It is “undoubtedly true” that there have been efforts by the Russian state to influence British elections, the culture secretary has told a committee of MPs, but the government has not seen evidence that those attempts have been successful. Speaking to the digital, culture, media and sport (DCMS) select committee, Jeremy Wright, the secretary of state at the department, said that the UK was defended against direct electoral interference by the simple fact that the UK uses pencils and paper to vote. “There are two types [of interference] you might attempt: one is with the process of the election itself, in other words, influencing the outcome of the election by means of interfering with voting machines etc, but we can’t do that here, we don’t have voting machines of that kind.
“The other is you attempt to influence the outcome by sending out messaging, by influencing voters in a particular way,” he added. Even including those disinformation operations, he said, “we’ve not seen anything that demonstrates that … the Russians have succeeded in changing the outcome of the elections, either a parliamentary election or a referendum.”
Wright was speaking to the committee in the wake of the government’s response to its report on “fake news”. In that report, the DCMS committee made a number of recommendations for change, including pushing the government to raise the maximum fine the Electoral Commission can levy, creating a fact-checking standard to fight misinformation, and establishing “clear legal liability for the tech companies to act against harmful and illegal content on their platforms”.
The government accepted just three of the committee’s 42 recommendations for change, including one that suggested it stop using the term “fake news”, in favour of more clearly defined terms including “disinformation” and “misinformation”. Damian Collins, the committee’s chair, said the lack of response was “disappointing and a missed opportunity”.
“It uses other ongoing investigations to further delay desperately needed announcements on the ongoing issues of harmful and misleading content being spread through social media. We need to see a more coordinated approach across government to combat campaigns of disinformation being organised by Russian agencies seeking to disrupt and undermine our democracy. The government’s response gives us no real indication of what action is being taken on this important issue,” he said.