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Facebook to investigate Russian meddling in Brexit vote

The social network agrees to open a full and proper investigation into Russia-backed activity during the UK's 2016 EU referendum.

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Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Katie Collins
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Did Russian-funded propaganda appear on Facebook during the Brexit campaign? We may find out.

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Facebook agreed on Wednesday to investigate the spread of Russian misinformation ahead of Britain's 2016 EU referendum, commonly referred to as Brexit.

The social network said in a letter to the UK Parliament's Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee that its investigatory team is "looking to see" if it can identify coordinated activity around the vote that it didn't previously spot. 

The committee is conducting an inquiry into fake news and misinformation. 

"We are committed to making all reasonable efforts to establish whether or not there was coordinated activity similar to which we found in the US," Simon Milner, Facebook's UK policy director, wrote in the letter.

Russia-funded activity aimed at misinforming people and influencing US and European elections has been a major issue across all social networks over the past year and a half. Governments and intelligence agencies have pressured Facebook, Twitter and Google to investigate meddling that has already occurred and asked them to ensure it will be prevented in future.

In December, Facebook shared the results of a preliminary investigation with the committee. The investigation, however, was limited to a cluster of Russian accounts that had already been identified following probes into activity connected with the US presidential campaign. 

Facebook concluded that a Russian-backed agency had spent just 75p ($1) on Facebook ads during the Brexit campaign. Those ads, the social network said, were seen by only 200 people.

Damian Collins, a member of Parliament and the committee chair, criticised the investigation, saying it didn't answer questions he had put to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg last October regarding the activity of Russia-linked accounts. He asked Facebook to launch a separate investigation focusing specifically on the UK, as it had already done for France's election in the summer.

"I welcome the fact that Facebook has now responded to the Committee's request, and will investigate whether the involvement of Russian agencies in the Brexit referendum campaign may have come from sources other than those previously identified as having been actively connected with the US presidential election in 2016," Collins said in a statement on Wednesday.

"I look forward to seeing the results of this investigation," he continued. "I'm sure we will want to question Facebook about this when we know the outcome."