Fears of Russian interference ahead of a heated U.K. election were all but confirmed this week with a Reddit post.
In a post Friday, Reddit announced that its internal investigation found evidence that an account purportedly linked to Russian disinformation campaign was behind last month’s leak of contentious US-UK trade documents on the platform.
“We were recently made aware of a post on Reddit that included leaked documents from the UK. We investigated this account and the accounts connected to it, and today we believe this was part of a campaign that has been reported as originating from Russia,” Reddit wrote.
The online message board went on to say it’s banned 61 accounts and suspended one subreddit, r/ukwhistleblower, behind the campaign for violating the platform’s policies against vote manipulation and misuse. Reddit also purportedly found evidence linking this operation to another group behind similar foreign interference on Facebook earlier this year. The Atlantic Council’s dubbed them “Secondary Infektion” in reference to a misinformation campaign from the Soviet era.
“Suspect accounts on Reddit were recently reported to us, along with indicators from law enforcement, and we were able to confirm that they did indeed show a pattern of coordination,” Reddit said. “We were then able to use these accounts to identify additional suspect accounts that were part of the campaign on Reddit. This group provides us with important attribution for the recent posting of the leaked UK documents, as well as insights into how adversaries are adapting their tactics.”
The account behind the original Reddit leak as well as a number of others that reposted the documents and manipulated its upvotes and karma (ways to earn a post a more prominent placement in a subreddit) all used identical tactics as Secondary Infektion, according to Reddit, “causing us to believe that this was indeed tied to the original group.”
The papers in question detail trade talks between America and the UK and have launched a fiery debate among British officials leading up to the country’s general election. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn claims these documents prove officials plan to put the country’s National Healthcare Service is at risk of being privatised in the event of a post-Brexit trade agreement with America. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has denied this, saying NHS wouldn’t be on the table in any future trade negotiations.
This isn’t the first time Reddit’s struggled with sussing out foreign propaganda campaigns on its platform. Russian influence operations have become a particularly insidious and reoccurring problem, leading Reddit to ban 944 “suspicious” accounts in April 2018 after purportedly tracing them back to Russia’s Internet Research Industry (IRA), the infamous troll factory behind pro-Trump efforts during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Later that September, Reddit users began to speculate that the notoriously awful (and now, thankfully, quarantined) subreddit r/The_Donald had become infiltrated by Russian trolls as well. Suspicions began circulating among its three-quarters of a million subscribers after a viral post documented clear signs of a pattern: The same few articles from websites affiliated with the IRA were being upvoted and shared in the forum thousands of times, and it’d been going on for years, according to a Buzzfeed News report. Reddit later issued a platform-wide ban for three of the trolls’ most commonly linked websites, USA Really, GEOTUS.band and GEOTUS.army.
A separate investigation Reddit launched around that same time uncovered 143 accounts linked to another influence operation reportedly targeting polarised subreddits on both sides of the aisle with pro-Iranian political narratives. Reddit began its inquiry after cybersecurity group FireEye released a report detailing just how far the campaign’s influence spanned, as bad actors were purportedly “leveraging a network of inauthentic news sites and clusters of associated accounts across multiple social media platforms.” Based on these findings, Facebook, Twitter, and Google also subsequently removed a bevy of accounts affiliated with Iran and Russia on their respective platforms.