May attacks Russia over propaganda war on West
Theresa May was said to have become increasingly concerned at intelligence pointing to Russian complicity in misinformation spread online
Theresa May last night made her most outspoken attack on Russia for using fake news to “sow discord” in Britain and other western nations.
The prime minister accused President Putin of trying to “weaponise information” in the age of social media to undermine democracies. “I have a very simple message for Russia,” Mrs May said. “We know what you are doing.”
In a lengthy charge-sheet of actions that she said risked provoking “dangerous and unpredictable” conflicts, Mrs May accused Russia directly of meddling in elections. The comments risk raising tensions with President Trump, who drew criticism last week for saying that he believed Mr Putin’s denial that Russia had interfered in the US presidential race.
A Twitter account run from Russia alleged Muslim indifference to the Westminster terrorist attack
Downing Street sources said that Mrs May had chosen to go on the offensive after becoming increasingly concerned at intelligence pointing to Russian complicity in online misinformation. Damian Collins, the Conservative MP who is leading a parliamentary inquiry into fake news, has requested data from Twitter and Facebook on Russian accounts that posted about the EU referendum. The small number of accounts positively identified as Russian could be the tip of the iceberg, he has said.
The US government, meanwhile, is investigating whether Russian media outlets such as RT and Sputnik are breaking laws on foreign propaganda.
Addressing the Lord Mayor’s Banquet at Guildhall, in the City of London, Mrs May accused Moscow-backed outlets of spreading lies. “[Russia] is seeking to weaponise information [by] deploying its state-run media organisations to plant fake stories and photoshopped images in an attempt to sow discord in the West and undermine our institutions,” she said.
The prime minister touched on the Brexit negotiations only briefly as she said that she was determined to maintain close security ties with European countries and pledged increased defences against Russian aggression.
She said: “Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea was the first time since the Second World War that one sovereign nation has forcibly taken territory from another in Europe. Since then, Russia has fomented conflict in the Donbas, repeatedly violated the national airspace of several European countries, and mounted a sustained campaign of cyberespionage and disruption. This has included meddling in elections and hacking the Danish Ministry of Defence and the Bundestag, among many others.”
Mrs May added that Britain was trying to ensure “the profits of corruption cannot flow from Russia into the UK” as well as raising cyberdefence spending.
Her intervention comes as it emerged that a Twitter account identified as a Russian bot in evidence to Congress tweeted an image of a hijab-wearing Muslim woman crossing Westminster Bridge apparently ignoring a prone victim of the terror attack on March 22.
The @SouthLoneStar account, which supposedly belonged to a Stetson-wearing “proud TEXAN and AMERICAN patriot”, shared the image, which went viral, saying: “Muslim woman pays no mind to the terror attack, casually walks by a dying man while checking phone#PrayForLondon #Westminster #BanIslam.”
The tweet was quoted in news reports, when the unnamed woman said she was dismayed by the misrepresentation. The account, which had 16,800 followers, also posted about Brexit.
Yin Yin Lu, of the Oxford Internet Institute, told The Times that at least 54 accounts on the list of 2,752 linked by Twitter to the Internet Research Agency in evidence to Congress tweeted about Brexit. The agency is a Russian state-backed “troll factory” in St Petersburg.