Boris Johnson said his government would investigate the source of leaked UK-US trade documents believed to have been disseminated on Reddit by a Russian operation to interfere in the election, and later used by the Labour party in its campaigning.
The UK prime minister said on Saturday that the government needed “to get to the bottom” of the leak. However, he added that he had seen “no evidence of any successful interference by Russia in any democratic event in this country.”
The government said it was already working with the National Cyber Security Centre to examine the matter. “We do not comment on leaks, and it would be inappropriate to comment further,” a spokesman said.
The comments come a day after online discussion forum Reddit said that it believed a Russian operation was “tied to” the dissemination on its site of the 451-page dossier of UK government documents, which are believed to be authentic.
Last month, party leader Jeremy Corbyn highlighted the papers at a press conference, saying they proved the NHS would be “up for sale” if Mr Johnson were to forge a post-Brexit trade deal with the US — claims that the UK prime minister denies.
In reality the lengthy dossier only had a couple of small references to the US desire for longer patents for pharmaceuticals used by the NHS, with no evidence that the UK was likely to accede to any such demand.
The government has not denied that the documents are genuine, Mr Corbyn pointed out on Saturday. “When we released the documents at no stage did the prime minister or anyone deny that those documents were real,” he said.
It is unclear how the papers first came to the attention of the Labour party, although they were circulated on Reddit about a month before Mr Corbyn spoke about them.
There is rising public concern over the potential for foreign interference in the forthcoming general election, and as the UK government’s refusal to publish a report by its intelligence and security committee about possible Russian manipulation in the Brexit referendum has angered critics.
Labour would not comment on how it discovered the dossier but said that releasing it was in the public interest. “These documents reveal the plot against our NHS. And, of course, neither the UK nor the US government have denied their authenticity,” the party said.
Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan said it was extremely serious that the leaked documents could be linked to a Russian interference campaign.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, she said: “I understand from what was being put on that website, those who seem to know about these things say that it seems to have all the hallmarks of some form of interference.
“And if that is the case, that obviously is extremely serious. And actually as culture secretary, obviously one of the things that we are looking for and monitoring is any interference in our elections.”
Reddit said on Friday that it had found a network of dozens of accounts linked to the one that first posted the documents. Those appeared to be manipulating its system in order to promote the original post, it said.
According to the company, the group of accounts had “the same shared pattern” of behaviour as a disinformation campaign that used social media sites such as Facebook and Reddit, which researchers believe was directed by the Kremlin. Revealed in June, that campaign was dubbed “Secondary Infektion”.
“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 co-ordination,” Reddit said in a statement.
“All of these accounts have the same shared pattern as the original Secondary Infektion group detected, causing us to believe that this was indeed tied to the original group.”
Reddit said it was banning 61 accounts and one messaging thread under its “policies against vote manipulation and misuse of the platform”.
The potential link to Secondary Infektion first came to light after researchers at US social media analysis group Graphika and Washington-based think-tank Atlantic Council published a report earlier this week saying the tactics first mirrored those used by the group.
For example, the leaks were amplified elsewhere online on the exact same set of websites used by the Russian operation via a similar type of one-off “burner” account. They also made similar language errors, indicative of non-native language speakers, the report said.
Secondary Infektion itself was first uncovered by Facebook, which linked it to Russia, and then examined by the Atlantic Council, which found that it had used fake accounts, forged documents and “dozens of online platforms” to spread stories that attacked western interests and unity.