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Sunak borrows from Hillary Clinton’s Russiagate playbook

The PM has scant evidence for his accusations. Credit: Getty

July 2, 2024 - 8:00pm

Rishi Sunak appears to have taken a page from Hillary Clinton’s electoral playbook. This week, the Prime Minister, who’s fighting an electoral campaign not just for his own political survival but for the future of the Conservative Party, accused Reform Party leader Nigel Farage of deploying Russian-style disinformation bots to influence the upcoming 4 July election.

“It now appears as if Reform may be using the same tactics of using fake accounts to influence voters,” the PM said, referencing “malicious foreign actors.” If that seems like a bold accusation from Sunak — one issued on the basis of scant evidence — that may be for good reason.

Sunak’s comments look like an attempt to underline the Conservatives’ role as a well-vetted, trustworthy party to Reform’s political question mark. When Hillary Clinton launched the campaign to tar Donald Trump with accusation of colluding with Russia to win the election, the goal was to wound him so grievously he would be weakened while in office and as he ran for his second term in 2020. The fact that little of the reporting on Trump’s so-called Russia collusion was never substantiated — a theme examined by the Columbia Journalism Review — made almost no difference.

With Trump, the strategy partially succeeded. The president was dogged by accusations about collusion with Russia, which lay the groundwork for broader claims that he was a threat to democracy. But the victory was also pyrrhic. Over the past eight years, Americans’ trust in media has plummeted to record lows. Meanwhile, Trump’s base has never been stronger. The effect is that nearly a decade of conspiracy theories about Russian collusion have, in a sense, inoculated the former president to a wide range of accusations.

Sunak’s strategy here appears to be twofold. Firstly, it aims to delegitimise Farage’s campaign by framing it as influenced by foreign interference. Whether these claims are backed by evidence is up for discussion. The BBC recently claimed to have found that a number of accounts accused of being bots in fact belong to real British voters. Further, the two studies that have identified “bot-like” accounts — one by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and another by NGO Global Witness — have identified a tiny handful of suspected accounts.

In ABC’s case, an investigation turned up a mere five Facebook pages with “pro-Kremlin” messaging while Global Witness identified just 10 “prolific” accounts. In neither case is there a shred of actual evidence tying these accounts either to Russia or to Reform.

Evidence aside, the idea that five Facebook pages and 10 suspect accounts could influence a national election strains the imagination. A 2017 study by Stanford researchers published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives found that the combined effect of 115 pieces of pro-Trump fake news related to the 2016 US election that were shared 30 million times could have swung the results by just “hundredths of a percentage point.” This, the researchers note, is significantly smaller than Trump’s margin of victory in the election.

The second possible motivation for Sunak to pursue this route is that it is part of a strategy aimed at helping the PM maintain his influence within the Conservative Party even if he loses the election. Positioning himself as a crusader against foreign influence in British politics, the PM can cast himself as a champion of democracy, giving him enough of a boost among parts of the public to keep him in power as head of the party.

As the election date approaches, the PM’s accusations against Farage add a new layer of complexity to an already tumultuous political landscape. But above all else, it is an act of desperation — and one for which he will receive little reward at the ballot box.

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Peter B
Peter B
10 days ago

Haven’t read “Private Eye” for quite some time, but this must surely be prime material for their “Desperate Marketing” column.

Penny Rose
Penny Rose
10 days ago

The bigger question is why Sunak ever went into politics, given that he is totally inept at it. Was it because Daddy in law wanted a Prime Minister in the family? And the second question is why the Tory establishment was so dead keen to have him as leader. But then, given the present Tory party that can be simply explained by Daddy in laws squillions.

Martin M
Martin M
9 days ago
Reply to  Penny Rose

Well, given that Sunak replaced Truss (who had just done her level best to tank the economy), he probably looked like a reasonable choice.

