Far-right Twitter accounts amplified pro-Brexit views, study finds

Accounts that shared tweets from Brexit supporters also displayed "suspicious" activity.

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Queenie Wong was a senior writer for CNET News, focusing on social media companies including Facebook's parent company Meta, Twitter and TikTok. Before joining CNET, she worked for The Mercury News in San Jose and the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon. A native of Southern California, she took her first journalism class in middle school.
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Queenie Wong
3 min read

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Far-right Twitter users who appeared to be from the US helped spread tweets from accounts that support Britain's controversial decision to leave the European Union, a process known as Brexit.

The findings were part of a study released Tuesday by Finnish cybersecurity company F-Secure, which analyzed 24 million tweets about Brexit from 1.65 million users between Dec. 4 and Feb. 13, 2019. 

Users who shared tweets from pro-Brexit accounts displayed suspicious behavior that signaled to the researchers that the "inorganic" Twitter activity might be coming from fake accounts or bots. Researchers stopped short of concluding it was part of an astroturfing campaign -- an attempt to make it seem like the social media activity is coming from a grassroots movement -- to manipulate the political climate around Brexit. 

"Inorganic activity, in relation to political movements and events, can sometimes be indicative of astroturfing, or the spread of disinformation," Andy Patel, a senior researcher with F-Secure's Artificial Intelligence Center of Excellence, said in a statement. "At the very least, our research shows there's a global effort amongst the far-right to amplify the 'leave' side of the debate."

Tech companies, including Twitter, Facebook and Google , have been under mounting pressure to do more to stop the spread of disinformation especially in the wake of the 2016 US presidential election. Twitter saw its monthly active users fall from 326 million to 321 million in the fourth quarter and partly blamed the drop on its crackdown of automated accounts. Last week, Facebook pulled down 137 accounts, pages and groups from the UK that misrepresented their identities and were used to spread hate speech and divisive political comments. 

Twitter didn't immediately have a response to the study. 

While researchers also spotted suspicious activity tied to Twitter accounts that were against Britain's withdrawal from the European Union, they found the behavior was "more pronounced" among Brexit supporters. Accounts that post a high volume of tweets, develop a huge following in a short time or have a similar number of followers and friends may be automated or part of a disinformation campaign, but it's hard to know for sure. 

On Dec. 20, researchers examined accounts that were retweeting tweets from the pro-Brexit accounts brexiteer30, jackbmontgomery, unitynewsnet and stop_the_eu. The 5,876 accounts that amplified the pro-Brexit tweets also had connections to pro-Trump accounts Education4Libs, AmyMek and MrWyattEarpLA, which has been suspended. Many of the accounts that helped spread the pro-Brexit tweets included the hashtag for Make America Great Again, a political slogan used by Donald Trump during his presidential campaign and by his supporters, according to the study. The accounts identified as American or had US cities and states listed as their location. 

Pro-Brexit Twitter users also tweeted about other hot-button political issues in other parts of the world, including the "yellow vests" movement in France, that have sparked violent protests against rising fuel prices and the high cost of living in the country. They also shared links from "nonauthoritative" news sites such as UnityNewsNet, AltNewsMedia and UK_ElectionNews, according to the study. 

"It's clear that an internationally coordinated collective of far-right activists are promoting content on Twitter (and likely other social networks) in order to steer discussions and amplify sentiment and opinion towards their own goals, Brexit being one of them," the study stated.

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