Foreign Narratives on the UK Election
From October 1, 2019 to December 9, 2019, we examined official content posted across multiple social media platforms, websites, and RSS feeds from Russia, China, Iran, and Hezbollah on the UK election. 84% of the over 2,900 posts came from Russia. All actors focused the bulk of their attention on stories on Boris Johnson. Russia and Iran were the most sophisticated in their information operations, centering their content around a few major narratives. Contrary to popular opinions, Hezbollah did not post any favorable stories on Jeremy Corbyn.
The UK parliamentary elections on December 12th have attracted multiple allegations of potential foreign interference including threats of illicit targeting of voters online, misleading political advertising and false news stories. These concerns have been well known but little legislative action has been taken to address potential concerns. The Tory government, led by Boris Johnson, has attracted criticism for not publishing an October 17th report detailing Russian interference in the 2016 Brexit referendum. Jeremy Corbyn, leading the Labour party, has faced accusations of anti-Semitism and being sympathetic towards Hamas and Hezbollah. On December 6th, 2019, the social media site Reddit reported that hacked documents claiming that the Tories wanted to offer the National Health Service (NHS) up for sale had actually come from Russian accounts. These tactics are similar to the ones Russian agents used in the 2016 US elections.
Omelas analyzed open source intelligence from official accounts, websites, and RSS feeds of state and non-state actors in 120 languages from October 1, 2019 to December 9, 2019. Specifically, it examined narratives from Russia, China, Iran, and Hezbollah from 2,900 posts mentioning the UK elections. 84% of these posts were from Russia with a heavy emphasis on Boris Johnson. The other actors also had Boris Johnson as their primary focus. Jeremy Corbyn, and the Tories and Labour more broadly, also receive some attention from these foreign actors.
The broad sentiment held relatively constant across all four actors. Each foreign actor produced slightly more negative posts about each subject (Johnson, Corbyn, Labour and the Tories) but the number of neutral posts exceeded the negative posts. This could be due to state media interspersing straight news stories with news stories with a political bent, following standard practice for brand marketing to limit the proportion of posts pushing a narrative. The breakdown of positive and negative posts does not substantially vary by actor. Russia and Iran were more broad with their reach, including a substantial number of posts about Corbyn and the other parties, while China and Hezebollah had a much more narrow focus on Johnson.
In addition to general news about Brexit and the upcoming UK elections, we identified the following actor-specific narratives.
Iran and Russia were the two most coordinated in its information operations campaigns on the UK elections. It had three main narratives. The first takes advantage of the news story of 39 immigrants found dead in the back of a truck. Iranian news used the story as evidence of the Conservative party’s failing immigration system and the UK’s “isolationist” policies. The second narrative centered on the Islamophobia in the Tory party and anti-Semitism in the Labour party. More specifically, it criticized mainstream media for attacking the Labour party with anti-Semitism stories while insufficiently covering the Tory party’s Islamophobia. Finally, Iran further highlights the “demonisation” of Corbyn from within the UK by calling out smears against Corbyn from the right wing and security establishment.
Russia was equally centralized in its efforts to shape public perception of the UK election. It widely reported on Boris Johnson’s claim that Russian interference in UK elections is a myth. This narrative spanned across 88 posts and six platforms, including VK, YouTube, and Instagram. Many of these posts frame the Russian interference news stories as political smears used to incite public anger. Russia has also focused on the UK’s National Health Services (NHS). Prior to November 27th, before Corbyn released the NHS dossier, Russian shared 10 posts about the negative effects that the Tory party has had on the NHS. After Corbyn’s November 27th reveal of the leaked NHS documents, Russia posted 28 stories about the “NHS for sale” debate. This further supports the conclusion drawn by Reddit in the aforementioned report.
Both Hezbollah’s and China’s content have been more technical and less strategic as compared to Russian and Iranian efforts., Both focused on the ongoing delays of Brexit and its political implications. One exception is on November 6, 2019, when Almanar News shared the following post on Twitter and Telegram: “Russia today: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson resigns.” It did not link to any supporting news articles. Contrary to popular perception, Hezbollah did not post any overt favorable posts about Corbyn.
With the election coming up tomorrow, it will be interesting to see the impact, if any, of these narratives on the voters as well as the international community’s perception of the results.