Watchdog starts inquiry into Russia Brexit links

Watchdog starts inquiry into Russia Brexit links

An inquiry will examine the growing role of social media in elections amid concerns that Vladimir Putin’s Russia is trying to destabilise the democratic process

An inquiry will examine the growing role of social media in elections amid concerns that Vladimir Putin’s Russia is trying to destabilise the democratic process

Britain’s election watchdog has begun an inquiry into whether Russia interfered in the Brexit referendum campaign.

The Electoral Commission told The Times that it was “in dialogue” with Facebook and Twitter in response to allegations that Russia tried to influence the US presidential result. Its inquiry will also examine the growing role of social media in election campaigns amid

concerns from the intelligence and security agencies that Russia is trying to destabilise the democratic process in Britain.

“We are asking questions of Facebook and Twitter and this work is ongoing,” Bob Posner, the commission’s director of political finance and regulation, said. “We don’t just sit back and see what lands on our doorstep.”

In the US, Russia is accused of using Facebook to sow division and influence the election result by buying adverts and using “troll farms” to reach more than 150 million people. The Senate intelligence committee has been given details of how Russia bought at least 3,000 election-related Facebook adverts while hundreds of bogus accounts churned out “deeply disturbing” content designed to “amplify societal divisions”.

The US government is also investigating the Russian media outlets RT and Sputnik to discover whether they are breaking laws on foreign propaganda. RT runs a television station and website and is backed by the Kremlin. Sputnik is a news agency funded by Moscow with offices in London, Edinburgh, Washington, Cairo and Beijing.

It comes as the commission opened a separate formal investigation into the source of more than £8 million in loans and donations made to the Brexit campaign of Nigel Farage, then leader of Ukip. The commission said that it was looking into whether Arron Banks, the founder and principal donor of the campaign group Leave.EU, was the “true source” of three loans worth £6 million on non-commercial terms that were given to the group.

It is also investigating whether Better for the Country Limited, a company that lists Mr Banks as a director and has its registered office at the same Bristol address as Leave.EU, was acting as an “agent” when it donated £2.3 million to five registered campaigners.

The commission did not say where it thought the money had come from but Mr Banks suggested it believed it was Russia — which he categorically denied. “They’re in a tizzy. They think it was funded by Russia,” he said. “Of course it didn’t. It came from my bank account.”

Mr Posner said: “Clearly we have seen the allegations about interference in the American election and it is right that we are in a dialogue with companies like Facebook to ensure that nothing like that happened here.

“Should our inquiries provide us with evidence that the existing campaigning rules about political finance may have been broken then we will undertake our own investigations as set out in our enforcement policy. If we believe other, criminal, offences may have been committed, then these will be referred to the police for investigation.”

Security sources said that Moscow’s aim was primarily to destabilise the political system in western countries. A source said: “We would be surprised if Russia wasn’t active in the UK.”

Angus King, a senior US legislator, told the senate intelligence committee yesterday that as well as being involved in the French and German elections “we are now learning they [Russia] were involved in the separation of Spain. And my understanding is they’ve set up shop in Scotland, which is talking about an independence vote. This is a sophisticated worldwide strategy.”

Oliver Wright y Lucy Fisher

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