In an announcement that complicates this week’s already contentious election in the United Kingdom, Reddit declared on Friday, December 6 that its security team had reason to believe Russian hackers had leaked confidential US–UK trade documents.
“We were recently made aware of a post on Reddit that included leaked documents from the UK,” a statement issued by Reddit said. “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.”
In response to the leak, the site has banned 61 accounts for violating company policies that include vote manipulation and misuse of its platform.
A British government spokesperson praised Reddit’s action, saying “online platforms should take responsibility for content posted on them, and we welcome the action Reddit have taken.”
What information is contained in these documents?
The leaked documents are alleged to contain sensitive details on trade negotiations between the United Kingdom and United States, including, among other things, the possibility of opening up the UK National Health Service (NHS) to American pharmaceutical companies. The governments of both countries have thus far refused to disclose whether the documents are, in fact, genuine.
“We do not comment on leaks, and it would be inappropriate to comment,” a spokesman for the British government has said. As for how the documents were leaked in the first place, Britain’s government is said to be looking further into the matter.
What impact will this have on the general election?
Labour opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn has already used the leaked documents to go after the prime minister, highlighting them at a press conference on November 27 as “evidence that under Boris Johnson the NHS is on the table and will be up for sale.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has called the allegations “nonsense” and offered an “absolute cast-iron guarantee” that the NHS would not be on the table in any trade talks. Johnson’s government has repeatedly rejected the claim that it would provide access to the UK’s prized NHS to US companies.
Polls have consistently shown the Conservatives in first place, but British voters are famously proud of their NHS, something Prince William attested to last year in a video message played at an awards ceremony for NHS staff, saying “The National Health Service is one of our country’s greatest treasures, and something we should all be immensely proud of.”
A vast majority of the British public – 88% in a 2017 poll – believe that the NHS should be protected, a greater number than those who advocate for protecting the amount dedicated to schools (56%) and elderly care (40%). Despite these numbers, only 12% of people think the level of care provided by the NHS has improved. The spending increases Conservatives have devoted to the NHS have shrunk to as low as 4%, a decrease from that of the Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. These limited increases combined with an aging population have placed immense pressure on the NHS, which has in turn led to increased waiting times and the partial privatization of the industry.
With the release of the leaked trade documents, the leadership of the Labour Party is hoping to highlight the challenges facing the NHS and draw a stark contrast between themselves and the Conservatives on the issue in the election’s final days. Asked whether his Labour Party had benefited from alleged Russian election interference, Corbyn replied, “This is such nonsense. This is such an advanced state of rather belated conspiracy theories by the prime minister. When we released the documents, at no stage did the prime minister or anybody deny that those documents were real, deny the arguments that we put forward.”
Why were these documents leaked?
Hackers linked to the Russian state seem to have attempted to influence a number of Western elections in recent years – most notoriously by hacking the server of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in the 2016 US election and leaking information believed to have been harmful to Hillary Clinton’s campaign against then-nominee Donald Trump.
A coordinated campaign was also revealed to have been launched against Emmanuel Macron in his race with National Front leader Marine Le Pen in 2017 and in May this year, Austria’s vice-chancellor was forced to resign after a video surfaced that showed him offering government contracts to a woman believed to be connected to a prominent Russian oligarch in exchange for media coverage and political funding.
Any attempt to determine the motivation for Russia’s interference in Western elections is mere speculation, especially since Moscow has consistently denied claims it has attempted to influence foreign elections. “We know from the Russian playbook that often it is not for or against anything,” says Lisa-Maria Neudert, a researcher at Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Research Project (COMPROP), offering one perspective.