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United Kingdom

United Kingdom

  • British civil society appears resilient enough to withstand the threats, even though the Brexit referendum has shown that the influence of Eurosceptics and even pro-Russian sentiments in some English tabloids remains strong.
  • The UK government appears to be more concerned with diplomatic and international aspects of Russian influence.

Relations with the Russian Federation

Principled defender. Held concerned views of Russian foreign policy and now is at the forefront of the European response to its aggression.[1]

The UK was quick to condemn Russia’s actions in Ukraine, as well as in Syria, and its firm stance remains unchanged even after the political reshuffle following the 2016 ‘Brexit’ referendum. Russia does not play the key role in British security or international policy, but Britain is aware of threats posed by Russia in Europe and the Middle East, and it is an active member of NATO efforts to counter these threats.

Political acknowledgement of the threat

In the UK’s 2015 National Security Strategy, presented by the Prime Minister to the UK Parliament, Russia’s subversive tactics involving media disinformation were highlighted, condemning such actions as going against international norms.[2]

The UK’s EU referendum, known as Brexit, has been the target of much attention and scrutiny regarding possible Russian interference in the historic vote. The UK Electoral Commission has launched several investigations, in cooperation with Facebook and Twitter, to determine possible suspicious sources of disinformation.[3] The commission is also examining the funding and spending practices of the Vote Leave campaign.[4]

Prior to the June 2017 General Election, British politicians expressed concerns that fake news may be used to undermine the public’s vote, with Conservative MP Damian Collins highlighting the issue of fake news being far more read and shared on Facebook than factual news and urging the social media website to put more effort in combatting disinformation.[5]

Foreign Minister Boris Johnson warned that Russia has capacity to undermine political status quo in the country through hacking[6], also stating that Russia’s actions in meddling in other countries’ internal affairs are unacceptable.[7]

Government activities against Russian influence & disinformation

The United Kingdom has a set of strategic communication projects focused on Central Eastern Europe and Ukraine. Among them is the so-called “fake news” unit, a national security communications unit established this year. The unit is meant to act as a deterrent against harmful disinformation campaigns in the country.[8] The government also approved increased spending on cyber-defence with the budget for 2016 – 2010 rising to 1.9 billion pounds.[9] The UK has its seconded-national expert in the EEAS East STRATCOM team in Brussels. It is one of the sponsoring nations of the NATO STRATCOM COE in Riga and also participates in the Finnish COE.

In February 2017, the UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson announced the creation of the Empowerment Fund which allocated 700 million pounds from the foreign aid budget to aid countries that are victims of Russian information aggression, including Ukraine and the Baltic states.[10] The fund itself was rejected after a capability review, but its goals were recognized as a top priority and incorporated into the operational framework of two other government funds, the Prosperity Fund (PF) and the Conflict, Stability, and Security Fund (CSSF). A new Joint Funds Unit was launched in April 2018.[11]

In November 2017, the Electoral Commission in the UK opened two probes to investigate Russia’s influence in the Brexit referendum campaign and May 2017 general elections. The probes looked for “any receipt of impermissible donations by registered campaigners or political parties campaigning at the EU referendum, either from the UK or overseas.”[12] Initial efforts to trace Russian influence via Facebook proved fruitless, but the investigation process is ongoing in 2018 and continuously seeks cooperation from social media entities, among others.[13]

Meanwhile, the Electoral Commission has been sued by the Good Law Project, a pro-bono group of British lawyers, for failing to fulfil its duties as a watchdog after the EU referendum.[14] The suit will examine the Vote Leave campaign’s spending and whether it committed crimes relating to campaign funding during the EU referendum that should have been discovered by the Electoral Commission.[15]

In March of 2018, former Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned after being exposed to a highly toxic nerve agent in the city of Salisbury. The British government traced the agent’s origins to Russia and took immediate punitive action by expelling 23 diplomats from their embassy in London, many of whom were active intelligence officers. The British government also called on its allies to do the same, which resulted in the most significant and coordinated expulsion of Russian intelligence officers since the Cold War. [16]

