Twitter says Russian accounts tried to influence Brexit vote

The company reveals its discovery at a UK Parliament hearing held in the US. Representatives from Facebook and Google are also there.

Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Katie Collins
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It wasn't just the US election. The Brexit vote also attracted Russian interest, Twitter says.

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After previously denying the problem, Twitter said Thursday that a small number of Russian-linked accounts tried to influence the 2016 Brexit referendum. The information was disclosed by Nick Pickles, Twitter's UK head of public policy and philanthropy, at a UK House of Commons public hearing held in Washington, DC.

The company discovered that 49 accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency, a known source of Russian misinformation, collectively posted 942 tweets during the referendum campaign, said Pickles. These tweets cumulatively were retweeted 461 times and were liked 637 times, he said.

Representatives for Google, Facebook and Twitter and 11 British politicians convened in DC on Thursday to discuss the issue of fake news during the 2016 Brexit referendum and the 2017 general election.

The public hearing was the first ever House of Commons select committee meeting to be livestreamed from outside the UK. The 11 Members of Parliament who form the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee spent the morning questioning executives from the three companies in turn, focusing mainly on the issue of fake news but also covering topics as wide ranging as diversity in their workforces, the addictive quality of social media and the spread of child abuse imagery.

The growth of fake news on social media platforms was a trending topic throughout 2017, as multiple investigations turned up Russia-linked ads that were circulated in connection with the 2016 US presidential election campaign. Twitter said only last month that Russian propaganda on the platform was much more widespread than previously thought. British politicians seeking to establish whether similar activity occurred around the Brexit referendum campaign launched their own inquiry. The DC evidence session on Thursday will feed into their conclusion.

As part of the inquiry, committee chair Damian Collins asked Facebook and Twitter in late 2017 to conduct investigations into Russia-linked accounts around the referendum. The figures given by Pickles at the hearing were the result of Twitter's investigation. The numbers might seem small, but Twitter had previously denied that any Russia-backed accounts had been posting about Brexit on the platform.

Earlier in the day, Facebook's policy director for the UK, Simon Milner, promised the committee the findings of his own company's investigation by the end of the month. Juniper Downs, global head of public policy for YouTube, said Google hadn't discovered any Russian-backed ads relating to Brexit on its video platform, but that it would also be willing to conduct its own investigation for the committee.

Representatives from all three companies reiterated throughout the day that fake news was bad for their platforms, and denied profiting from it. They said they were committed to fighting it and were using a combination of manual and automated systems to do so.

Monika Bickert, head of global policy management for Facebook, revealed that the company is testing a number of new features to help users identify fake news themselves. These include recommending further articles based on what users are reading so they can fact-check against mainstream news sources, and looking at new ways of incorporating brand logos to help people more easily identify trustworthy news sources.

Facebook is also currently testing using context as a way to inform people about their news source. When people see an article from a news source, they can click on a little icon to see info about the source from across the internet.

The committee is expected to hold several further evidence sessions when it arrives back in the UK, before publishing a final report later in the year.

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