Russians suspected of spreading fake news about Northern Ireland

Disinformation campaign believed to be first co-ordinated effort targeting Irish divisions

Digital researchers found that a fake Irish Facebook account was among 16 used to spread disinformation. Photograph: Dado Ruvic/Reuters

Digital researchers found that a fake Irish Facebook account was among 16 used to spread disinformation. Photograph: Dado Ruvic/Reuters

 

A Russian intelligence operation, whose online posts were taken down by Facebook, is suspected of spreading fake news about Northern Ireland, an investigation has found.

The campaign, which spread false information about the Real IRA and interactions between DUP leader Arlene Foster and the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, is believed to be its first disinformation campaign targeting divisions in Ireland.

Digital researchers at an investigative centre connected to a US-based think tank found that a fake Irish Facebook account was among 16 used to spread disinformation with forged documents from dozens of online platforms in a bid to stir tensions within and between countries, including Ireland and the UK.

Facebook took down the accounts in May after the social media network identified a broad campaign of co-ordinated inauthentic behaviour “emanating from Russia” involving the use of fake accounts.

The fake stories centred on false claims that DUP leader Arlene Foster favoured the EU’s approach to Brexit, that former British defence secretary Gavin Williamson said the Real IRA helped in the attempted assassination of Russian spy Sergei Skripal, and that the Real IRA were recruiting Islamist fighters.

The investigation by the Digital Forensic Research Laboratory (DFRLab) at the Atlantic Council found that the operation used “ostensibly Irish personas on Facebook to post divisive and inflammatory content”.

“Between March 2018 and April 2019, the operation ran at least three false stories targeting Ireland and forging documents and social media posts to support its claims,” wrote one of DFRLab’s founders, Ben Nimmo, who led the investigation, in an article posted online over the weekend.

Orchestrated operation

The DFRLab, which tracks election interference and disinformation campaigns, found that the orchestrated operation extended far beyond Facebook to fake tweets and false user accounts on internet platforms such as Medium and Reddit and online forums from Australia to San Francisco.

Mr Nimmo, a senior fellow for information defence at the DFRLab, told The Irish Times he was not surprised that a Russian operation had opened “a new front” targeting Ireland and Anglo-Irish relations in the disinformation campaign.

“The combination of Brexit, a hard border and all the rest of it is an open wound. If you are a hostile foreign actor, why would you not stick your finger in it?” he said.

A spokeswoman for the Russian embassy in Dublin said the article by the Atlantic Council was “absolutely false”, “a complete fake” and has “nothing to do with reality”.