Is Russia Meddling in the U.K. Election? Perhaps—But the Real Problem May Be Gullible Voters

Allegations of Russian involvement in Britain's looming election are swirling as the nation reaches fever pitch ahead of the December 12 vote. The charged campaign is a pivotal one for the U.K., given the tortuous ongoing Brexit negotiations and a wide range of domestic social and economic ills.

Russian meddling in Western elections has become widely accepted. Intelligence officials, lawmakers and cyber experts have all warned that Moscow is likely accelerating its campaigns, both in direct state-sponsored cyberattacks and more deniable online disinformation campaigns.

U.S. bodies have been preparing for expected Russian—among other nations—efforts to interfere in 2020. They will be looking across the Atlantic this week for early indications of Moscow's renewed efforts and evolving tactics.

But if Americans are to take one lesson from watching this week's election across the Atlantic, it should be how real voters are interacting with—and being duped by—false information, whether pushed out by foreign accounts or domestic actors.

No direct Russian interference in the U.K. campaign has been confirmed, though that has not stopped suggestions of meddling from both sides of the political divide.

Some reports have suggested that one of the bombshell revelations of the campaign—leaked documents detailing discussions between British and U.S. negotiators on a potential post-Brexit free trade deal—were leaked onto Reddit by Russia.

They were unveiled by opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn and left Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader Boris Johnson in hot water amid fears a post-Brexit deal with the U.S. will force deregulation, lower food standards and higher drug prices on the U.K. The government has not denied the veracity of the documents.

The Labour Party itself has weathered direct DDoS attacks on its website—unsophisticated efforts designed to overwhelm the site with visits and crash the page.

The British government's National Cyber Security Centre told Newsweek it is "confident the party took the necessary steps to deal with the attack," which "was not successful and the incident is now closed."

The nature of such attacks makes it very difficult to identify a perpetrator. Despite early suggestions that a state actor—perhaps Russia—was behind them, none of the subsequent evidence points to that conclusion. The so-called Lizard Squad has since claimed responsibility.

Meanwhile, the ever-caustic tone of social media has dropped another level. This has made it hard to differentiate between partisan users and fake accounts or bots, directed to share fake news and conspiracy theories by special interest groups or even state actors like Russia via its infamous Internet Research Agency.

This week, for example, British social media was thrown into turmoil by conspiracy theories seeking to smear a report that a sick 4-year-old was forced to wait for hours on a hospital floor, such was the stress on the hospital where his mother sought treatment.

And above it all looms the government's unreleased report on Russian meddling in British politics, including the 2016 Brexit referendum.

Johnson has refused to release the report, arguing it would not be appropriate to rush its publication simply to get it out before the election.

His opponents have dismissed the argument, suggesting the report would be embarrassing for the Conservative Party, which counts several wealthy Russians among its donors.

For all the fear of Russian interference, there is little in the way of concrete evidence. British cybersecurity experts told Newsweek this may simply be because it is not happening, or that the measures used are so subtle that they are hard to detect.

The 2016 U.S. presidential election was a milestone in public understanding of online active measures and direct cyberattacks, for example on the Democratic National Committee or electronic voting machines in vulnerable states.

Many nations, including the U.K., use more secure methods of counting votes. British electoral officials need not worry about direct meddling in tallies, but more low-tech disinformation efforts super-charged by social media still pose a threat, as across the democratic world.

Russia, UK, election, meddling, interference, social media
This file photo shows a general view of the Houses of Parliament on December 11, 2019 in London, U.K. Peter Summers/Getty Images/Getty

A self-inflicted problem?

Keir Giles, a cybersecurity expert at the British Chatham House think tank, told Newsweek that he would not expect to see evidence of Russian meddling in the British election "at the moment."

"Not because it's not happening, but because by and large, we only find out about these things long after the event," Giles explained, referring to "casual disinformation campaigns." He added: "A lot of this will be happening on an ongoing basis as opposed to linked to a specific event."

"We should assume that where Russia sees an opportunity to interfere in political processes for its own ends then it will take it, because there has been no significant deterrent to prevent it from doing so," Giles said.

But Giles also said Russia tends only to interfere when the Kremlin has "a clear and obvious objective for siding with one political party or another."

Arguably, this is not the case in the U.K., he said, with a victory for either major party likely to badly destabilize the country. "There are no good outcomes," he said. "In a way, it's hard to decide which one Russia would actually back to further its own interests."

