It looks like a network of 13,000 Twitter bots (yes, 13,000 bots, or the equivalent of 20 for every Parliamentary constituency to give that number a bit of perspective) was used to pump out pro-Brexit messages during the European referendum last year.
As Buzzfeed reports:
Researchers have uncovered new evidence of networks of thousands of suspect Twitter bots working to influence the Brexit debate in the run-up to the EU referendum.
The findings, from researchers at City, University of London, include a network of more than 13,000 suspected bots that tweeted predominantly pro-Brexit messages before being deleted or removed from Twitter in the weeks following the vote.
The research – which is published in the peer-reviewed Social Science Computer Review journal and was shared exclusively with BuzzFeed News – suggests the suspected bot accounts were eight times more likely to tweet pro-leave than pro-remain content.
Bots are to social media rather like uncontrolled spending on direct mail (which is the de facto position now in British elections). In both cases they allow the volume of what is otherwise legitimate activity to be greatly inflated by means that are highly desirable.
A large part of the solution is tackling that inflation. But it’s worth remembering also that legitimate amplification of messages by genuine supporters is just that – legitimate – and that’s part of the solution too.
Fighting bots isn’t just about what you hope Twitter or its regulators do; it’s also about what you do with your own Twitter account.
Whoever was behind bot-powered messages, it doesn’t look to have been the Russians, as new research shows:
The study examined nearly 3,000 Twitter accounts previously linked to Russia by the company’s disclosures in Washington or by news reports and academic researchers.
Examining two weeks of tweets in June 2016, shortly before the June 23 referendum, the study found that only 84 of the identified Russian accounts posted about the referendum, and they generated only 6,734 tweets or retweets. As a result, “we again found little evidence of Russian content,” the authors wrote. [New York Times]
Whoever it was, the power of the anti-Brexit voices on Twitter has triggered a pro-European human response.