The approach of intelligence agencies to Russian interference

The Current PM May voiced concern over fake news, calling for newspapers’ responsibility in delivering factual news and combatting disinformation.[17] The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) is a government body tasked with combatting cyber-threats. In one of its reports, NCSC highlighted, citing the United States’ FBI, how some of the hackers behind the Yahoo email hack were members of Russia’s FSB.[18] Apprehension of the said hackers was done with the participation of Mi5 (the UK’s national counter-intelligence agency) agents.[19] NCSC also warned British political parties of potential hacking by Russia.[20]

Mi5 chief Andrew Parker warned that Russia’s threat to the UK is growing, and stated that Russia’s spy activity in the UK is extensive, as is its subversion campaign in Europe in general.[21] Mi6 (Secret Intelligence Service, the national foreign intelligence agency) chief Alex Younger highlighted the issue of subversion and disinformation campaign waged by Russia.[22] It were the British intelligence services that alerted the US over the Democratic National Committee hacks and Trump-Russia connection in 2015.[23]

While there has not been any public release from intelligence services, Members of Parliament have called upon British intelligence to research further into Russia’s role in Brexit. Both Labour and Conservative MPs have called for the Parliamentary group to investigate Russia.[24]

Activities of the non-governmental sector

The British non-governmental sector is quite robust regarding Russian disinformation.

The European Council on Foreign Relations maintains offices across Europe, including one in London. The ECFR has published both research articles and opinion pieces warning that current European actions against Russian disinformation are not enough.

The Henry Jackson Society is a London-based think tank that focuses on analyzing issues surrounding foreign policy in the Western world.[25] In one of its early 2016 articles, Russia’s role in spreading disinformation via Facebook was highlighted, as the social media and disinformation spread there were often overlooked by traditional media in the past.[26]

The Institute for Statecraft launched its Integrity Initiative to combat disinformation that may undermine democracy in the West, particularly through the use and spread of fake materials via social media.[27]

Facebook has warned that the June 2017 British General Election may become a subject of attack by fake news and other disinformation online, which urged Facebook staff to develop new ways in identifying and suspending suspicious accounts that may spread disinformation.[28]

The Daily Telegraph published a fact check paper on the arguments that resulted in the Brexit vote in the 2016 referendum, showing that the primary arguments that may have cost Britain its future in the EU were based overwhelmingly on false premises.[29] The London Economic (TLE) website has shown how Britain First and similar Facebook groups may have deliberately spread Russian-made propaganda via social media.[30] Carole Cadwalladr has published an investigation of Cambridge Analytica, a company characterized as “a psychological warfare firm” by its former employee, and its role in the Brexit referendum, as well as its alleged ties with Russia.[31]

UK-based analyst Ben Nimmo has published several works outlining Russian subversion techniques used against Europe, and ways to counter them.[32] He also wrote on Russian disinformation surrounding the MH17 investigation[33] and its meddling with the US elections.[34]

LSE has published a report raising alarm over weak British electoral laws, which can allow foreign meddling to undermine British democracy by allowing an in-flow of funds from unknown or suspicious sources to fund political campaigns.[35] Peter Pomerantsev, who is a visiting fellow at the LSE Institute of Global Affairs[36], has written books and articles examining the nature of Russian disinformation campaigns.[37]

Researchers from the University of Edinburgh were behind the study that discovered hundreds of Twitter bots linked to the Russian Internet Research Agency attempting to influence British politics after the Brexit referendum.[38]

[1]“How do European democracies react to Russian aggression”. European Values. 22 April 2017. Available at: 
[3]“U.K. Probes Russian Social Media Influence in Brexit Vote“ 
[4]“Brexit: Electoral Commission reopens probe into Vote Leave” 
[8]“Britain to set up unit to tackle ‘fake news’: May’s spokesman” 
[10]“Boris Johnson to set up £700m 'empowerment fund' for British allies facing 'Russian aggression’” 
[11]“The Publication of the Cross-Government Funds Review” 
[12]“U.K. Probes Russian Social Media Influence in Brexit Vote“ 
[13]“Facebook is launching another probe to see if Russia pushed Brexit propaganda” 
[14]“Election expenses under scrutiny” 
[15]“Electoral Commission Sued in High Court over EU Referendum” 
[16]„Western allies expel scores of Russian diplomats over Skripal attack“, 
[22] utm_term=.cdP2xrJnK#.tcOGAgOoB   

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