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From Russia With Likes: Nigel Farage Dominates Social Media During General Election – Boosted by Bots Stoking Racism

The Reform Party is hovering around 18% of the vote, yet Farage’s and his party’s Facebook posts generated six times more reactions and shares than either Labour or the Conservatives and their leaders

Reform leader Nigel Farage pictured at a rally at Rainton Arena, Houghton-le-Spring on 27 June. Photo: Jill ODonnell / Alamy
Reform leader Nigel Farage pictured at a rally at Rainton Arena, Houghton-le-Spring on 27 June. Photo: Jill ODonnell / Alamy

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New analysis from the Independent that shows Nigel Farage and his Reform Party have “made the biggest splash on social media of any political party or politician this election” must be considered alongside Farage’s past history of relying on inauthentic accounts and Russian backed ‘information operations’ to boost his apparent support.

The Independent analysed Farage and Reform content on Facebook from 22 May to 2 July 2024, and discovered that the new party, which is actually a privately owned company funded by rich businessmen, generated three million reactions and shares on Facebook in that period, six times more than either the Labour Party or Conservative Party or their leaders. 

The Reform Party is hovering around 18% of the vote on current opinion polls. They have, at best, a fifth of the population supporting them compared with other parties, yet have three times as much Facebook impact as their opponents combined. Something is going on. 

The Reform Party explain this as a grassroots insurgency or rebellion. But those grass roots are laced with AstroTurf apparently boosted by a foreign hostile power. An analysis of  “foreign interference in the UK election” by the Australian Broadcast Corporation found five apparently UK-based Facebook pages, supporting ‘Patriotic UK’ to ‘BeyondBorders UK’, – ‘Commonsense Britain’, ‘British Patriots’ and ‘BritBlend’ – were run by administrators mostly based in Nigeria and with Facebook ads paid for using Nigerian currency. 

Following on from analysis by ITV and Cardiff University that suspicious accounts ‘with Nigerian following’ being used to push pro-Reform UK content on TikTok, ABC’s security experts concluded that the Facebook networks they had detected “had the hallmarks of a Russian influence operation”.

These pages have been subsequently deleted, just hours before Byline Times downloaded some of their content, but what were the main angles of these Kremlin-sponsored posts during a crucial general election?  

The Politics of Farage and Reform is No Joke of a Matter – The Established Media Must Learn Its Lessons and Start Holding Them to Account

The normalisation of racism and dog-whistles will only get worse if the press continues to treat Farage as an entertaining figure representing the ‘real views’ of the British people – it must stop, writes Byline Times’ Editor

The Reform Party Powered by Racism

While several dozen Reform Party parliamentary candidates have been exposed expressing racist views, and several have been dropped from the party as a result, the party founders Richard Tice and Farage consistently deny supporting racist views and publicly decry any expression of them. 

However, just as Farage’s Leave EU campaign did eight years ago, the party whose main point is the ‘breaking point’ of immigration, does little to distance itself from the xenophobia that flows from anti-immigrant feeling, or the racism towards British citizens that also follows. For example this, from the now deleted Patriotic UK pages:

The Great Replacement Theory it refers to – the idea that global elites are deliberately trying to replace ‘white’ populations with immigrants – is here directly tied into the impressive racial diversity in British politics. None of these four political leaders are immigrants. 

The more direct racism focuses on Muslims, portraying them (as sadly echoed by senior Conservative politicians) as radical extremists infiltrating Europe for the purposes of terror. This is exactly the ‘Eurabia’ rhetoric which inspired Anders Breivik to murder 77 people in Norway in 2011, and Brenton Tarrant to kill 51 Muslims in the Christchurch mosque shootings in 2019. 

When it comes to the UK and the General Election, these Russian-backed networks are full of false claims and statistics designed to cause communal conflict. 

Both Lee Anderson, the former Conservative Party chairman who defected to Reform, and its leader Farage are portrayed as heroes in the fight against the “invasion”.

Though this is only a small sample of the posts Byline Times downloaded from two of the now-deleted Facebook accounts, and they are not official posts shared by Reform or Farage, they represent a deep undercurrent of Kremlin backed racism and hatred the insurgent party are benefitting from. And it’s not the first time this has happened.

The ‘Spiral of Silence’ and the Rise of the Bots

Explained: How malicious bots and other automated programmes are used to spread misinformation – and how widespread they are

Reform on X 

In 2019, Channel 4 News revealed how Farage’s Leave EU campaign faked inflammatory photos of sexual attacks and staged videos about migrants. We dug deeper and found even more racist propaganda sourced from Kremlin-backed sources. 

Four weeks before the referendum vote in June 2016, one of Leave EU’s most popular posts was a video called ‘Worrying Scenes in Europe’, mainly based on clips from RT.

One disturbing sequence in the video was all Leave EU’s creation. It apparently showed a sexual assault by dozens of men (alleged to be refugees) in Germany. But, the clip was actually of an assault that took place in Tahrir Square in Egypt in 2013.

There’s little doubt that Leave EU knew the source of the content and deliberately doctored it to make it a  ‘disturbing scene’ from Europe rather than Egypt.

The Leave EU/RT video had been viewed 1.4 million times by 2019 and was still available on its Facebook page, which was then devoted to promoting Farage’s Brexit party. The video is still available on X/Twitter

Since Vladimir Putin’s full invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the banning of RT in the UK, and questions about Farage’s support for the Kremlin, Reform social media has been more circumspect in directly quoting Kremlin propaganda. 

However, the boosting of Reform-backed accounts is still detectable leading to skewed results that bear little relation to the actual popularity of the Reform Party in the last days of the General Election.

Though the figures are probably vastly inflated given the unreliability of Twitter/X since its takeover by Elon Musk, the relative reach of Reform videos detected by the Independent is still startling. 

Global Witness detected a small group of X accounts engaging in bot-like behaviour which, “posted more than 60,000 tweets since the general election was announced” and are estimated to have been seen “a staggering 150 million times”.

It is not clear if these particular networks are paid for, or connected to any foreign Governments. But the answer could be both. Global Witness concluded: “Accounts like these threaten our democracies by drowning out the voices of real voters and subverting the conversation. 

“It takes time and money to set up fake accounts, programme them to amplify particular topics and give them at least a bit of original content to tweet alongside all their re-tweets. When done at scale, these are the sort of operations that have been carried out by foreign governments.” 

GenZBloomer posted hundreds of times about Reform UK on X. Photo: BBC

Marianna Spring, the BBC’s Disinformation and Social Media Correspondent, investigated an account, GenZbloomer, that posted messages “Vote Reform UK”, and “Only Reform UK has a real plan for Britain” – every couple of hours after the start of the election campaign. GenZbloomer refused to identify themselves properly and was soon suspended by X.

Spring went on to identify over 50 other suspicious accounts that were posting hundreds of messages in comment threads across X, Instagram, Facebook and TikTok “expressing support for Reform UK”.

A Reform spokesperson told the BBC they were “delighted about the organic growth of online support” and dismissed the idea that foreign troll farms could sway voters. 

However, just as in dope testing in sports, athletes are punished for using performance-enhancing drugs whether they excel or not, the criteria for stopping foreign or undeclared campaigning in UK elections shouldn’t be judged solely on the metric of success – especially when stoking racism and domestic conflict is part of their aim.

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