Domestic political actors—in the U.K., U.S. and elsewhere—have learned from the Russians, Giles added. With a little time and investment the online impact of disinformation can be massive, making such campaigns hugely appealing to unscrupulous political operatives.

Whether real users know they are part of a fake news campaign is irrelevant—an outside power like Russia or domestic activists needn't do much to gain traction among voters.

The situation was well illustrated this week by the row over the photo of 4-year-old Jack Williment-Barr. The image—deeply embarrassing for Johnson and the Conservatives—quickly became the subject of baseless conspiracy theories alleging it was staged by the boy's mother.

The Facebook post supposedly proving the falsification of the photo spread rapidly, to the point where even prominent media personalities were propagating it. The original post appears to have come from a mysterious Facebook account, spread by real people who did not know the poster.

"It's not just about fakery and malicious actors," explained Andrew Chadwick, a political communications expert working at Loughborough University in the U.K.

It's a systemic problem being propagated by journalists hungry to break news and political activists keen to reinforce their own positions while swaying undecided voters—particularly in the closing stages of an election campaign—Chadwick suggested.

"It's really difficult to arrive at a certain conclusion or analysis as to whether or not this is foreign interference or whether or not it is just partisans who are behaving in concert," Chadwick said.

"If you're just looking for foreign influence via Russia," it is easy to miss why Russian tactics work so well, he added.

"They understand the way media system works in liberal democracies now...they all have a very, very good understanding of how social media has become woven into the fabric of election campaigns, in a way that wasn't the case five years ago."

"There will come a point where you're probably just going to have to say, 'Look, some of this is self-inflicted—it's British citizens, it's party activists," Chadwick predicted.

The knowledge gap

Citizens are still largely unprepared to handle disinformation online—one 2017 survey indicated that as many as 96 percent of Brits could not tell the difference real and fake news.

"U.K. social media users seem pretty relaxed about sharing false and misleading information," Chadwick said. "And that includes pieces of information that would have been introduced by ordinary members of the public."

Sneha Dawda, a research analyst and cybersecurity expert at the Royal United Services Institute, told Newsweek that cybersecurity more generally is still a very inaccessible field for the public.

The media, she said, must work with policymakers and experts to "defog" the technical language around the topic.

This will help the public dialogue along and keep pace with emerging technologies, which present ever-more potent opportunities for the spread of misinformation and disinformation. "The general public needs to have a voice," Dawda added.

The two cyberattacks on Labour's website is an example of how the reality can be lost in the fog of reporting. The party announced that it had been the victim of a sophisticated effort, but this was not the case.

Dawda warned that much of the public does not have "enough knowledge in their arsenal" to be able to differentiate, exacerbating the knowledge gap.

Bodies like the National Cyber Security Centre, Dawda explained, are vital. The world of cyber threats and security "is only ever going to get more complex and more difficult to solve."

National governments can take more direct action. Singapore, for example, recently introduced legislation by which ministers can order social media platforms to warn users about questionable posts and even take down the worst offenders.

Social media companies, academics and rights advocates have all warned that the law could easily be abused to stifle legitimate opposition. Regardless, Giles said it is evidence that "with sufficient political will it can be done, but of course it's easier if you live in a small cohesive society with a common shared threat perception."

There is growing demand for social media giants to also do more to address the problems of fake news online. Platforms have been slow to voluntarily introduce measures to stem the flow of fake news and fake accounts. Giles said that ultimately these problems will continue until these "uncooperative" platforms self-regulate.

"Social media platforms seem in general not to have grasped that the societies in which they thrive and make profits for their shareholders need to be protected if that situation is going to be continued," Giles said. "They are one of the main instruments in destroying the system that they depend on."

But according to Chadwick, it is "highly doubtful" that companies alone can stop the spread of fake information if it is being disseminated by real users. "The problem is that people want to express their loyalties and their beliefs."

There is a fine line, he said, between normal civil discourse and the "deliberate spread of disinformation and outright fabrication."

"We need people to start exercising a lot more savvy, I think, in the way that they share information online," Chadwick said. "Especially if they're in positions of great influence."

The graphic below, provided by Statista, illustrates projected parliamentary seats won in the 2019 U.K. general election as of December 10 YouGov data.

UK General Election Parliament Projection Statista
Projected parliamentary seats in UK general election 2019. Statista

This article was updated to include an infographic.