As the world has tried to come to terms with the shock of President Trump sitting in the White House, like the storyline of a Cold War film, growing evidence is emerging that President Putin and Russia were pulling strings to influence the result and try to ensure that their preferred candidate would be leading their traditional nemesis.
As testimony mounts of Russian collusion in the US election, the attack on democracy becomes more and more apparent, captivating the public and casting doubt on the legitimacy of the Trump Administration. What is far murkier however, is the extent to which the Russian State has managed to inveigle its tentacles into British politics and society. Look under the surface and Russian soft power is there for all to see: in the London stock market, on television through the Kremlin’s propaganda channels such as RT and ever increasingly, through the fake news being churned out on Twitter and Facebook by bots and trolls.
How great a threat this poses to UK democracy has so far been hard to judge. Precious little scrutiny and oversight has been given to this issue, with the Electoral Commission being overstretched and unable investigate because of its limited remit, and the intelligence and security service failing to pursue rigorous lines of enquiry for lack of political direction. This leads to the million dollar question: are Russian activities as harmless as a few paid ads from RT, as Facebook would like us to believe, or does the influence go much further, with a concerted and successful attempt to secure a No Vote in the most important event in modern political history, the EU Referendum?
The time to ask this question is now. That’s why this week I’m giving new momentum in the Commons to what I hope will be an open and comprehensive inquiry into Russian interference in British politics. Democracy is only truly democracy when everyone feels able to participate, without the fear that the results have been tampered with by Russia or any other state.
Social media giants must wake up and start doing their jobs
In an age where public perceptions are already blighted by a rabidly partisan press, when making a decision people deserve to be informed by facts, not by fake news from a social media robot controlled from St Petersburg.
I’m calling on the social media giants to wake up and start doing their jobs to police the networks. They must ensure that anyone who has an account is authenticated, so that for every account on Facebook, a real person must be behind it. We also need to know who’s funding the ads on our news feeds, as all manner of propaganda can be fed easily to millions, whether it’s fake news or actual facts. This could be done through a legal watermark on advertisements which already exist on paper promotional materials at elections.
Finally, the Government must show that on this matter, following on from her Mansion House speech, the Prime Minister talks her talk and stands up to Putin. We need to see a boost being given to the security services so they can defend political parties as if they were part of the critical national infrastructure, to the Electoral Commission and to the bodies which scrutinise foreign interference into British society. The Government can’t ignore this question any more and, to understand the challenge we are facing, an inquiry must commence to look into interference in the EU Referendum.
The simple truth is that Arron Banks and Nigel Farage may be Putin fans, but President Putin certainly isn’t a friend of this country. Russia would only have interfered in the EU Referendum or other elections to damage the UK and the EU’s security. It’s time to stand up to the Russian machine and take back control of the facts.
Tom Brake is the Lib Dem Spokesperson for Exiting the European Union and International Trade and MP for Carshalton and Wallington