UK Conservatives say ABC analysis that points to foreign interference operation 'highly alarming' (2024)

Revelations of foreign interference in the UK election, uncovered by the ABC, have been described as "highly alarming" by the Conservative Party, which will be writing to the Cabinet Office seeking urgent advice about how to combat it.

Ahead of the UK elections, the ABC has been monitoring five coordinated Facebook pages which have been spreading Kremlin talking points, with some posting in support of Nigel Farage's populist Reform UK party — a key challenger to the Conservatives in the July 4 poll.

The five pages identified by ABC Investigations as being part of a coordinated network appear to have little in common. One page presents itself as a pro-refugee left-wing group, while others reference white supremacist conspiracy theories and use AI-generated images of asylum seekers to stoke anti-immigration fears.

The ABC has been able to link these seemingly disparate pages by examining the location data attached to the pages' administrators, tracking paid ads, and by analysing the pages' similar or shared content.

UK Conservatives say ABC analysis that points to foreign interference operation 'highly alarming' (1)

The ABC shared its findings with disinformation experts, who said the network's activity had the hallmarks of a Russian influence operation.

"For me, it's Russian," said AI Forensics head of research Salvatore Romano.

AI Forensics is a European non-profit research organisation that published research in April about a covert influence operation called "Doppelganger", and found that Facebook ads with pro-Russian messages were targeting EU voters. These ads, which reached more than 38 million users, were linked to EU-sanctioned Russian businessmen.

"Now if you ask Putin, Putin may say 'no, it's not us'," Mr Romano said.

"What is the smoking gun? Do you need to see these people behind their desks with the Russian flag?"

UK Conservatives say ABC analysis that points to foreign interference operation 'highly alarming' (2)

The ABC also shared its findings with the UK's main political parties.

"This is highly alarming," a Conservative Party spokesperson told the ABC.

"We have seen this kind of activity from hostile states before and will be writing to the Cabinet Office to see what can be done about it".

Accounts run from Nigeria

Despite Meta, the parent company of Facebook, promising to take steps to address foreign interference and hate speech during the UK elections, these pages have been able to operate unchecked.

The network identified by ABC Investigations consists of five Facebook pages with a combined 190,000 followers. The pages have repeatedly shared the same images, text posts, and talking points and often post around the same time.

UK Conservatives say ABC analysis that points to foreign interference operation 'highly alarming' (3)

The five pages all feature criticism of several UK parties including the Conservatives and Labour. Some of these pages have supported Reform UK leader Nigel Farage, with two calling him "the people's champion".

Mr Farage came to prominence after spearheading the UK's Brexit movement. His party is standing Reform candidates in some historically Conservative seats and could intensify the electoral wipe-out the incumbent party is expected to receive on July 4.

Facebook pages for local Reform UK branches have shared some of the AI-generated anti-immigration content from these pages but there is no evidence of direct involvement by the party.

Reform UK did not respond to ABC questions.

ABC's analysis of the five pages found that while they claim to be based in the UK, most of the administrators for each page are based in Nigeria, with a small number being listed as based in the UK.

All the pages have run paid ads on Facebook. "Patriotic UK" has also run political ads, with one in 2022 criticising western support of Ukraine and another this week supporting Mr Farage to win the UK election.

Ad library data showed it targeted the ads to British men who were older than 65 years old and were paid for using Nigerian currency (NGN).

The Nigerian connection is significant because previous online Russian propaganda networks were found to have been operating from Africa.

Meta, the parent company of Facebook, in 2020 exposed Russia as being behind troll networks from Ghana and Nigeria, which was targeting US voters with disinformation.

Earlier this month, an ITV and Cardiff University investigation also traced a batch of suspicious accounts on TikTok that were pushing pro-Reform UK messages after a leader's debate to Nigeria.

Beyond the Nigerian connection, the five pages all promote Kremlin narratives — particularly those criticising Ukraine.

UK Conservatives say ABC analysis that points to foreign interference operation 'highly alarming' (4)

The "Common Sense Britain" page shared screenshots of anti-immigrant headlines from Russia Today (RT), a Kremlin-controlled media outlet.

"Patriotic UK" shared conspiracy theories about an unfounded claim that the Jihadist terrorist attack in Moscow's Crocus City Hall in March was orchestrated by the West; around the same time the left-wing page "BritBlend" claimed Ukranian citizens had celebrated the mass murder.

The "British Patriots" page has shared a fake headline from a pro-Russian website about Ukranian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy being asked by the CIA to not embezzle money. The "BritBlend" page in a post also copy-and-pasted a video caption from "British Patriots" criticising a British parliamentarian, without sharing the video or any further context.

"BritBlend" and "BeyondBorders UK" have also criticised Ukraine, painting it as a bloodthirsty state, with the former posting "there's only one side that celebrates the death of civilians and that is Ukraine". Both pages have argued that the UK's support of Ukraine was a waste of money.

Britain is one of Ukraine's most steadfast supporters, both in military aid and public opinion polling. Mr Farage was criticised last week for claiming the West had provoked Russian President Vladimir Putin into invading Ukraine.

He later clarified he disliked President Putin and opposed the invasion of Ukraine, but urged President Zelenskyy to seek a peace deal.

'Division and chaos'

Disinformation expert and political communications professor at the UK's Loughborough University Andrew Chadwick said the content being pushed by the network identified by the ABC were about "sowing division and chaos".

"These kinds of campaigns can generally undermine trust in the media environment and the electoral process," he said.

"If they [these pages] are coordinated… this fits with previous patterns we have seen, for example the activities of the Russian Internet Research Agency in the United States."

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AI Forensics's Salvatore Romano said the ultimate benefactor of the division wrought by these networks was the Kremlin.

"We are in a critical moment where there is an escalation of international conflicts and digital warfare is basically in the middle between diplomacy and actual war," he said.

"This type of interference will intensify. It's a serious concern … it's a deliberate attack to freedom of information and a deliberate attack to democracy."

Meta earlier this month launched a UK-specific "Elections Operation Center" to "identify potential threats and put mitigations in place in real time".

Meta's UK Public Policy director Rebecca Stimson said one of the company's pillars of focus would be countering covert influence operations and identifying and stopping coordinated unauthentic behaviour.

"We applied new and stronger enforcement to Russian state-controlled media, including blocking them in the EU and the UK and globally demoting their posts."

Meta was reached for comment and was provided with the ABC's findings about the five pages and at time of publication the pages were still active.

UK Labour was contacted for comment.

None of the identified pages in the pro-Russian network responded to ABC questions.

UK Conservatives say ABC analysis that points to foreign interference operation 'highly alarming' (2024)

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