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Tue 15 October 2019
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The same online forces supporting the policies of US President Donald Trump are also bolstering those of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, according to an expert examining propaganda on social media.


Tens of thousands of Twitter bots and/or trolls are pushing the Prime Minister’s ‘no deal’ Brexit message on the social media platform, according to an analysis of his followers.

From Russian interference to the unlawfulness of the leave campaigns, research suggests that there could be multiple actors interested in seeing the UK crash out of the EU without a deal.

If we assume that the UK public sphere is already compromised, then our current knowledge of online influence is likely to be the tip of the misinformation iceberg.

Around 23% of retweets were from pro-Trump accounts, a disproportionately high number.

Trying to make sense of this online environment is Doha-based Marc Owen Jones, Assistant Professor in Middle East Studies and Digital Humanities at Hamad Bin Khalifa University, whose research topics include information controls, digital authoritarianism and human rights.

Jones uses data techniques to examine propaganda on social media, the role of Twitter bots and strategies of informational control used by state and non-state actors.


MAGA and ‘No Deal’

In a two-part analysis, Jones examined a tweet by Boris Johnson that read: “The referendum result must be respected. We will leave the EU on 31st October. #LeaveOct31”.

The Prime Minister tweeted this twice – on 15 August 2019 and 27 August 2019. Between the two there were a total of around 20,000 retweets. 

Jones said he was initially interested in the amount of bots who had retweeted the tweet, but his search found a huge volume of pro-Trump #MAGA (Make America Great Again) accounts.

Out of the more than 12,000 individual accounts analysed, nearly four times as many accounts contained the words MAGA or Trump-related terms compared to Brexit in their bios, and 8% of all Johnson’s retweets were from MAGA accounts.

“If we assume that all the accounts retweeting Johnson’s tweets are authentic, then the most cohesive community among them are those that identify with supporting Donald Trump,” Jones said.

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Jones was not convinced that global populism has created a real commonality of interests on the right. “If we make another assumption, that many of the accounts are inorganic trolls, then it probably makes more sense.”

A further analysis of the #Leave31 also found that the strongest community using that hashtag identify with MAGA. In addition, Jones has found that MAGA accounts, in addition to being suspiciously high in volume, are also the most active. 

Other tropes common amongst the MAGA community are that they are consistently anti-Corbyn, anti-Islam, often self-described ‘patriots’, or veterans, pro-Israel and anti-fascists.

But, pro-Trump accounts are not just retweeting Johnson’s message, they’re lurking amongst his followers.


‘Project Fear Popcorn Voyeurs’

Around 53,000 of Johnson’s 900,000 followers joined Twitter in July and August this year – about 6%. 

Jones explained that there was a gradual increase in new Twitter users during the period preceding Johnson’s campaign to be Prime Minister and after he announced he would run in May.

However, there was a large jump in new users joining Twitter on the day and the day before he announced that Britain would leave the EU by 31 October, with or without a deal.

Jones said the spike could be explained by “Project Fear popcorn voyeurs” – or something more nefarious. That, once Johnson committed to a ‘no deal’ Brexit, supporters of a hard Brexit mobilised their disinformation campaign to increase Johnson’s following and promote his #LeaveOct31.

If around 8% of Johnson’s retweets were from MAGA accounts, how many of these are amongst his followers? Jones found 14,000 accounts that were pro-Trump, or 3%. He explained that the small amount is what makes the findings interesting. Around 23% of retweets were from pro-Trump accounts, a disproportionately high number.

”Johnson’s ‘no deal’ messages and #LeaveOct31 tweets are essentially a honey pot for suspiciously right-wing pro-Trump accounts,” according to Jones.

He believes that the common problem in the diagnosis of trolls and bots is that this is inherently politicised. 

Research by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab of more than 10 million tweets posted by accounts between 2013 and 2018 found that troll operations put their own governments first, had multiple goals, were highly targeted, highly polarising and opportunistic. 

“Troll networks may have characteristic signatures that suggest they are connected, but what if an agency is behind them with different clients over time, then there might be contradictory messages being sent if they are just mercenaries?” Jones said.

He added: “You could be an alt-right group in Europe hoping for a global right resurgence, or you could be a government trying to engage in the sabotage of international relations.” 


Problems of Identity

It is unlikely that the actor behind such networks can be found, unless someone reveals personal information online or in the metadata, according to Jones. “Any goon with cash and a personal interest could pay for a bot or troll network,” he said.

Jones argues that potential Western narratives of interference do not get the same media coverage as other state actors.

“It could be a US entity,” he said. “But there are so many actors potentially interested in an isolated and desperate UK. For example, some Gulf regimes would benefit from arms imports with less restrictions.”

Last July, Twitter began removing tens of millions of fake and suspicious accounts from its platform’s follower counts in an effort to clean up the site

“With our focus on reviewing this type of content, we’ve also expanded our teams in key areas and geographies so we can stay ahead and work quickly to keep people safe,” a spokesperson said.

However, Jones described how bots and networks can adapt to algorithm changes and that there appears to be bias in Twitter’s content moderation in specific languages.

“It is political in the sense that Twitter tends to only announce culls in trolls when there is political pressure,” he said. “They tend to be quite secretive. We need to know more about Twitter’s country level arrangements with specific states – to see if there are caveats in what kind of content they allow or disallow.”

Fact-checking charity Full Fact has recently called for emergency stop gap legislation to be introduced before any new general election or referendum is held to help tackle misinformation online, including a protocol for warning the public when major interference is detected. Similar requests have been made by the elections watchdog.

Jones believes that the allegations against the leave campaigns during the 2016 EU Referendum, and the growing knowledge of online influence campaigns, point to a new battleground in influence. 

“We know enough now to assume that this type of behaviour is par for the course,” he added. “It is sad so little is being done about it.”

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