Russian Twitter accounts meddled in 2016 Brexit vote

London: In a startling revelation, a group of data scientists has found 156,252 Russian accounts on Twitter which mentioned #Brexit and posted nearly 45,000 messages related to the EU referendum in the 48 hours around the vote.

According to a report in The Times on Thursday, “Russian Twitter accounts posted more than 45,000 messages about Brexit in 48 hours during last year’s referendum in an apparently co-ordinated attempt to sow discord”.  According to data scientists from Swansea University in Wales and the University of California, Berkeley, over 150,000 Russian accounts who were posting about the Ukrainian conflict swiftly started tweeting about Brexit in days leading up to the 2016 vote.

“From posting fewer than 1,000 tweets a day before June 13, the accounts — many of which are virulently pro-Putin — posted 39,000 tweets on June 23-24,” the report said.  Tho Pham, one of the report authors, confirmed to TechCrunch that the majority of those Brexit tweets were posted on June 24, 2016, the day after the vote.

“During the Referendum day, there is a sign that bots attempted to spread more leave messages with positive sentiment as the number of leave tweets with positive sentiment increased dramatically on that day,” the research said.  “Furthermore, before the Referendum Day, among those humans’ retweets from bots, tweets by the Leave side accounted for about 50 per cent of retweets while only nearly 20 per cent of retweets had pro-remain content,” it added.

According to researchers, similar trend was observed for the US Election sample.  “Before the Election Day, about 80 per cent of retweets were in favour of (Donald) Trump while only 20 per cent of retweets were supporting (Hillary) Clinton,” the research paper noted.  The data scientists used Twitter’s API to obtain relevant datasets of tweets to analyse and reach the conclusion.

They found a clear difference in the volume of Russian-related tweets between Brexit sample and US Election sample.  “For the Referendum, the massive number of Russian-related tweets were only created few days before the voting day, reached its peak during the voting and result days then dropped immediately afterwards,” the researchers wrote.  “In contrast, Russian-related tweets existed both before and after the US Election Day,” they added.  More interestingly, the team observed that the influence of pro-leave bots was stronger than the influence of pro-remain bots.

“Similarly, pro-Trump bots are more influential than pro-Clinton bots. Thus, to some degree, the use of social bots might drive the outcomes of Brexit and the US Election,” the researchers added.  Political events like the Brexit Referendum and the US Presidential Election — have observed the use of social bots in spreading fake news and misinformation.

“This, coupled by the echo chambers nature of social media, might lead to the case that bots could shape public opinions in negative ways. If so, policy-makers should consider mechanisms to prevent abuse of bots in the future,” the paper said.  Facebook, Twitter and Google are facing intense fake news scrutiny after disclosing the details about the presence of Russian political ads, tweets and posts on their platforms during the presidential election in 2016.

(To download our E-paper please click here. The publishers permit sharing of the paper's PDF on WhatsApp and other social media platforms.)

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