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Russian cyber-activists ‘tried to discredit Scottish independence vote’ | Politics | The Guardian

foto – Ben Nimmo, a security expert for the Atlantic Council, says the ongoing inquiry into Kremlin interference in politics should include the Scottish independence referendum. Photograph: YouTube

theguardian.com – Scottish independenceRussian cyber-activists ‘tried to discredit Scottish independence vote’Twitter, Facebook and YouTube accounts accused of spreading false information that vote was rigged to ensure pro-UK vote Scotland editor

An expert in Russian cyber-operations has accused Russian activists of running a disinformation campaign to discredit the Scottish independence referendum result, by wrongly alleging it was rigged.

Pro-Russian propagandists used Twitter, fake videos on YouTube and Facebook accounts to make and then spread false allegations that votes were interfered with to ensure victory for pro-UK campaigners, according to Ben Nimmo, an analyst for the US thinktank the Atlantic Council, which is part of the Atlantic Treaty Organisation linked to Nato.

Nimmo said the ongoing inquiries into allegations the Kremlin tried to subvert last year’s EU referendum and US election should be widened to cover this operation, and to test whether the Russians sought to influence Scottish voters before the referendum on 18 September 2014.

He stressed he did not have proof the disinformation campaign was orchestrated by the Kremlin, but said there was a clear need for official investigations and internal reviews by social media companies.

“The allegations of fraud demonstrably had an impact; pro-Kremlin accounts demonstrably boosted those allegations. The anger and disappointment felt by many yes voters were entirely sincere [and] those sentiments were fanned by pro-Kremlin trolls, in a manner characteristic of Russian influence operations,” Nimmo reports.

The UK government’s intelligence and security committee was urged last month to investigate evidence that Russia set up thousands of Twitter accounts to influence the EU referendum and its aftermath, through “troll factories” in St Petersburg.

Academics at City University estimate more than 13,000 accounts that tweeted on Brexit disappeared after the vote; other researchers at Swansea University and the University of California, Berkeley, said 156,000 Russian accounts mentioned Brexit.

Researchers at Edinburgh University established that 419 accounts operated by the Russian Internet Research Agency, which runs the troll factories, posted on the Brexit vote. They were among 2,752 accounts suspended by Twitter in the US for tweeting about the US election.

Within weeks of the independence vote, Russia set up the first UK office for its new internet news and video service, Sputnik, in Edinburgh with nearly £1.9m in funding, controlled from Moscow.

Sputnik is under investigation by the FBI and US justice department as a suspected foreign propaganda arm and is expected to be listed in the US, along with the Russian-controlled television station RT, as a foreign government agent. RT recently began hosting a weekly chat show by Alex Salmond, the former Scottish National party leader and first minister.

Nimmo’s analysis for the Atlantic Council’s digital forensic research lab was published on Wednesday morning before a meeting of Westminster’s all-party parliamentary group on Wednesday evening, which will discuss Russian state interference in elections and referendums.

Chris Bryant, the Labour MP and chair of the group, said he would be surprised if the intelligence and security committee was not already considering an investigation into Russia’s “information warfare”.

“Anyone who is sceptical about Russian state engagement in this is being profoundly and dangerously complacent,” Bryant said.

Kremlin direction of pro-Russian activity of this kind was a given, he said. “I don’t think any pro-Russian actor would do anything without Russian authorisation; it has a very tight hierarchy of instructions. It’s like any army.”

Nimmo said there was significant circumstantial evidence to show the Russians had prepared videos purporting to show interference in the vote counts in the Scottish independence referendum, to skew the result in favour of the no campaign.

One video posted on YouTube early on 19 September 2014, a few hours after Alex Salmond, the then first minister, accepted the result as fair and democratic, claimed to show an official putting yes ballot papers in the no pile. It said: “Some crazy things have been happening; some very, very bad things.” It has been viewed more than 870,000 times. That claim has been rejected by Scottish electoral officials.

Several similar videos were posted soon after voting ended, including one showing footage of ballot rigging in Russia in 2012 which it claimed was in Scotland. Another claimed MI5, the security service, and the royal family were implicated.

Although many legitimate Twitter users who backed the yes campaign also circulated these videos, they were promoted almost immediately and very vigorously by Russian accounts and pro-Russian bloggers.

A Russian referendum observer, Igor Borisov, then told the Russian news service RIA Novosti the vote did not meet international standards. The Guardian reported Borisov’s claims, adding that Russian nationalists fervently wanted a yes vote; that article was then used by pro-Russian activists to amplify the fraud claims.

Nimmo reports that that in turn led to pro-independence campaigners setting up petitions demanding a rerun of the referendum. A campaign called Rally for a Revote was set up on Facebook within hours of Borisov’s claims; it has since disappeared.

Rally for a Revote then launched a petition on change.org calling for a rerun which attracted more than 100,000 signatures. It was heavily promoted by pro-Russian Twitter accounts and, said Nimmo, at least one small network of automated “bot” accounts.

Nimmo said he was deeply suspicious about where those signatures came from: a parallel petition on the UK parliament website attracted 23,700 signatures. The parliament website requires evidence of UK residence and verification while change.org refused his requests for information on its verification processes.

Many of the Twitter accounts used during the campaign were otherwise pre-occupied with commenting on non-Scottish topics, such as the downing of the Dutch airliner MH17 over Ukraine, the Islamist group Isis and Russian politics.

Claims of interference were quickly disavowed by Nicola Sturgeon, Salmond’s successor as first minister. The Electoral Commission, the UK authority that oversees elections and referendums, ruled the event was fair and could find no evidence of fraud in any counts, and nor did the police.

Its voter research did, however, uncover evidence that Scottish voters were more suspicious of this event than previously seen in the UK. It said 42% of yes voters thought fraud took place, compared with 21% of no voters.

In the UK general election in May 2015, eight months after the referendum, pro-independence campaigners tried to track voting boxes going to counts in Glasgow because they suspected fraud. In the event, the Scottish National party won an unprecedented 56 out of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats.

Sorgente: Russian cyber-activists ‘tried to discredit Scottish independence vote’ | Politics | The Guardian

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