Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg

U.K. Probes Russian Social Media Influence in Brexit Vote

Updated on
  • Will examine whether financing, transparency rules broken
  • May look to update rules to encompass digital advertising

The U.K. elections regulator is looking at whether Russia tried to use social media to illegally influence the Brexit referendum campaign.

Bob Posner, the U.K. Electoral Commission’s director of political finance and regulations, said in a blog posted to the regulator’s website on Tuesday that it was speaking to Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. about who paid for political advertising in the run-up to the June 2016 EU referendum and the May 2017 general election.

"Any receipt of impermissible donations by registered campaigners or political parties campaigning at the EU referendum, either from the U.K. or overseas, would be a serious breach of law," the Commission said in a statement Thursday. Any evidence of illegality will be referred to the police, Posner said.

"Where we feel wider change to the law is required, or action needed by others, then we will report to the U.K. government and to Parliament," he added.

The move from the regulator follows demands in October by a Labour Party lawmaker, calling for an investigation into whether “dark money” played a role in the Brexit referendum.

A spokesman from Twitter said the company "recognizes that the integrity of the election process itself is integral to the health of a democracy. As such, we will continue to facilitate and support formal investigations by government authorities into election interference as required."

A Facebook spokeswoman said “To date, we have not observed that the known, coordinated clusters in Russia engaged in significant coordination of ad buys or political misinformation targeting the Brexit vote.”

The Electoral Commission’s probe is just one of several British government inquiries into possible Russian attempts to influence the Brexit vote. Arron Banks, a millionaire insurance entrepreneur who funded campaigns for Britain to leave the European Union, is being investigated by the U.K. Electoral Commission.

The U.K. data regulator is looking into how personal data was used to target ads during the campaign. And a House of Commons select committee has asked social media companies to hand over documents pertaining to Russian-linked accounts that may have been active during the referendum campaign.

The U.K. investigations follow revelations about widespread Russian interference in the November 2016 U.S. presidential election. Russia is accused of buying thousands of ads on Facebook and using hundreds of fake accounts on both Facebook and Twitter to promote content aimed at exacerbating "societal divisions," according to the U.S. Senate intelligence committee.

Posner said in his blog post that the content of political advertisements, and any misinformation or "fake news," was not within the Commission’s remit. But U.K. law prohibits anyone not resident in the U.K. -- other than British citizens living overseas -- from buying political advertising. Foreign individuals and entities are also prohibited from donating directly to political parties. The Commission can investigate violations of these rules.

In the past, the commission has also recommended that online campaign material should have to include a statement about who paid for its publication. But that suggestion has not yet been adopted. Currently, only print advertising is required to carry such transparency notices. "The time has come for these important matters to be legal requirements," Posner said.

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