Study casts doubt about Russian interference in Brexit referendum

Social media study by Oxford Internet Institute finds little evidence of Twitter campaign

 British foreign secretary Boris Johnson beside a   Leave Vote bus in the build-up to last year’s Brexit referendum. Photograph:  Matt Cardy/Getty Images

British foreign secretary Boris Johnson beside a Leave Vote bus in the build-up to last year’s Brexit referendum. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images


An academic study set to be released on Tuesday casts doubt on speculation that Russia might have exploited social media to try to influence Britain’s 2016 referendum to leave the European Union.

Academics, lawmakers and journalists have raised the possibility that Russian entities might have used social media around the time of the Brexit referendum just as the Kremlin was aggressively exploiting Facebook, Twitter and other platforms to try to influence the US presidential election.

Members of Parliament have asked the social media companies for information, fearing that Russia might have tried to undermine confidence in British and European institutions, as it did in the United States. Weakening or dividing the European Union has long been a priority for Russia, so its use of similar social media tactics to sow discord has been widely presumed.

But the study, from the Oxford Internet Institute, indicates that evidence is scarce, even taking into account the patterns already disclosed in the United States. The study examined nearly 3,000 Twitter accounts previously linked to Russia by the company’s disclosures in Washington or by news reports and academic researchers.

Examining two weeks of tweets in June 2016, shortly before the June 23rd referendum, the study found that only 84 of the identified Russian accounts posted about the referendum, and they generated only 6,734 tweets or retweets. As a result, “we again found little evidence of Russian content”, the authors wrote.

Twitter as proxy

Researchers use Twitter as a proxy for other social media because its content is more easily accessed, searched and archived than the content of other platforms, such as Facebook. Last week, Facebook said in response to a parliamentary committee examining the question that the company had also found no evidence of significant Russian advertising on its platform around Brexit, although the details of the company’s internal inquiry were not disclosed.

Twitter, in a separate response to the same committee, said it had examined accounts “previously identified as likely funded from Russian sources”. The company said it found only one of those accounts that promoted content about Brexit in the two months before the referendum: the Twitter account of Russia’s English-language news network, Russia Today. The account (@RT_com) spent $44,616 (€37,800) on advertising to users in Britain, and only $1,032 of that in the two months before the referendum.

It could not be determined if Russia had used other, not-yet-identified accounts to seek to influence the vote. Damian Collins, a Conservative who is leading the parliamentary committee’s inquiry, called the company’s response “completely inadequate”.

In a letter to the company, Mr Collins noted on December 13th that he had requested a list of accounts tied to the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency “and any other Russian linked accounts that it has removed and examples of any posts from these accounts that are linked to the United Kingdom”.

“The questions I have asked your company are far wider in scope than the response provided to me,” Mr Collins wrote. – New York Times