LONDON – The leak and distribution of classified U.K.-U.S. trade documents online is tied to a previous Russian disinformation campaign, the social media site Reddit said Friday, fueling fears that Moscow is seeking to interfere in Britain’s upcoming election.
Britain’s opposition Labour Party seized on the leaked documents on Nov. 27, saying they showed the ruling Conservatives were plotting to offer the state-run National Health Service for sale in trade talks with Washington.
The NHS is much loved by Britons and has become an important issue in the country’s election campaign, in which Labour trails the Conservatives despite cutting its lead in some polls.
But researchers say that the way the documents were first shared on Reddit and then promoted online closely resembled a disinformation campaign uncovered earlier this year.
That operation — known as Secondary Infektion — attempted to spread false narratives across at least 30 online platforms. It stemmed from a network of social media accounts that Facebook said “originated in Russia.”
“We were recently made aware of a post on Reddit that included leaked documents from the UK,” Reddit said in a statement. “We investigated this account and the accounts connected to it, and today we believe this was part of a campaign that has been reported as originating from Russia.”
The company said it had identified and suspended 61 accounts that attempted to further promote the leaked papers.
“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,” it said.
A Labour spokesman declined to comment on how the party obtained the leaked documents or ties to the Russian campaign. “These documents reveal the plot against our NHS. And of course neither the U.K. nor the U.S. government have denied their authenticity,” he said. “Our releasing them to journalists was clearly in the public interest.”
The British government said in a statement it is “already looking into the matter” with support from the National Cyber Security Center, which is part of the British signals intelligence agency GCHQ.
“Online platforms should take responsibility for content posted on them, and we welcome the action Reddit have taken today,” it said.
Britain will go to the polls on Thursday in an election called by Prime Minister Boris Johnson to try to break the Brexit deadlock in Parliament more than three years since the country voted to leave the European Union.
The country’s security agencies have warned that Russia and other countries may attempt to disrupt the vote with cyberattacks or divisive political messages on social media.
Johnson and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn clashed over Brexit on Friday in the last televised debate before the election. Six days before Britain’s second national election in less than three years, the debate was seen as the last chance for Corbyn to squeeze Johnson’s lead in the polls.
A snap poll by YouGov found 52 percent of viewers thought Johnson had won the debate.
The two leaders set a combative tone over how to leave the EU and in their very different offers for domestic policy — “socialism carried out in a democratic way” from Corbyn, or “one-nation conservatism” that will not “rack up debts” from Johnson.
Johnson ridiculed Corbyn’s support for a new referendum in which Corbyn has said he would remain neutral. The Labour leader said the prime minister’s pledge to “get Brexit done” actually meant years of trade talks.
Britons voted by 52 to 48 percent in 2016 for Brexit, But Parliament has been stuck in deadlock over the way forward. If Johnson wins the majority he says he needs, Britain will leave by Jan. 31 and then seek to secure a trade deal with the bloc by the end of 2020.
Keen to land a blow, Corbyn doubled down on an earlier attack on Johnson, calling his Brexit promises a fraud and saying his deal would simply be the start of years of “painful negotiations and broken promises.”
Corbyn waved at Johnson documents he had unveiled earlier in the day, which he said showed the divorce deal would lead to customs declarations and security checks between Britain and Northern Ireland, a direct contradiction of Johnson’s statements that it would not create any barriers.
Johnson said the document was “complete nonsense.”
Both were taken to task over accusations of prejudice in their parties, and questioned over their approaches to Britain’s public health service and their stance on security, a week after another terrorist attack was carried out in the capital.