Russia Linked to Leaked Document Behind Corbyn’s NHS Risk Claim

(Bloomberg) --

Russia has been linked to the leak of U.K. government documents behind Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s election-campaign claim that the Conservative Party would put the National Health Service on the table in trade talks with the U.S.

Social news and aggregation firm Reddit Inc. on Friday banned 61 accounts under its policies against “vote manipulation” ahead of Britain’s general election on Dec. 12. The accounts, which were used to draw attention to the trade documents, were “part of a campaign that has been reported as originating from Russia,” according to Reddit.

The documents have become a staple of Labour’s election campaign. Corbyn has repeatedly waved them at campaign events to publicly accuse Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the Conservatives of putting the NHS at risk in talks on a future free-trade deal with the U.S. Johnson has consistently denied he would open the healthcare system to U.S. interests, calling the charge “pure Bermuda-triangle stuff” during the most recent debate.

Public Interest

When asked about the Russia link on Saturday, Corbyn dismissed it as “nonsense,” and pointed out that Johnson has never denied the documents’ authenticity.

“The issues are that those documents show exactly what the British government was doing in discussions with Donald Trump’s administration in the U.S., and also why the prime minister has refused to release the report on Russian interference in British politics, which he’s been sitting on for a very long time,” Corbyn said on Sky News.

Corbyn was referring to Johnson’s refusal to release a report by a U.K. intelligence watchdog that raises concern about Russian interference in the campaign. The Labour Party released the trade documents because they are “clearly in the public interest,” a spokesman said on Saturday. Corbyn has refused to identify the source of the leak.

Johnson has managed to brush back Corbyn’s attacks over the NHS and kept the Conservative campaign focused on his pledge to complete the U.K.’s exit from the European Union, a strategy that appears to be working. With less than a week to the vote, the last five major polls gave the Conservatives an average lead of around 10 percentage points. Johnson is heading for a clear victory, senior officials in both main parties told Bloomberg.

‘Secondary Infektion’

Reddit said its investigation occurred after Facebook Inc. discovered a Russian campaign on its network earlier this year dubbed “Secondary Infektion.” More recent accounts on Reddit bear similarities to that campaign, “causing us to believe that this was indeed tied to the original group,” the firm said.

“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. The banned accounts will be preserved for a time so that they can be scrutinized by researchers and the public.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said there are no grounds for the accusations against Russia.

The Reddit accounts were removed after social media research firm Graphika Inc. published a blog on Dec. 2 saying that hundred of pages of leaked documents on trade between the U.S. and U.K. were amplified online in a manner “closely” resembling tactics used in the Secondary Infektion campaign.

The U.K. operation appeared to start in October when “a German-language persona” that called itself Max Ostermann posted information about the leaked trade documents to three websites including German subreddit r/de, as well as an Austrian local-news blog and a Berlin-based platform, according to Graphika.

The documents were then amplified using tactics previously seen in Secondary Infektion. These tactics included the use of “burner accounts” -- which post once before apparently being abandoned -- as well use of a “conspiracy site” called, the Graphika report said.

“Even before the Reddit post, the big question was how the unredacted U.K. documents ended up online,” said Ben Nimmo, director of investigations at Graphika. “That question just got bigger.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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