London, Nov 16: The UK Parliament's powerful intelligence and security committee is under pressure to launch an investigation into the extent of Russian influence on Brexit through social media during last year's European Union (EU) referendum.
MPs in the House of Commons called on the intelligence watchdog, with powers to question intelligence chiefs, to examine whether Russia's so-called "troll factories" interfered in UK politics via fake accounts on Twitter.
Labour MP Mary Creagh asked Prime Minister Theresa May during the weekly Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons yesterday if the committee would urgently evaluate "the Kremlin's attempts to undermine our democracy".
In reply, May indicated that it would be on the agenda once the committee is re-formed. The committee is a cross-party group of MPs and peers which is re-formed after every general election, with a new one due to be set up by next week in the wake of the June snap general election this year.
The pressure for a deeper inquiry follows one of May's strongest warnings to Russia over its attempt to "weaponise" information against Western democracies. "It (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," she said earlier this week.
Damian Collins, the chair of the Commons culture, media and sports select committee, which is investigating fake news, wants Twitter to tell Parliament how Russia could have been involved in influencing UK politics.
"What is at stake is whether Russia has constructed an architecture which means they have thousands of accounts with which they can bombard (us) with fake news and hyper-partisan content," he said.
According to research for an upcoming paper by data scientists at Swansea University and the University of California, Berkeley, more than 150,000 accounts based in Russia, which had previously confined their posts to subjects such as the Ukrainian conflict, switched attention to Brexit in the days leading up to last year's vote. Russian activity spiked on June 23, the day of the EU referendum, and on June 24 when the result was announced.
From posting fewer than 1,000 tweets a day before June 13, the accounts posted 39,000 tweets on June 24 before dropping off almost entirely. Many of the messages appear to have come either from bots, fully automated accounts set up to post hundreds of tweets a day, or from "cyborg" accounts, which are heavily automated but have some human involvement.
Academics at City University in London have conducted research and estimate more than 13,000 accounts that tweeted about Brexit disappeared after the ballot, suggesting they may have been created for the sole purpose of influencing the vote. Researchers at the University of Edinburgh identified 419 accounts operating from the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) attempting to influence UK politics out of 2,752 accounts suspended by Twitter in the US.
An inquiry into whether Russia interfered in Brexit is also underway by the UK's Electoral Commission but it has no power to sanction non-UK based individuals or organisations for activity that takes place outside Britain. The 'Guardian' claims that there are reports that the Russian embassy in London has been "turbocharging" its official propaganda operation in Britain by signing up around 100 loyal Twitter users to automatically repeat its key messages on social media.
The founder of the system of turbocharging, Filip Perkon, told the newspaper that the embassy had now signed up dozens of "superfans" to the "Russian diplomatic online club", which allows the Kremlin's diplomats to instantly spread messages to thousands more people than would otherwise be possible.