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Impact of Russian media and ‘troll’ accounts on Brexit vote ‘not fully assessed’

The Russian flag outside the Russian Embassy in London. An investigation has found that Russia attempted to influence the Scottish independence referendum but not the Brexit vote, according to reports. Photo by Kirsty O'Connor/PA Wire

The UK Government failed to fully assess the impact Russian state-run media and “troll” accounts could have had on the EU referendum, the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) has found.

In its report on Tuesday, the committee said open source studies had pointed to the prevalence of anti-EU or pro-Brexit stories on the RT and Sputnik news networks as evidence of Russian attempts to influence the process.

But the ISC said it was “surprising” that such material may not have been “fully” taken into account by the Government and security agencies prior to the referendum in 2016.

Both RT and Sputnik are funded by the Russian state.

In a heavily redacted report, the committee said it was only when Russia carried out a “hack and leak” operation against the Democratic National Committee in the US, where emails were made public one month after the EU referendum, that the Government “belatedly” realised the threat posed.

“Had the relevant parts of the intelligence community conducted a similar threat assessment prior to the referendum, it is inconceivable that they would not have reached the same conclusion as to Russian intent, which might then have led them to take action to protect the process,” the committee said.

Intelligence agencies had the capabilities to “stand on the shoulders” of open source coverage and “look behind” suspicious anti-EU social media “bot and troll” accounts to uncover their operators, the ISC said.

The committee – which scrutinises the work of Britain’s spies – said MI5 initially replied with just six lines of text when it sought to establish if there was intelligence built on the open source studies.

“The written evidence provided to us appeared to suggest that HMG had not seen or sought evidence of successful interference in UK democratic processes or any activity that has had a material impact on an election, for example influencing results,” the committee said.

The ISC’s report found the Government did not properly consider whether Moscow could interfere in the Brexit referendum until after the event.

And while the Government said there was “no evidence” of successful Russian interference in the vote, the ISC suggested that there was no proper investigation.

Following the report’s publication, Guy Verhofstadt, chief Brexit negotiator for the European Parliament, tweeted: “Brexit was always a gift to Putin because it weakened the European Union & left Britain divided, isolated. The #RussiaReport shows just how many questions remain unanswered.”

Liberal Democrat acting leader Sir Ed Davey accused Boris Johnson of refusing “a cross-party call to launch an inquiry because he is worried about what it might find”.

“This is a green light for Russia to interfere with our democracy in future, knowing there will be no consequences,” he tweeted.

Meanwhile, Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage tweeted that “some serious apologies” were due, claiming there was “no evidence” of Russian interference.

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