Russia suspected of Northern Ireland disinformation campaign

24 Jun 2019

Image: © photosky99/

A campaign making various false claims about Northern Ireland has been linked by researchers to a Russian intelligence agency.

A Russian intelligence agency is suspected of spreading so-called ‘fake news’ about Northern Ireland, an investigation has found.

The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) launched an investigation following Facebook’s removal of a handful of suspected Russian fake accounts in May 2019. An investigation of the accounts revealed a larger operation spread across 30 different social networks and blogging platforms.

“The operation shows online platforms’ ongoing vulnerability to disinformation campaigns,” DFRLab said in a Medium post detailing the investigation. “Far more than on Facebook, which exposed it, or Twitter, the operation maintained fake accounts on platforms such [as] Medium and Reddit, and online forums from Australia to Austria and from Spain to San Francisco. Its level of ambition was very high, but its impact was almost always low.”

Posts aiming to influence conversations around topics such as Brexit, the European elections, Venezuela and other foreign policy issues were also discovered. According to The Irish Times, Facebook believes this is the first instance that Northern Ireland and Anglo-Irish topics have been disseminated by Russian operators working together.

Fake Arlene Foster emails

Posts about Northern Ireland included a screenshot of a fake email exchange between DUP leader Arlene Foster and EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier. In the emails, the two appeared to be conspiring to conduct a negotiation behind outgoing UK prime minister Theresa May’s back, apparently showing Foster’s support for the EU’s Brexit position.

Other messages focused on Northern Ireland claimed that the Real IRA helped Russia carry out the poisoning of former Russian military officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia with a Novichok nerve agent in Salisbury, England. Posts also alleged that the Real IRA was recruiting “Islamic radicals”.

A spokesperson from the Russian embassy speaking to The Irish Times said the investigation was “absolutely false” and “completely fake”, and therefore did not deserve serious comment. “At the same time the ‘story’ might be enlightening in a sense that it shows to what lengths western disinformation operatives would go to discredit Russia.”

Nick Clegg, former UK deputy prime minister and current vice-president for global affairs at Facebook, has previously denied that there was any interference in the Brexit result via Facebook, instead arguing that attitudes towards these topics have been more heavily swayed by traditional media.

Eva Short was a journalist at Silicon Republic