Study: Russian Twitter bots sent 45k Brexit tweets close to vote
To what extent — and how successfully — did Russian backed agents use social media to influence the UK’s Brexit vote? Yesterday Facebook admitted it had linked some Russian accounts to Brexit-related ad buys and/or the spread of political misinformation on its platform, though it hasn’t yet disclosed how many accounts were involved or how many rubles were spent.
Today the The Times reported on research conducted by a group of data scientists in the US and UK looking at how information was diffused on Twitter around the June 2016 EU referendum vote, and around the 2016 US presidential election.
The Times reports that the study tracked 156,252 Russian accounts which mentioned #Brexit, and also found Russian accounts posted almost 45,000 messages pertaining to the EU referendum in the 48 hours around the vote.
Although Tho Pham, one of the report authors, confirmed to us in an email that the majority of those Brexit tweets were posted on June 24, 2016, the day after the vote — when around 39,000 Brexit tweets were posted by Russian accounts, according to the analysis.
But in the run up to the referendum vote they also generally found that human Twitter users were more likely to spread pro-leave Russian bot content via retweets (vs pro-remain content) — amplifying its potential impact.
From the research paper:
You do have to wonder whether Brexit wasn’t something of a dry run disinformation campaign for Russian bots ahead of the US election a few months later.
The research paper, entitled Social media, sentiment and public opinions: Evidence from #Brexit and #USElection, which is authored by three data scientists from Swansea University and the University of California, Berkeley, used Twitter’s API to obtain relevant datasets of tweets to analyze.
After screening, their dataset for the EU referendum contained about 28.6M tweets, while the sample for the US presidential election contained ~181.6M tweets.
The researchers say they identified a Twitter account as Russian-related if it had Russian as the profile language but the Brexit tweets were in English.
While they detected bot accounts (defined by them as Twitter users displaying ‘botlike’ behavior) using a method that includes scoring each account on a range of factors such as whether it tweeted at unusual hours; the volume of tweets including vs account age; and whether it was posting the same content per day.
Around the US election, the researchers generally found a more sustained use of politically motivated bots vs around the EU referendum vote (when bot tweets peaked very close to the vote itself).
In each data set, they found bots typically more often tweeting pro-Trump and pro-leave views vs pro-Clinton and pro-remain views, respectively.
They also say they found similarities in how quickly information was disseminated around each of the two events, and in how human Twitter users interacted with bots — with human users tending to retweet bots that expressed sentiments they also supported. The researchers say this supports the view of Twitter creating networked echo chambers of opinion as users fix on and amplify only opinions that align with their own, avoiding engaging with different views.
Combine that echo chamber effect with deliberate deployment of politically motivated bot accounts and the platform can be used to enhance social divisions, they suggest.
From the paper:
Discussing the key implications of the research, they describe social media as “a communication platform between government and the citizenry”, and say it could act as a layer for government to gather public views to feed into policymaking.
However they also warn of the risks of “lies and manipulations” being dumped onto these platforms in a deliberate attempt to misinform the public and skew opinions and democratic outcomes — suggesting regulation to prevent abuse of bots may be necessary.
Commenting on the research in a statement, a Twitter spokesperson told us: “Twitter recognizes that the integrity of the election process itself is integral to the health of a democracy. As such, we will continue to support formal investigations by government authorities into election interference where required.”
Its general critique of external bot analysis conducted via data pulled from its API is that researchers are not privy to the full picture as the data stream does not provide visibility of its enforcement actions, nor on the settings for individual users which might be surfacing or suppressing certain content.
The company also notes that it has been adapting its automated systems to pick up suspicious patterns of behavior, and claims these systems now catch more than 3.2M suspicious accounts globally per week.
Since June 2017, it also claims it’s been able to detect an average of 130,000 accounts per day that are attempting to manipulate Trends — and says it’s taken steps to prevent that impact. (Though it’s not clear exactly what that enforcement action is.)
Since June it also says it’s suspended more than 117,000 malicious applications for abusing its API — and say the apps were collectively responsible for more than 1.5BN “low-quality tweets” this year.
It also says it has built systems to identify suspicious attempts to log in to Twitter, including signs that a login may be automated or scripted — techniques it claims now help it catch about 450,000 suspicious logins per day.
The Twitter spokesman noted a raft of other changes it says it’s been making to try to tackle negative forms of automation, including spam. Though he also flagged the point that not all bots are bad. Some can be distributing public safety information, for example.
Even so, there’s no doubt Twitter and social media giants in general remain in the political hotspot, with Twitter, Facebook and Google facing a barrage of awkward questions from US lawmakers as part of a congressional investigation probing manipulation of the 2016 US presidential election.
A UK parliamentary committee is also currently investigating the issue of fake news, and the MP leading that probe recently wrote to Facebook and Twitter to ask them to provide data about activity on their platforms around the Brexit vote.
And while it’s great that tech platforms finally appear to be waking up to the disinformation problem their technology has been enabling, in the case of these two major political events — Brexit and the 2016 US election — any action they have since taken to try to mitigate bot-fueled disinformation obviously comes too late.
While citizens in the US and the UK are left to live with the results of votes that appear to have been directly influenced by Russian agents using US tech tools.
Today, Ciaran Martin, the CEO of the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) — a branch of domestic security agency GCHQ — made public comments stating that Russian cyber operatives have attacked the UK’s media, telecommunications and energy sectors over the past year.
This follow public remarks by the UK prime minister Theresa May yesterday, who directly accused Russia’s Vladimir Putin of seeking to “weaponize information” and plant fake stories.
The NCSC is “actively engaging with international partners, industry and civil society” to tackle the threat from Russia, added Martin (via Reuters).
Asked for a view on whether governments should now be considering regulating bots if they are actively being used to drive social division, Paul Bernal, a lecturer in information technology at the University of East Anglia, suggested top down regulation may be inevitable.
“I’ve been thinking about that exact question. In the end, I think we may need to,” he told TechCrunch. “Twitter needs to find a way to label bots as bots — but that means they have to identify them first, and that’s not as easy as it seems.
“I’m wondering if you could have an ID on twitter that’s a bot some of the time and human some of the time. The troll farms get different people to operate an ID at different times — would those be covered? In the end, if Twitter doesn’t find a solution themselves, I suspect regulation will happen anyway.”Featured Image: nevodka / iStock Editorial / Getty Images Plus
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November 15, 2017 at 11:52AM
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