A forged email purporting to show DUP leader Arlene Foster supporting the EU's position on Brexit was used by Russians in an online disinformation campaign, US-based online investigators claim.
An investigation by Digital Forensic Research Laboratory (DFRLab) at the Washington-based Atlantic Council think tank found that Ireland was one of several Western countries targeted by a Russian-based information operation which used fake accounts and dozens of online platforms to spread fake news.
The operation came to light after Facebook took down 16 fake accounts, including one purported Irish user, in May after finding "co-ordinated inauthentic behaviour" in a campaign that emanated from Russia.
The social network disabled the accounts because co-ordinated activity by people using fake accounts to misrepresent themselves – rather than the fake content – was in breach of its policies.
Facebook believes this is the first time fake information about Northern Ireland and topics concerning Anglo-Irish relations has been disseminated by Russian operators acting in concert.
The Atlantic Council’s research centre found the campaign was “persistent, sophisticated and well-resourced” and said that “the likelihood is that this operation was run by a Russian intelligence agency”.
The operation “appeared designed to stoke racial, religious or political hatred, especially in Northern Ireland”, the researchers said, disclosing their findings in an online article published on the Medium self-publishing online platform over the weekend.
Three false stories
Ben Nimmo, a senior fellow for information defence at the DFRLab, found that the operation posted “at least three false stories” relating to Ireland, and forged documents and social media posts to support its claims.
A pseudo-Irish Facebook account, using a generic Irish name, posted the screenshot of a fake email from Ms Foster to the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier claiming that she found the EU's stance on Brexit "more favourable than the one we received from the UK cabinet".
In the fake email, the DUP leader raised questions about Northern Ireland remaining within the UK. The email, purportedly dated July 2018, appeared at a critical junction in the Brexit negotiations.
These false claims were at complete odds with reality and the position of the DUP, which is opposed to the proposed Brexit withdrawal agreement drafted by EU and UK negotiators. The party has objected to any proposals that might separate Northern Ireland in any way from the rest of the UK.
The investigation, led by Mr Nimmo and involving a team of researchers around the world, found two other examples of Irish-related false stories being spread by the Russian operation.
The fake Irish Facebook account shared a forged tweet dating from March 2018 in which Britain's then defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, claimed that the Real IRA had helped in the attempted assassination of Russian spy Sergei Skripal.
The DFRLab investigators found that as recently as April 2019, a purported Ireland-based user posted a sensational claim to a Reddit online forum that the Real IRA had posted an Arabic-language invite to Islamist fighters to “join the RIRA and fight on Irish soil”.
Mr Nimmo, a former journalist and one-time press officer with Nato, told The Irish Times the campaign worked by creating a forgery, posting it in an online platform by a single use "burner" account and "using the fake Irish Facebook account to post it to various political forums to give it some amplification".
He was surprised that Ireland was being targeted for the first time but equally not surprised that it would be the focus of “a foreign actor attempting to exacerbate divisions in the UK”.
There may be earlier false Irish stories spread by the operation, he said.
A spokeswoman for the Russian embassy said the DFRLab’s investigative article was “absolutely false”.
“It is a complete fake, having nothing to do with reality. As such it does not deserve serious comment,” she said.
“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.”