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Senate Finds Russian Bots, Bucks Helped Push Brexit Vote Through


Two democracies who share so much are in political turmoil at the same time this weekend - the U.S., in the midst of the longest government shutdown in its history, and the United Kingdom, stuck between a referendum in which people voted to leave the European Union and the reality of having no plan to do that with the deadline just two months away.

But what about the role of a third country that may benefit from the chaos? Russia has been accused of meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections and the 2016 Brexit referendum. We're joined now by Jane Mayer, staff writer at The New Yorker, who's been covering the issue. Thanks so much for being with us.

JANE MAYER: Great to be with you.

SIMON: We've certainly tried to make our familiars - our listeners familiar with the allegations about Internet trolls and misinformation and Russian disinformation in the U.S. elections. What about Russia's role in the 2016 vote - in the Brexit vote?

MAYER: So it's interesting. It's much the same. There are parallel investigations going on in the United Kingdom to the one that we've got with the Mueller investigation here in the U.S. And they're looking at many of the same problems, many of the same tactics. And both are trying to follow the money that they think maybe came, in part, from Russia. And so it's interesting that there are even some overlapping characters in both countries.

SIMON: Well, that's what I - like Cambridge Analytica, for example.

MAYER: Cambridge Analytica, which is a big data company that worked for the Trump campaign in the end - and it was owned principally by one of Trump's largest backers, Robert Mercer - was also involved in helping the early stages of the Brexit campaign in England.

And the man who spanned both countries and pushed for both, really, was Steve Bannon, the former adviser to Trump and a great, you know, force for nationalist kind of right-wing politics in both the U.K. and the U.S. And he was bopping back-and-forth...

SIMON: Yeah.

MAYER: ...Between the U.S. and the U.K., pushing for Brexit and the "leave" campaign and pushing for Trump's rise in the U.S. starting in 2015.

SIMON: Based on your reporting, do you see any indications that Russian involvement in Brexit, and then the U.S. presidential election, or at least their alleged involvement and their interests, are not two separate efforts but part of the same effort?

MAYER: Well, it - you know, there are tons of questions. I've got more questions than answers at this point.

But I've been following what the authorities say. There are - the national security, law enforcement authorities and academic authorities are looking at the possibility - it seems there was actually a lot of Russian money offered to Arron Banks, who was one of the major political figures leading the Brexit campaign. The Russian money was offered to him in the form of business opportunities and gold mines and diamond mines by the Russian ambassador to England.

So there seems to be financial incentives that were dangled. There are bots and trolls and posts that are coming from the same Russian Internet agency in St. Petersburg. So in both countries, we see pushing Brexit and pushing Trump at the same time by the same trolls and bots.

SIMON: Jane Mayer is a staff writer at The New Yorker who is reporting on this important issue. I'm so glad you could join us. Thanks very much for being with us.

MAYER: Great to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.