Northern Ireland news

Fake Arlene Foster email 'used by Russians to spread Brexit disinformation'

DUP leader Arlene Foster. Picture by Mark Marlow

A FAKE Arlene Foster email was circulated on Facebook by Russian intelligence to stir up Anglo-Irish tensions over Brexit, US-based online investigators claim.

False claims were also spread online that the Real IRA was recruiting Islamist fighters – and helped in the attempted assassination of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal.

Ireland was among several western countries targeted by the Russian-based operation using dozens of online platforms to spread fake news, an investigation by a Washington-based think tank found.

It is believed to be its first disinformation campaign targeting divisions in Ireland.

The fake stories included false claims that DUP leader Mrs Foster favoured the European Union's approach to Brexit.

A pseudo-Irish Facebook account posted a screenshot of a fake email from Mrs Foster to the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier.

In the fake email, the DUP leader found the EU's stance on Brexit "more favourable than the one we received from the UK cabinet" and raised questions about Northern Ireland remaining within the UK.

In reality, Mrs Foster and the DUP are opposed to the proposed UK-EU withdrawal agreement and any proposals that might separate Northern Ireland from Britain.

A fake Irish Facebook account also shared a falsified tweet in which former British defence secretary Gavin Williamson claimed the Real IRA had helped in Sergei Skripal's attempted assassination last year.

A purported Ireland-based user also posted a claim to a Reddit forum that the Real IRA had posted an Arabic-language invite to Islamist fighters to "join the RIRA and fight on Irish soil".

The details were disclosed following an investigation by Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Laboratory (DFRLab).

Its investigation came after Facebook took down 16 fake accounts, including one purported Irish user, in May after finding "co-ordinated inauthentic behaviour" in a campaign emanating from Russia.

DFRLab's Ben Nimmo told The Irish Times he was not surprised a Russian operation had opened "a new front" targeting Anglo-Irish relations.

"The combination of Brexit, a hard border and all the rest of it is an open wound. If you are a hostile foreign actor, why would you not stick your finger in it?" he said.

A spokeswoman for the Russian embassy in Dublin branded the Atlantic Council claims "absolutely false" and "nothing to do with reality".

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