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Many in the U.K. were hoping that a key parliamentary report into Russian influence and disinformation would finally settle the question of whether Russia interfered in the Brexit referendum or not. After all, given Russia’s desire to weaken the EU, it had every motive to do so.
Sadly, the report—belatedly published Tuesday by Parliament’s intelligence and security committee—does not do that. It could not, because nobody in the government and intelligence services gave the lawmakers on the committee any assessment of Russian attempts at interfering in the referendum.
The committee reported that nobody in the government or British intelligence was watching out for Russian interference when the 2016 referendum took place, and nobody bothered to try spotting it after the fact.
And the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson—one of the leading advocates of Brexit, and the U.K.’s former foreign secretary—is still refusing to conduct an inquiry.
“The U.K. is clearly a target for Russia’s disinformation campaigns and political influence operations,” the committee’s report read. “However…It has been surprisingly difficult to establish who has responsibility for what. Overall, the issue of defending the U.K.’s democratic processes and discourse has appeared to be something of a ‘hot potato’, with no one organization recognizing itself as having an overall lead.”
The committee also said MI5—the U.K.’s domestic intelligence service—had given it “just six lines of text” when asked if there was any secret intelligence to back up widespread, public reports about the use of Russian disinformation channels and “bots” and “trolls” to influence the referendum in favor of Britain’s exit from the EU.
Reading the report, it is not hard to see why. It notes that credible reports of Russian interference in British politics date back to at least 2014, when a Scottish independence referendum took place, but it was only after Russia’s 2016 hack on the U.S. Democratic National Committee that the U.K. government “belatedly realized the level of threat which Russia could pose in this area,” the report said.
“It appears that the [British] Intelligence Community did learn lessons from the U.S. experience, and [the government] recognized the Russian threat to the U.K.’s democratic processes and political discourse,” the report read. “Had the relevant parts of the Intelligence Community conducted a similar threat assessment prior to the referendum, it is inconceivable that they would not have reached the same conclusion as to Russian intent, which might then have led them to take action to protect the process.”
“We have not been provided with any post-referendum assessment of Russian attempts at interference,” the committee complained in the report. “This situation is in stark contrast to the U.S. handling of allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, where an intelligence community assessment was produced within two months of the vote, with an unclassified summary being made public.”
“Whilst the issues at stake in the EU referendum campaign are less clear-cut, it is nonetheless the Committee’s view that the U.K. Intelligence Community should produce an analogous assessment of potential Russian interference in the EU referendum and that an unclassified summary of it be published.”
So, is that going to happen? No.
According to the government’s response to the report, “a retrospective assessment of the EU referendum is not necessary.”
The government did react a little more warmly (if vaguely) to the committee’s recommendation of a new “protocol” with social media companies such as Facebook, which would “ensure that they take covert hostile state use of their platforms seriously, and have clear timescales within which they commit to removing such material.”
“The Government’s relationship with the social media companies continues to evolve. In the context of the COVID-19 response, we are learning valuable lessons which will be applied to our future approach to countering disinformation and other forms of online manipulation,” the government said in its response.
“While the Government welcomes the actions taken by social media companies thus far, including the cooperation they have shown in tackling these issues together, there still issues to be addressed.”
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