An investigation by The Sunday Times reports that Russia attempted to influence the result of last year’s general election through the use of Twitter bots.
The investigation, which was made in conjunction with Swansea University, found that 6,500 fake Twitter accounts had been tweeting messages of support for Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn in the run-up to the election.
The report said that the bots were masquerading under female English names — but their first language was listed as Russian. 80% of these automated accounts had been set up in the weeks before the snap election.
Nine out of 10 messages the accounts sent about Corbyn were promoting the Labour campaign, the research found, while eight out of 10 messages regarding Theresa May and the Conservative campaign were hostile.
Russia has previously been accused of interfering in the 2016 US election, but this is the first time its influence in the UK’s election has been documented.
Digital and culture secretary Matt Hancock called on Twitter to reveal the scale of the problem and to enforce preventative measures. “These new revelations are extremely concerning,” Hancock said. “It is absolutely unacceptable for any nation to attempt to interfere in the democratic elections of another country. The social media companies need to act to safeguard our democratic discourse and reveal what they know.”
In response to the Times’ story, a Labour spokesperson said: “Labour’s proposed crackdown on tax dodging, failed privatisation and corrupt oligarchs is opposed by both May and Putin’s conservative philosophy and their super-rich supporters.”
“The Labour Party’s people-powered election campaign attracted huge levels of public support online. We were not aware of any from automated bots, categorically did not pay for any and are not aware of any of our supporters doing so.”
It’s worth noting that it’s impossible to know how much of an influence these bots had on the outcome of the election.
Professor Oleksandr Talavera, the Swansea University economist who collected the data, said: “The samples provide evidence that Russian-language bots were used deliberately to try to influence the election in favour of Labour and against the Conservatives.
“The data represents just a small random sample and therefore the Russian-language automated bot behaviour we have observed is likely to be only the tip of the iceberg of their general election operation.”