Unless you have completely given up reading the news (and honestly, who could blame you at the moment?) you have probably heard about the critical Russia report, which dropped on Tuesday after months of delay.
The paper, which was written by parliament’s intelligence and security committee (ISC), found the UK government – and intelligence agencies – did not do enough to investigate or protect the UK from Russian interference in the 2016 EU referendum. (Yes, the report is a *big* deal.)
Among the accusations from MPs was that the UK was “clearly a target” for disinformation campaigns around its elections – including the referendum on Brexit – but that no organisation had stepped up to grab this “hot potato”.
The ISC has called on the government to create a new protocol with social media companies to bar from their platforms Russian “bots” intent on hostile state activity.
But transport secretary Grant Shapps doesn’t seem convinced.
The government has already rejected calls for an inquiry into the EU referendum, insisting there is “no evidence” of successful interference (though that’s mainly because no one looked for any).
But speaking on Wednesday, Shapps appeared to go even further – and suggest that Brits were simply too clever to fall for bots, Russian or otherwise.
He told BBC Radio 4′s Today programme: “We know that these bots exist. I think the British people were more intelligent than to fall for, sort of, social media...”
Unfortunately for Shapps (and his faith in the British public), researchers believe he is wrong.
A research collaboration between the University of Swansea and the University of California, Berkeley, in 2017 found: “Leavers were more likely to be influenced by bots compared to Remainers.
“These results suggest that dissemination of information is consistent with what is frequently referred to as an ‘echo chamber’ – a situation in which information, ideas, or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by communication and repetition inside a defined system, revealing that the outcome is that information is more fragmented rather than uniform across people.”
A paper by the same team considering the impact of bots’ tweets on the referendum and on the 2016 US presidential election found that “bots had a perhaps limited, but tangible effect on humans”. Overall, they wrote, “our results suggest that the aggressive use of Twitter bots, coupled with the fragmentation of social media and the role of sentiment, could contribute to the vote outcomes”.
Its authors also point to a “massive volume of ‘Russian’ tweets [about the referendum] created only a few days before the voting day,” that “reached its peak during the voting and result days, then dropped immediately afterwards”. They used the default profile language of the accounts to determine whether they might be of Russian origin, though pointed out these. were not necessarily all bots.
Tho Pham, one of the paper’s authors, told the Times that “the main conclusion is that bots were used on purpose and had influence”. The Times had revealed that Russian Twitter accounts – many of which are believed to be bots – had posted more than 45,000 messages in 48 hours during the EU referendum.
But that’s not all. In 2018, Bloomberg reported that a working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research estimated that Twitter bots added 1.76% to the pro-Leave vote share during the EU referendum.