The UK government has told the House of Commons that it has “not seen evidence of successful use of disinformation by foreign actors, including Russia, to influence UK democratic processes”, which without doubt includes the Brexit referendum.
The House of Commons published on Tuesday (23 October) the UK government’s responses to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee report “Disinformation and ‘fake news’: Interim Report” of July 2018.
The July House of Commons paper has issued 52 recommendations to the government, to all of which the government has provided answers.
Recommendation 41 raises the issue of Theresa May accusing Russia of meddling in elections and planting ‘fake news’ in an attempt to ‘weaponise information’ and sow discord in the West.
“There is a disconnect between the Government’s expressed concerns about foreign interference in elections, and tech companies’ intractability in recognising the issue”, the committee writes, asking the government to be more specific.
The government’s response is the following:
“In November 2017, the Prime Minister accused the Russian state of ‘a sustained campaign of cyber espionage and disruption’ which has included meddling in elections and hacking the Danish Ministry of Defence and the [German] Bundestag.
As noted by the Committee, the Prime Minister stated that Russia is seeking to weaponise information, ‘deploying its state-run media organisations to plant fake stories and photo-shopped images in an attempt to sow discord in the West and undermine our institutions’. Following the nerve agent attack in Salisbury in March this year, we judged the Russian state promulgated at least 38 false disinformation narratives around this criminal act.
We want to reiterate, however, that the Government has not seen evidence of successful use of disinformation by foreign actors, including Russia, to influence UK democratic processes. But we are not being complacent and the Government is actively engaging with partners to develop robust policies to tackle this issue.”
The Brexit referendum is not mentioned by name, but “UK democratic processes” seems to be a term broad enough to include both elections and the referendum.
Recommendation 49 notes that the Mueller Inquiry into Russian interference in the United States is ongoing.
“It would be wrong for Robert Mueller’s investigation to take the lead about related issues in the UK. We recommend that the Government makes a statement about how many investigations are currently being carried out into Russian interference in UK politics and ensures that a coordinated structure exists”, the parliament committee writes.
The UK government responded:
“The remit of the Special Counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election is a matter for the United States.
The Government has taken steps to ensure that there is a coordinated structure across all relevant UK authorities to defend against hostile foreign interference in British politics, whether from Russia or any other State.
The Government is committed to protecting the UK against any attempts to interfere with the security and integrity of our democratic processes. There has, however, been no evidence to date of any successful foreign interference.”
The parliamentary committee writes in its Recommendation 1 that the term ‘fake news’ is bandied around with no clear idea of what it means, or agreed definition.
The government replies that it agrees that ‘fake news’ is a poorly-defined and misleading term that conflates a variety of false information, from genuine error through to foreign interference in democratic processes.
“Over the past several months during its work on this issue the Government has sought to move away from ‘fake news’ and instead has sought to address ‘disinformation’ and wider online manipulation”, the government writes.
Recommendations 8 and 20 are addressed to Facebook. The Government says it regularly engages with Facebook and has made clear that social media companies need to take far more responsibility for illegal and harmful content on their platforms.