Reports: Russians used Twitter to influence Brexit referendum

Russian-linked Twitter accounts that targeted the U.S. presidential election have also been linked to attempts to influence the Brexit referendum last year, according to two new media reports.

CNN and Wired reported that Twitter posts linked to Russia tried to influence the Brexit referendum vote last year. Image by PiXXart/Shutterstock.
CNN and Wired reported that Twitter posts linked to Russia tried to influence the Brexit referendum vote last year. Image by PiXXart/Shutterstock.

In a CNN analysis, the tweets mocked the pro-European Union campaign’s warnings of Brexit consequences and targeted then-British prime minister David Cameron, who wanted his country to remain in the European Union in the 2016 referendum. The messages came with hashtags #EUref, #BrexitInOut, #BritainInOut, and #BrexitOrNot.

On the day of the referendum on June 23, one account that was designed to look like it was run by someone from Germany tweeted up to 20 times in one hour.

In a separate report, Wired found Twitter accounts that promoted racial divisiveness in Britain and elsewhere in Europe. Wired found 139 tweets from 29 accounts with hashtags related to the Brexit vote that included pictures of London Mayor Sadiq Kahn, anti-Muslim language around European terror attacks and racial slurs against refugees.

In the CNN report, one image showed Cameron leaving the European Union, with a speech bubble that read, “They actually believe the scaremongering crap we’ve been putting out?”

In another image, a woman appears next to a broken down car with the message, “If you Brexit. Your car won’t start in the morning.”

“If you get enough accounts at the same time pushing the same content you can game the system and make it look like these things trended organically,” Jonathon Morgan, the founder of New Knowledge, a company that tracks the spread of misinformation online told CNN. He previously advised the White House and State Department during President Barack Obama’s administration.

Researcher Clare Llewellyn and professor Laura Cram of the Neuropolitics Lab at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland told CNN that they found 38 of the accounts Twitter provided to U.S. Congress tweeted using hashtags related to the U.K. referendum on the day of the vote.

The tweets reported by Wired were provided by U.S. security startup New Knowledge as part of a larger cache of information examining extremism online.

Wired said its Twitter information came from data given to Congress. It said they were followed by 268,643 people and some posts were retweeted hundreds of times. They deal with the U.S. presidential election as well as European matters.

Britain’s parliamentary is doing its own investigation into Russian interference in the Brexit vote. Twitter and Facebook have been asked to submit evidence of accounts directly related to the EU referendum and 2017’s general election.

“I think it shows that Russian-controlled accounts have been politically active in the UK as well as America,” said Damian Collins, the leader of the parliamentary inquiry into fake news. “This could just be the tip of the iceberg because we’ve only really just started looking and doing a proper detailed study of what accounts linked to Russian organisations have been doing politically.”

Twitter declined to comment on specific accounts but said it “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.”

By Allen Cone