Facebook agrees to take a deeper look into Russian Brexit meddling

Facebook has said it will conduct a wider investigation into whether there was Russian meddling on its platform relating to the 2016 Brexit referendum vote in the UK.

Yesterday its UK policy director Simon Milner wrote to a parliamentary committee that’s been conducting a wide-ranging enquiry into fake news — and whose chair has been witheringly critical of Facebook and Twitter for failing to co-operate with requests for information and assistance on the topic of Brexit and Russia — saying it will widen its investigation, per the committee’s request.

Though he gave no firm deadline for delivering a fresh report — beyond estimating “a number of weeks”.

It’s not clear whether Twitter will also bow to pressure to conduct a more thorough investigation of Brexit-related disinformation. At the time of writing the company had not responded to our questions either.

At the end of last year committee chair Damian Collins warned both companies they could face sanctions for failing to co-operate with the committee’s enquiry — slamming Twitter’s investigations to date as “completely inadequate”, and expressing disbelief that both companies had essentially ignored the committee’s requests.

“You expressed a view that there may be other similar coordinated activity from Russia that we had not yet identified through our investigation and asked for us to continue our investigatory work. We have considered your request and can confirm that our investigatory team is now looking to see if we can identify other similar clusters engaged in coordinated activity around the Brexit referendum that was not identified previously,” writes Milner in the letter to Collins.

“This work requires detailed analysis of historic data by our security experts, who are also engaged in preventing live threats to our service. We are committed to making all reasonable efforts to establish whether or not there was coordinated activity similar to that which we found in the US and will report back to you as soon as the work has been completed.”

Last year Facebook reported finding just three Russian bought “immigration” ads relating to the Brexit vote — with a spend of less than $1. While Twitter claimed Russian broadcasters had spent around $1,000 to run six Brexit-related ads on its platform.

The companies provided that information in response to the UK’s Electoral Commission, which has been running its own investigation into whether there was any digital misspending relating to the referendum — handing the exact same information to the committee, despite its request for a more wide-ranging probe of Russian meddling.

In its Brexit report, Facebook also only looked at known Russian trollfarm the Internet Research Agency pages or account profiles — which it had previously identified in its US election disinformation probe.

While Twitter apparently made no effort to quantify the volume and influence of Russian-backed bots generating free tweet content around Brexit — so its focus on ads really looks like pure misdirection.

Independent academic studies have suggested there was in fact significant tweet-based activity generated around Brexit by Russian bots.

Last month a report by the US Senate — entitled Putin’s Asymmetric Assault on Democracy in Russia and Europe: Implications for US National Security — also criticized the adequacy of the investigations conducted thus far by Facebook and Twitter into allegations of Russian social media interference vis-a-vis Brexit.

“[I]n limiting their investigation to just the Internet Research Agency, Facebook missed that it is only one troll farm which ‘‘has existed within a larger disinformation ecosystem in St. Petersburg,’’ including Glavset, an alleged successor of the Internet Research Agency, and the Federal News Agency, a reported propaganda ‘‘media farm,’’ according to Russian investigative journalists,” the report authors write.

They also chronicle Collins’ criticism of Twitter’s ‘‘completely inadequate’’ response to the issue.