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
9 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

The BoE and the blob tanked her and RS proceeded to splash around unfunded billions at random that ended with the unnecessary promise ro raise British defence spending to 2 5% etc. Why is house building stymied by the EU nutrient neutrality directive, 8 years after Britain left the EU I wonder if this rule was on Truss’ kill list, cut in half by Sunak. We would have been fracking by now, and not driven away businesses by a 30% tax rise. Sunak never explained his thinking on this. It wasnt even debated.

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
9 days ago
Reply to  Penny Rose

Good question but your answer doeant even begun to explain why . He was rich?Come on.

Citizen Diversity
Citizen Diversity
10 days ago

Vote Reform! Vote Reform! Vote Reform! Vote Reform! Vote Reform!
Heavens to Betsy! It ‘appears’ ‘as if’ I’m a bot! It ‘appears’ ‘as if’ I might be (equally, might not be) self-aware!
Or am I ‘bot-like’ (not a bot). I ‘may be’ (equally, may not be) referencing ‘malicious foreign actors’; unlike the benevolent foreign actors (the interfering not interfering), the ones who want to adjust the UK’s position in the line.
Or am I the Tardis talking to myself? Could be (equally, could not be) trying to recruit some guy with a name like Thistletwine to become the next Doctor in a plucky adventure against those with a fashion sense for wearing black, called It’s Always 1939.

Martin M
Martin M
9 days ago

You want to look at the comments section in the Guardian. Anyone who says pretty much anything anti-Russia (as I do frequently) gets some down-votes pretty much instantly.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
10 days ago

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
9 days ago

So Sunak is employing a strategy from eight years ago cooked up by the most unpopular politician in recent American history who managed to lose to a reality TV show host, a strategy that, oh by the way, didn’t work the first time and led to perhaps the most expensive, embarrassing, and ultimately pointless public witch hunt since McCarthy. Just brilliant. Sunak richly deserves the historic drubbing he is about to receive.

Martin M
Martin M
9 days ago

There seems no argument that Putin wanted Trump to win in 2016 and 2020, and wants him to win this time. After all, Trump is rather more “pro-Russia” than anyone else in US politics. I offer no comment on how much Putin may have influenced (or be influencing) those elections, but there is no doubt that he stands to benefit from a Trump victory. Is the same true in relation to Farage? He may personally win a seat, and other Reform candidates might do as well, but is there any real possibility that Farage could be PM? I wouldn’t have thought so.

Peter B
Peter B
9 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

I think there is some doubt. Putin may think that a Trump victory would be good for him. But that’s far from the same thing as it actually working out. We know how unpredictable Trump is. We also know how prone Putin is to delusions and thinking errors.
I also question whether Trump really is “pro-Russia”. The only certainty is that he is “pro-Trump” !
The observation that a small group of people behave in a similar way (monstrous egos, frequent denial of reality, flexible approach to truth, etc) does not mean these people have similar policies, like each other are or allies.

Andrew Dalton
Andrew Dalton
9 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

I also question whether Trump really is “pro-Russia”. The only certainty is that he is “pro-Trump” !

Indeed. Or, Trump is pro-Russia if that position is good for Trump.

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
9 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

There is no evidence whatsoever for this Trump pro Putin claim. It was he who warned Gernany against relying on Russian oil and gas, to hoots of derision from the EU. Why would Putin want a strong America, instead of the America collapsing in riots, crime, 8 million illegals and an inflation ridden economy ? Putin is America’s enemy. He would definitrly support Biden. Under Trump tve US was self sufficient in fuel. Putin hated that. Biden going cap in hand to the Saudis was a much more pleasing sight

Martin Johnson
Martin Johnson
9 days ago

When I first read the third paragraph, I saw “undermine” rather than “underline.”
That misreading was wrong as to Sunak’s intent, but may be correct as to effect.
LOL.

Martin Johnson
Martin Johnson
9 days ago

In America we talk about the domestic use of provisions intended to be used against only foreign entities as “bringing the War on Terror home.”

Now, you in the UK are seeing the Tories, who colluded in the Russiagate operation (surely, you don’t think Christopher Steele intervened in an American election without approval from the highest levels, do you?) bring the Russiagate strategy home to Britain.

Leopards don’t change their spots.