Anti-Brexiteer plot to kill Boris Johnson was Russian fake news

Bogus anti-Brexiteer plot to assassinate Boris Johnson and other fake news stories were planted online by Russian accounts, study says

  • Russians ‘planted stories on 30 online platforms in six different languages’ 
  • They aimed to ‘divide, discredit and distract’ Western countries with false info
  • Fake letter from Spanish minister Josep Borrell claimed there was kill Boris plot
  • Kremlin hasn’t commented on Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research study

An anti-Brexiteer plot to kill Boris Johnson was among dozens of fake news stories planted online by the Russians, a new study claims.

Social media users were stunned in August last year when an unknown Facebook account posted a letter describing a ‘possible attack on Boris Johnson by radical Brexit opponents’. 

The letter, which the account claimed was written by Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell to one of his colleagues, said the assassination plot was to ‘stop Boris being nominated Prime Minister’. A spokesman for Mr Borrell described the letter as ‘FAKE, FAKE’. 

Almost a year on, researchers have claimed the fake news story was the work of the Russians in a bid to ‘distract Western countries by planting false information’.

An anti-Brexiteer plot to kill Boris Johnson was among dozens of fake news stories planted online by the Russians, a study claims

Social media users were stunned in August last year when an unknown Facebook account posted a letter describing a ‘possible attack on Boris Johnson by radical Brexit opponents’

The Atlantic Council’s digital forensic research lab claims those responsible used 30 different online platforms, including Facebook and Twitter. 

Posting bogus stories in six different languages, they also published a fake deleted screenshot by former defence minister Gavin Williamson.   

Pictures of the tweet show Williamson saying people connected to the Real Irish Republican Army had supplied ‘a component of the nerve agent’ used to poison a former Russian military intelligence officer in the English city of Salisbury last year.

There is no record of the tweet being sent from Williamson’s account. A spokesman for Williamson did not respond to requests for comment. 

DFR Lab said the operation’s focus on narratives supporting the Kremlin and linguistic errors typical of native Russian-speakers supported Facebook’s assessment that the accounts were operated from Russia.

‘The scale of the operation, its tradecraft, and its obsession with secrecy, indicate that it was run by a persistent, sophisticated, and well-resourced organization, possibly an intelligence agency,’ DFR Lab said in its report.

The Russian network was traced by following connections to a group of 16 accounts suspended in May by Facebook, which said they were ‘part of a small network emanating from Russia’.

Western officials have warned that countries such as Russia, as well as domestic political groups, are increasingly spreading false or misleading information online in order to disrupt politics and public opinion.

Moscow has repeatedly denied the allegations, most recently after the European Union said it had evidence of ‘sustained disinformation activity by Russian sources aiming to suppress turnout and influence voter preferences’ in May’s European Parliament elections.

Social media users were stunned in August last year when an unknown Facebook account posted a letter ‘from Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borell’ (pictured) describing a ‘possible attack on Boris Johnson by radical Brexit opponents’

The Kremlin has not yet commented on the claims. 

Mr Johnson has not yet commented on the fake news claims, as he prepares to do battle with Jeremy Hunt in the race to become the next Prime Minister. 

He was this week embroiled in a row about his relationship with his 30-year-old girlfriend Carrie Symonds, after south London neighbours recorded her shouting ‘get off me’. 

Ben Nimmo, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s DFR Lab, said the accounts failed to attract a large following – likely due to efforts not to get caught – but the operation is notable for its audacity and sophistication.

‘This operation was trying to provoke divisions between Western countries,’ he said. ‘It faked everything, from the documents it based its stories on, up to the accounts that boosted them.’

Nathaniel Gleicher, head of cyber security policy at Facebook, said the accounts and pages removed by Facebook in May had been a small part of ‘a broader operation that was primarily active on other internet platforms.’

He added: ‘We know that these threats are not limited to a specific type of technology or service. 

‘The better we can be at working together, the better we’ll do by our community.’

A Twitter spokesman said the company welcomed the findings and had a team ‘dedicated to identifying and investigating suspected platform manipulation on Twitter, including potential state-backed activity.’ 

Posting bogus stories in six different languages, they also published a fake deleted screenshot by former defence minister Gavin Williamson (pictured), the Atlantic Council study claims 

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