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MPs call for government to examine Russian influence on Brexit | Science & Tech News

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A parliamentary inquiry into disinformation has called on the government to investigate the Russian state’s attempts to influence the EU referendum.

The digital, culture, media and sport committee of MPs published its report on disinformation and fake news, examining the broad range of harms, including voter manipulation which can be conducted online.

Among the most contentious topics the committee has investigated has been the work of Leave-supporting campaigns ahead of the Brexit vote.

It warned that while the government “has been very ready to accept the evidence of Russian activity in the Skripal case” it has been “reluctant to accept evidence” of the same activity influencing the Brexit vote, due to the political implications of the referendum being influenced by foreign interference.

The government previously said it “has not seen evidence of successful use of disinformation by foreign actors, including Russia, to influence UK democratic processes” although it acknowledged that disinformation campaigns took place.

Sergei and Yulia Skripal were attacked with novichok and found slumped on a bench in Salisbury in March
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Sergei and Yulia Skripal were attacked with novichok and found slumped on a bench in Salisbury

However, the committee said in its report: “It is surely a sufficient matter of concern that… interference has occurred, irrespective of the lack of evidence of impact.”

It continued: “The government should be conducting analysis to understand the extent of Russian targeting of voters during elections.”

The committee also criticised the description of lack of evidence of “successful interference” because it said “the term ‘successful’ is impossible to define in retrospect”.

A number of connected scandals, many of which relate to Facebook, have also formed part of the inquiry’s remit.

These include the connections between elections consultancy Cambridge Analytica, which improperly received millions of Facebook user details, and the Russian state.

In a statement, Facebook’s UK public policy manager Karim Palant said: “We share the committee’s concerns about false news and election integrity and are pleased to have made a significant contribution to their investigation over the past 18 months, answering more than 700 questions and with four of our most senior executives giving evidence.

“We are open to meaningful regulation and support the committee’s recommendation for electoral law reform. But we’re not waiting. We have already made substantial changes so that every political ad on Facebook has to be authorised, state who is paying for it and then is stored in a searchable archive for seven years. No other channel for political advertising is as transparent and offers the tools that we do.

“We also support effective privacy legislation that holds companies to high standards in their use of data and transparency for users.”

Arron Banks
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Arron Banks campaigning for Brexit before the 2016 referendum

Of particular focus to the committee of MPs is the connection between Leave.EU, its founder Arron Banks, and Russia – much of which was covered in an interim report which the committee published, questioning the sources of Mr Bank’s wealth.

At the time the committee recommended that there be a criminal investigation into whether Mr Banks sourced his money from abroad.

The National Crime Agency is currently investigating whether any criminal activity took place, after the UK’s elections watchdog found “reasonable grounds to suspect” Mr Banks was “not the true source” of £8m loaned to an organisation that ran the Leave.EU group.

Mr Banks has denied claims that the money came from Russia.

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