fake news", wrote in a letter released on Tuesday that requested information from Twitter.

A spokesman for Facebook said it would respond "once we have had the opportunity to review the request", after a similar letter was sent to chief executive Mark Zuckerberg. A member of Mr Collins' staff said the committee was also in contact with Google.

A spokesman for Twitter said it was adapting to "patterns of malicious activity" and now catches more than 3.2 million suspicious accounts each week.

A recent academic study found 13,493 suspected "bot" accounts that appeared to send out automated messages related to the referendum in the run-up to the vote but were removed in its immediate aftermath.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 26, 2017, with the headline 'Tech giants asked about Russia tilting Brexit'. Print Edition | Subscribe