ELISE HU, HOST:
The U.S. isn't the only country trying to learn the extent of Russian interference in its elections. British researchers say Russia may have tried to influence last year's vote in Britain on whether to leave the European Union. They say Russian accounts sent out tens of thousands of tweets both for and against Brexit as part of a campaign to increase divisions in British society and weaken the country's democratic process. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from London.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: In the month before the Brexit vote, more than 18,000 Russian accounts suddenly began tweeting about the referendum. That's according to researchers at the University of Swansea. The day after the vote, the accounts produced about 39,000 tweets. Later, Twitter suspended 9 of the 10 most active accounts. Head researcher Sasha Talavera says it's too early to know for sure, but it reminds him of the recent experience in his homeland, Ukraine.
SASHA TALAVERA: Ukraine faced cyber wars with Russia, you know, numerous Facebook wars, you know, fake news. One day I had this thought. You know, if it worked in Ukraine, could it work also in Western democracies?
LANGFITT: Ben Nimmo sounds more confident. He runs the digital research lab at the Atlantic Council, a U.S. think tank.
BEN NIMMO: This is entirely consistent with everything we've seen before. Again, what's new is that this is the first solid set of evidence we've seen to confirm that there was a Russian attempt at this kind of campaign in the U.K. as there had been in the U.S.
LANGFITT: Facebook says as many as 126 million users may have seen content generated by a Russian disinformation campaign during last year's presidential race. Earlier this week, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May laid into Russia in an unusually tough speech here in London.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRIME MINISTER THERESA MAY: It is seeking to weaponize information, deploying its state-run media organizations to plant fake stories and photo-shopped images in an attempt to sow discord in the West and undermine our institutions.
LANGFITT: Russia's repeatedly denied interfering in Western elections. Leonid Slutsky, who heads the International Affairs Committee of the Russian Parliament, called May's speech part of a, quote, "onslaught of anti-Russian hysteria." But Laura Cram says fake Russian Twitter accounts continued to sow division even after last year's referendum. Cram does neuropolitics research at the University of Edinburgh.
LAURA CRAM: From what we can see, they were aiming to cause disruption, to heighten controversy, to - it generates, I feel like, a sense of insecurity.
LANGFITT: Cram focused on more than 400 accounts Twitter suspended because of links to Russia. She found accounts that tweeted both pro- and anti-Brexit messages. Another account tweeted a misleading photo following a terror attack in London that was reposted by some British newspapers. Quote, "Muslim woman pays no mind to the terror attack, casually walks by a dying man while checking phone," the tweet read. Ben Nimmo says Russia's primary goal was to get the U.K. to leave the EU.
NIMMO: The U.K. has always been seen as one of the most anti-Russian countries in the EU. And it's led the way on things like sanctions against Russia and cracking down on Gazprom, the Russian energy monopoly.
LANGFITT: More broadly, Nimmo says, Russia wants to use political division to damage the West and persuade Russians they don't need democracy. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London.
(SOUNDBITE OF ACTION BRONSON AND STATIK SELEKTAH SONG, "CLIFF NOTES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.