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Did Putin buy Brexit?

by Denis MacShane | 15.11.2017

Denis MacShane is a former Minister of Europe and was a Labour MP for 18 years.

The latest evidence of Russian meddling in the referendum, based on three separate academic studies which are published in today’s Times and Guardian, is damning.

First, over 150,000 Russia-based Twitter accounts switched their attention to Brexit in the final days of the referendum, according to an upcoming paper by Swansea University and the University of California, Berkeley. They posted more than 45,000 messages about Brexit in 48 hours as the campaign reached its peak, compared to fewer than 1,000 per day before June 13. The tweets were viewed hundreds of millions of times, The Times says.

Second, City University researchers have uncovered a coordinated network of Twitter “bots” comprising over 13,000 accounts, which came out of nowhere to post 65,000 tweets about the referendum. One of the influential accounts that these automated bots retweeted was probably a Russian propaganda account, according to The Times.

Third, over 400 fake Twitter accounts believed to be run from a St Petersburg based “troll farm” published posts about Brexit, according to Edinburgh University researchers. The Internet Research Agency (IRA) employs hundreds of bloggers round the clock to flood Russian internet forums, social networks and the comments’ sections of western publications. It has been linked to a businessman who was once Vladimir Putin’s favourite chef, according to the Guardian.

The Russian president told Bloomberg in September 2016 that Brexit would lead to a smaller EU. Putin has always resented having to deal with the EU and insisted that only bilateral relations mattered for Russia. A former US ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, said the Brexit vote was “a giant victory for Putin’s foreign policy objectives”.

An investigation by the House of Commons Culture and Media Select Committee is under way. Its chair, Tory MP Damian Collins, is calling on Twitter to explain how it thinks Russia has been attempting to influence UK politics and to divulge examples of posts by IRA.

Separately, it is known that just five people paid for 61% of the Leave campaign. Meanwhile, the Electoral Commission is investigating whether Arron Banks, a major Leave funder, broke rules on donations.

The BBC’s David Dimbleby famously announced that “the people have spoken” as the results came in during the early hours of June 24 last year. Now we know Putin also had a say in the result.

At the Lord Mayor’s Banquet this week Theresa May attacked Putin for interfering in elections in the West. She did not mention Brexit as she has to pander to the Brexit hardliners in the cabinet and Conservative Party. But there are also many Tories who care deeply about standing up to Russia.

If more evidence surfaces that the narrow Brexit result was influenced by an unfriendly foreign power, it will be harder to argue that a stolen poll should be the final word on Britain’s relationship with its friendly neighbours.

Research by Luke Lythgoe

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Edited by Hugo Dixon

2 Responses to “Did Putin buy Brexit?”

  • Essential also that the Intelligence and Security parliamentary committee, chaired by Dominic Grieve, previously Attorney General, covering the security services, should also investigate.
    Further detail on the major donors to the Leave campaign also essential. The Electoral Commission is said to be inadequate, perhaps not empowered, to investigate at the level necessary.

  • In theory we live in an open democracy, in which any citizen can take part. It is worrying that people who are not citizens seem to have so much influence. I would have thought that it was a moral (if not a legal) crime for someone to be able to donate enough money to a campaign which threatens such a fundamental change to our society and to remain anonymous. I believe that all political campaigns should be funded by individual subscriptions to political parties, not by big money from organisations of individuals with other agendas.