Classified documents detailing UK-US trade talks that were used by the Labour party to claim the prime minister was putting the NHS “up for sale” were first leaked online in a way that mirrored a recent Russian disinformation campaign, according to US researchers.
Graphika, a company that has analysed the document leak alongside the Washington-based Atlantic Council think-tank, published a report on Monday, seen by the Financial Times, suggesting the incident could point to potential foreign interference in the upcoming UK election.
It comes as the government’s refusal to publish a report by cross-party MPs on the intelligence and security committee about possible attempts by Russia to influence the Brexit referendum has increased public concern about the security of UK polls later this month.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn unveiled the 451-page “dossier” at a press conference last month, saying the papers proved the NHS would be on the table if prime minister Boris Johnson were to conclude a post-Brexit trade deal with the US. While this has been denied by Mr Johnson, Labour’s deployment of the information as part of their campaign has prompted questions about the source of the leaks.
According to Graphika, the dissemination of the documents — which appear to have been initially published on online forum Reddit in late October before being shared across several other sites — closely resembled the tactics used by Secondary Infektion, a Russian disinformation campaign exposed in June this year. However, they could not say for certain that Secondary Infektion was involved in this dissemination.
The report found that the leaks were amplified on the exact same set of websites used by the Russian operation, via similar types of one-off “burner” accounts that made similar language errors common among non-native language speakers. The account that first posted the documents on Reddit made similar language errors.
“It’s either the Russian operation all over again, or someone else trying hard to look like it,” Ben Nimmo, Graphika’s head of investigations, said.
A spokesperson at Reddit said they were “investigating this matter to the fullest extent possible”.
Secondary Infektion was first identified in June by researchers at the Atlantic Council. They found that the operation used fake accounts, forged documents and “dozens of online platforms” to spread stories that attacked western interests and unity. The researchers concluded that the campaign was conducted by a “persistent, sophisticated, and well-resourced actor, possibly an intelligence operation” that maintained fake accounts on platforms such Medium and Reddit.
Graham Brookie, head of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, said that while Graphika could not be totally confident that the UK documents had been spread by Secondary Infektion, it bore the hallmarks of a foreign disinformation campaign.
“What we can say with a high degree of confidence is that the level of sophistication and effort shows an intent to obfuscate,” Mr Brookie told the Financial Times. “So someone really tried to hide [the origins] of this.”
Mr Brookie added that UK politicians should recognise they had an “extra duty of care to verify the source of leaked material” before disseminating it, although he admitted they “lack the incentive to do just that”.
When asked about the Graphika report, a spokesman for the Labour party said the documents “reveal the plot against our NHS”.
“And of course neither the UK nor the US government have denied their authenticity. Given what they reveal, it’s not surprising that there are attempts to muddy the waters to cover up what has been exposed.”
The UK Cabinet Office, which oversees election security, including attempted disinformation by foreign states, said on Monday it did not comment on leaked documents.