Russian tweets from bots, trolls used 'to disrupt' Brexit vote – report

MANILA, Philippines – Over a two-day period, Russian Twitter accounts posted around 45,000 messages on the social media service about Brexit in a seemingly coordinated attempt to create confusion and sow discord.

A report from The Times on Wednesday, November 15, said over 150,000 accounts based in Russia switched their attention from the Ukrainian conflict to Brexit ahead of the vote.

The information was gleaned from an upcoming paper from data scientists at Swansea University and the University of California, Berkeley.

The activity of the posts increased on June 23 and 24, the day of the referendum and the day of the announcement results, respectively.

From an average of 1,000 tweets a day before June 13, the volume increased to around 39,000 tweets on June 24, with tweets falling off sharply following the referendum.

The accounts appeared to either be bots, or automated accounts, or potentially from automated accounts sporting some human involvement. The analysis suggested the tweets were viewed hundreds of millions of times.

The research paper tracked 156,252 Russian accounts that mentioned #Brexit in original posts or retweets. Of these, a prolific account called Stormbringer15 was considered by experts as “almost certainly a Russian troll factory creation."

Sowing discord

The tweets were apparently meant to create tension in the country, with most tweets encouraging a vote for Brexit, while a lesser number were pro-Remain. (READ: More governments manipulate media with 'bots,' trolls – study)

According to Damian Collins, the Tory MP who chairs the digital, culture, media and sport select committee, “This is the most significant evidence yet of interference by Russian-backed social media accounts around the Brexit referendum.”

“The content published and promoted by these accounts is clearly designed to increase tensions throughout the country and undermine our democratic process. I fear that this may well be just the tip of the iceberg," he added. 

The research paper explained, “Massive number of Russian-related tweets was created a few days before the voting day, reached its peak during the voting and the result and then dropped immediately afterwards.”

Tho Pham, one of the authors, also said, “the main conclusion is that bots were used on purpose and had influence."

Victor Barreiro Jr.

Victor Barreiro Jr is part of Rappler's Central Desk. An avid patron of role-playing games and science fiction and fantasy shows, he also yearns to do good in the world, and hopes his work with Rappler helps to increase the good that's out there.