Russia being involved in the Clinton email leaks will surprise nobody, but I’m much more interested in how much they manipulate social media.
Social media is well known to be of interest to British intelligence services, thanks to the Snowden leaks, who have definitely aimed to influence online discourse. It’s extremely unlikely to be limited to just the British, although while the intelligence services clearly believe there is value in manipulation, the actual effects of successful manipulation are less known, e.g. can large scale manipulation swing an election?
http://www.fakegreenarrows.com/ is a site which tries to record comment vote manipulation on the Daily Mail site. You can see that the most upvoted and downvoted comments tend to receive all their votes in blocks, implying there’s some kind of botnet behind it. As the site mentions, it seems to occur more on topics involving hard-right trigger topics like Brexit, Ukip or Islam.
We know that Russia launched a social media offensive a few years ago to try to improve Russia’s PR with the anglosphere. A ‘putinbot’ was a user of an online comment forum who would give the superficial impression of just being a random impartial user, but would only comment to fiercely defend Russia whenever criticism came up. I used to see on the Guardian comment section that whenever somebody commented to defend Russia, you could bring up a list of their posts and every single comment would be about Russia. Using a similar method to interfere in rivals’ domestic politics is the next logical step.
We also know that Ukip has a strange relationship with Russia. Both Nigel Farage and Diane James (who you might remember as Ukip leader, although as she resigned after about two weeks, you might not) have expressed admiration for Putin, and Farage spends a lot more time on the Russian news/propaganda channel Russia Today than anyone could fairly justify. There are unfounded rumours that Russia has funded Ukip (which I’d like to see investigated properly), and just to make things even more bizarre, Ukip’s main donor, Arron Banks, is married to a Russian woman who ended up in the UK via Mike Hancock MP, who you might remember as the Lib Dem MP whose young Russian parliamentary aid turned out to be a suspected Russian spy.
There’s a lot of speculation here, but most conspiracy theories fall down because they attribute malice to an actor who lacks means, motive or opportunity. Russia has all three.
It is undeniable that Russia’s luck following its imperialistic Crimea escapades has been exceptional. In the past year not only have they suddenly gained a Russia-friendly president in the US who is openly sceptical towards NATO, they’ve also benefited from a sudden weakening of both the EU as a whole, and the UK (which apart from France is the only serious military power in Europe).
I consider it implausible that this happened by chance.
Edit: A few hours after I posted this, the head of MI6 is dropping some interesting hints: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/12/08/britain-faces-fundamental-threat-sovereignty-russian-meddling/