- A government minister has called on Facebook for the first time to hand over any evidence that Russia used its platform to interfere with the UK’s EU referendum in 2016.
- The social media firm is under growing pressure to hand over any information after several academic studies showed networks of Russian bots operating on Twitter before the referendum.
- Facebook has had to give up similar information in the US, where it found Russia-backed ads relating to the presidential election may have reached 126 million people.
Facebook is under growing pressure from politicians to hand over any evidence that Russia may have used its platform to meddle with UK politics.
Digital minister Matt Hancock is the first government minister publicly to call on Facebook as well as Twitter to hand over any evidence of Russian interference.
Hancock made the remarks during a Thursday debate in the House of Commons about cyber attacks on the UK.
Here’s the exchange he had with Conservative MP Damian Collins, who is heading up a culture select committee enquiry into fake news and Russian political interference:
Damian Collins: “Does the Minister agree that companies such as Facebook and Twitter should respond to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s request to supply any evidence of Russian-backed activity or fake news interfering with British politics to Parliament so that we can scrutinise it?”
Matt Hancock: “Yes. This is an incredibly important issue and the Select Committee is taking a lead to ensure that evidence is brought to light. We will of course investigate all the evidence we see and take action where appropriate.”
Hancock added that the government “[knows] what the Russians are doing and we are not going to let them get away with it.”
Multiple academic studies published in the media this week showed how Russian bots and human-run accounts used Twitter to sow discord in the run-up to the UK referendum in June last year — though their impact is less clear. In several instances, bots spread messages of Islamophobia, xenophobia, and fears around Sharia law as the debate around Brexit and immigration intensified.
This has been possible because researchers were able to study Twitter’s public API. But Facebook is a closed platform, and much more difficult for third parties to scrutinise.
Facebook has not immediately responded to a request for comment. The company said on Tuesday: “To date, we have not observed that the known, coordinated clusters in Russia engaged in significant coordination of ad buys or political misinformation targeting the Brexit vote.”
Prime minister Theresa May accused Russia on Tuesday of using “fake stories” to “sow discord” in the West, though the government also said it had found no evidence of interference.
“[Russia] is seeking to weaponise information,” she said. “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.”
Facebook has been forced to hand over similar information to the US government, which is investigating how Russia used social media to interfere with the 2016 presidential election. After founder Mark Zuckerberg initially denied the possibility of Facebook’s involvement, the company found that Russian-linked ads may have reached 126 million people.
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