Is the Brexit Vote Legitimate If Russia Influenced the Outcome?

Workers begin counting ballots after polling stations closed in the referendum on the European Union in Glasgow, Scotland, Britain, on June 23. Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

From the Brexit vote to the U.S. presidential election, Russia's campaign of propaganda and disinformation has played its part in interfering in democratic processes in key Western countries. It is easy to imagine that Russian interest lies in weakened and destabilized countries and institutions that it views as rivals.

Reports suggested that Russia used its vast intelligence apparatus during the run up to the U.K.'s June referendum on EU membership in favor of the winning "leave" vote. Both RT and Sputnik, English-language news outlets which receive funding from the Kremlin, produced often misleading news coverage that tallied with the campaign urging voters to leave the EU.

Russia is also believed to have leveraged its "troll army"—individuals paid by the Kremlin to produce and promote fake social media content—to focus on messaging around the referendum campaign.

The Russian disinformation campaign may have influenced the vote outcome. Polling in the lead up to the referendum had showed a majority of UK nationals wishing to remain. But as election day neared it became apparent that the race had grown close, and the final vote count resulted in a narrow victory for the leave camp, which won 51.9 percent of the votes compared to 48.1 percent for the remain side.

The Brexit leave vote fits with Russia's goal of weakening the EU, which it has eyed warily as former Eastern Bloc countries have flocked to join. The U.K.'s withdrawal will leave the EU without one of the three largest economic and military powers in Europe.

Related: Soviet-style disinformation tactics could trigger a new Cold War

Russia first honed the use of disinformation under the KGB during the Cold War, then adopted these tactics for the digital era under the institution's successor, the FSB. It is now the world's most advanced country in the use of online disinformation.

In addition to its news sites and troll army, Russia's influence tools also involve hacking sources and passing on documents—original or potentially forged—to sites that leak the information.

The U.S. presidential election campaign, which saw the Republican candidate Donald Trump win a shock victory, was an example. After hacked emails belonging to the Democratic National Committee and to Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton's campaign manager appeared on WikiLeaks, in some instances altered to further discredit Clinton, the U.S. government accused Russian hackers of the cyberattacks, saying, "These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the U.S. election process." Russia's troll army also spread fake news in favor of Trump on social media, and RT and Sputnik ran pro-Trump coverage. Post-election, computer scientists have warned of the possibility that hackers may have tampered with the vote in several key swing states, although this has not been proven.

As with the Brexit vote, the U.S. presidential election resulted in a shock winner. Clinton led the race early on and most pollsters expected a Clinton victory. But the gap between the candidates gradually narrowed in the days leading up to the election, and Trump rode to victory by a narrow margin—as little as 107,000 votes in three swing states.

Russia's support of Trump is part of its aim to undermine the United States, its long-term adversary. Russia typically seeks to promote internal divisions within other countries, and Trump's divisive rhetoric—his campaign attacked immigrants as well as women—has done precisely this. In Trump, Russia has a candidate who expressed unbridled admiration for the country's authoritarian president, Vladimir Putin, and appears to support Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea. A Trump presidency could also weaken NATO—another long-time foe of Russia, which has been encroaching on Russia's doorstep as former Soviet states have acceded to membership—given that Trump has openly questioned the value of U.S. participation in the Alliance.

There are important parallels between the U.S. presidential election and the Brexit vote. The outcomes of both races hinged on razor-thin margins, and it is in narrowly contested races that propaganda and disinformation tactics have the potential to be most effective. It is possible that the Russian propaganda machine helped to tip the vote in the direction of Trump and the leave camp.

These races raise profound questions about what it means for an election to be "free and fair." The integrity of the electoral process depends on voters having access to accurate information. And it is especially important given the upcoming French presidential elections.

Russia has overtly supported the National Front, Marine Le Pen's far right, anti-EU party, and the Moscow-based First Czech Russian Bank provided the party with a $9.5 million loan. In the months since then, Le Pen has gone from having her party fail to win a single seat in the December 2015 French regional elections to being in second place in the presidential race, giving her a real chance of winning the presidency.

If Western countries do not take steps to actively counter Russian disinformation, an emboldened Russia will continue to use these tactics to influence elections in the West and around the world. The U.K. should start with a conversation on whether the Brexit vote was indeed legitimate, because Russia could redraw the face of the world if it is allowed to continue.

Caroline Baylon is a cyber security researcher affiliated with the Center for Strategic Decision Research in Paris.