UUP chief Whip and former Royal Navy Commander Steve Aiken says reports of Russian disinformation aimed at stoking up hatred in Northern Ireland come as “no surprise”.
He was speaking after Dublin’s State’s security services said they are “appraising” a suspected Russian intelligence operation to spread fake news, creating division in Ireland and Anglo-Irish relations.
Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said the warning came from a “reputable organisation” and warned of the “ever-evolving threat” of disinformation.
The Russian embassy in Dublin flatly dismissed the report by the Digital Forensic Research Laboratory (DFRLab) at the Washington-based Atlantic Council think tank.
But Facebook has shut down 16 fake accounts, including one, using an Irish name, of a fake email from DUP leader Arlene Foster to the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, claiming that she favoured the EU’s stance on Brexit.
The Atlantic Council’s research centre said the campaign was “persistent, sophisticated and well-resourced” and that “the likelihood is that this operation was run by a Russian intelligence agency”.
The campaign “appeared designed to stoke racial, religious or political hatred, especially in Northern Ireland” the Irish Times reported it as saying.
Mr Aiken, a former submarine commander in the Royal Navy, now UUP chief whip, told the News Letter that Russian ‘disinformation’ has been going on for a long time. “It goes back to Soviet times with their state agencies, and those of East Germany, pushing out loads of disinformation in support of the IRA,” he said.
“Currently, however, it is very clear that Russian agencies are ‘stirring’ the pot in any way that they can and this can come as no surprise. With the centrality of the border in Brexit discussions and the ability to drive even small wedges between the parts of the UK, Russia will use both crude and more subtle messaging to make politics more difficult and unsettle both Britain and the EU.”
Former RUC Special Branch officer Dr William Matchett said he would be surprised if Russia has “not” been peddling fake news to “aggravate the angry ethnic fault line” and destabilise the UK and EU.
“It ties in with how they enact foreign policy,” he said. “It would not be the first time Moscow meddled in affairs here. The early Provos had a relationship with the Soviet communist party at the time of the USSR and used Soviet munitions.” Special Branch used to have three desks, he said; Republican, Loyalist and Red for communism, he said.
A Foreign Office spokesman told the News Letter that such activities are now commonplace.
“We know that a range of adversaries including foreign states, terrorist organisations and individuals use disinformation to further their own agendas,” he said. “Government is carrying out work to counter disinformation and other types of online manipulation, working with international partners, industry and civil society.”