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Facebook and Twitter to hand over details of Russian-backed Brexit posts

Written by  Nov 29, 2017

Facebook has agreed to hand over information showing the reach of Russian-backed postings during the Brexit referendum by early December, according to the House of Commons media watchdog.

Damian Collins, the chair of parliament’s culture, media and sport committee, said he believed the figures would give the UK a better idea of whether Russia tried to influence the vote on leaving the EU.

Facebook handed over similar information in the US showing that during the presidential campaign about 123 million people were reached by false news generated by a single troll factory, the Internet Research Agency, in St Petersburg.

Collins, who has demanded the information from both Facebook and Twitter, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme he was concerned by the “systematic distribution of false news by particularly Russian-backed organisations”.

He said the UK and US knew only about the operation of one agency in St Petersburg but there would “probably be others and we may find other countries doing it too”.

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Researchers at the University of Edinburgh have identified 419 accounts operating from the Internet Research Agency (IRA) attempting to influence UK politics out of 2,752 accounts suspended by Twitter in the US. Those accounts tweeted about Brexit a total of 3,468 times – mostly after the referendum had taken place.

Asked about whether he had suspicions the EU referendum was influenced by Russia, Collins said: “I think we have a right to know what was going on. Some of the activity took place directly before the referendum and certainly during the campaign. That’s why I wrote to Mark Zuckerberg asking for Facebook to give us the information about Russian-backed activity on their platform.

“They have given similar information to the US senate. For our parliamentary inquiry, I want that information too. I have had a response from Facebook which the select committee will be publishing today which says they will give us that information in the second week of December. I hope then we will have a better chance to understand the scale of Russian-backed operations during the referendum.”

Collins has asked senior representatives of Twitter and Facebook to give evidence to his committee’s inquiry on the reach of fake news at the British embassy in Washington in February.

Theresa May has accused Russia of meddling in elections and planting fake stories, criticising its attempts to “weaponise information” in order to sow discord in the west. But she has stopped short of saying Russia had an impact on the UK’s EU referendum or other elections.

Russian-backed organisations are known to have bought adverts on Facebook and generated campaign content before Donald Trump won last year’s US presidential election. Authorities in France and Germany have also said their elections were targeted.

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