Far-right Twitter accounts apparently originating in the U.S. amplified pro-Brexit propaganda between December and February, according to research published Tuesday by F-Secure, a Finnish cybersecurity company.
An analysis of 24 million tweets related to Brexit from 1.65 million users uncovered “inorganic” activity on both sides of the debate, though disinformation was “far more” frequent in among supporters of the United Kingdom’s scheduled withdrawal from the European Union.
“At the very least, our research shows there’s a global effort amongst the far-right to amplify the ‘leave’ side of the debate,” Andy Patel, a senior researcher with F-Secure’s Artificial Intelligence Center of Excellence, said in a statement Tuesday.
Researchers determined that several separate accounts retweeted messages from @Brexiteer30, @UnityNewsNet and @JackBMontgomery, an editor with the alt-right Breitbart News.
Nearly 6,000 accounts magnified messages from those three far-right accounts, F-Secure found. Many of those pages also included some version of #MakeAmericaGreatAgain or #MAGA in their biography, and had listed a U.S. city as their location. Other tweets focused on the populist Yellow Vests 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,” Patel said. “And inorganic activity, in relation to political movements and events, can sometimes be indicative of the … the spread of disinformation.”
Typical messages examined during the timeframe in question included posts criticizing credible media outlets, accusations that immigrants were killing house pets, and graphic images of violent protests.
Researchers didn’t directly blame bots for magnifying divisive political commentary in this case. But the findings were published less than a week after a panel of experts including Del Harvey, Twitter’s vice president for trust and safety, said automated accounts frequently promote messages that begin with legitimate users. The company, like Facebook, tracks a range of user behaviors, including their location, the accounts with which they interact more frequently and whether they post often about hot-button issues, when calculating whether an account is real.
The nuance required in such a decision makes it difficult to know whether an account is engaged in astroturfing, or spreading disinformation that appears to come from an organic grassroots effort.
“From analysis of the ‘leave’ and “remain’ communities obtained by graph analysis, it seems clear to us that the remain-centric group looks quite organic, whilst the leave-centric group are being bolstered by non-U.K. far-right Twitter accounts,” F-Secure researchers wrote. “Leave users also utilize a number of ‘non-authoritative’ news sources to spread their messages. Given that we also observed a subset of leave accounts performing amplification of political content related to French and US politics, we wouldn’t be surprised if coordinated astroturfing activity is being used to amplify pro-Brexit sentiment.”