Far-right political groups have been using fake accounts and co-ordinated behaviour on Twitter to amplify pro-Leave views, according to new research.
In a study examining Brexit-related activity on Twitter, researchers from cyber security firm F-Secure identified fake accounts had been attempting to influence both sides of the debate.
However, the firm found that astroturfing – the practice of faking grassroots support for a cause or subject – was “far more prominent in Leave conversations” than on Remain’s side.
They found this by examining tweets made between 4 December 2018 and 13 February 2019, well after the referendum, but during a critical time of parliamentary debate.
Their work noted that the goal of the astroturfing was to “amplify right-wing populist views around Brexit and other political issues, such as the Yellow Vest protests in France”.
“The activity we found happening on the Leave side of the Brexit conversation was quite different from the more organic appearance seen in the Remain conversation,” said Andy Patel, a senior researcher with F-Secure.
“And inorganic activity, in relation to political movements and events, can sometimes be indicative of astroturfing or the spread of disinformation,” added Mr Patel.
“At the very least, our research shows there’s a global effort amongst the far-right to amplify the ‘Leave’ side of the debate.”
A large part of the work by F-Secure has been to establish new ways of identifying fake accounts, especially ones which consistently push pro-Leave, anti-Muslim, and US-related right-wing content.
In February 2018, the US filed charged against 13 employees of a Russian troll factory and accused them attempting of attempting to interfere with the 2016 presidential election.
It found that the troll factory had been conducting disinformation operations across all of the major social media platforms, including YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
While the indictment remains the premier legal document regarding fake accounts on social media, little information is publicly available on platforms other than Twitter, as they do not allow researchers to access them.
Finnish firm F-Secure analysed 24 million tweets which included the word “Brexit” for “evidence of botnets, disinformation campaigns, astroturfing, or other inorganic phenomenon”.
“Social networks generate huge volumes of data. Finding noteworthy trends and phenomena in this data can be complicated, resource-intensive work,” explained Mr Patel.
“But social media is an important source of news and information that many people are still learning how to use.
We really hope people see this research, see how much more there is to learn, and start building on our methods to create new, better understandings of what happens on social media.”