INSIGHT INVESTIGATION: How Russian bots invaded Twitter to fight in Jeremy Corbyn’s army.
[Posted by Lara Keller, 7/5/18]
[Original Source = https://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/news/invasion-of-the-russian-twitter-bots-to-fight-in-jeremy-corbyns-army-78966pjrk]
[Note= The Sunday Times is a conservative UK newspaper, and like the rest of the right wing press in the UK it does consistently and strongly criticize the radical left Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn (or indeed any Labour leader). There is a history of press attacks on the Labour party going back to the infamous “Zinoviev Letter” and the “Daily Mail” in 1924. A politically tribal response to rejecting all attacks on Corbyn by the right wing press is irresponsible. Corbyn appears to have spent decades attacking Nato and promoting polices favorable to nominally left-wing dictatorships abroad. This gives Putin a strong incentive to encourage a Corbyn lead Labour Government in the UK. Any information about this will inevitably only appear in the right wing press. Clement Atlee lead a transformative Labour Government in the UK in 1945, but he also ensured the UK responded to the hostile threat of the Soviet Union. There are good reasons to question Jeremy Corbyn’s motives and backers. This article may help, and so it is available here. LK 7/5/18]
It was a stunning election comeback by Labour — but there were Russians in its ranks, reports “Insight”, April 29 2018, 12:01am, The Sunday Times.
It was the moment that brought a tear to the eye of the prime minister. At 10pm on June 8, 2017, a shock exit poll revealed that Theresa May’s seemingly well-judged gamble of bolstering her majority with a snap general election had backfired.
The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, had defied expectations. When the campaign began there had been a widespread belief that he was unelectable and his demise would be swift following the inevitable Conservative landslide.
But the campaign changed that: Corbyn lifted Labour support from 25% to 40%. The party’s gains cemented the most unlikely political transformation in decades, elevating Corbyn to a serious contender whose name would be sung with cult-like reverence when he appeared on stage at the Glastonbury festival a fortnight later.
The causes of the result are still being debated. Was it the galvanisation of the youth vote, did May run a lacklustre campaign or were the polls wrong from the beginning?
One question has been largely overlooked, until now. Did Moscow attempt to influence the British general election by using social media in the same way that it tried to boost the fortunes of Donald Trump during the 2016 American elections?
A ground-breaking investigation by The Sunday Times in conjunction with Swansea University has found the first strong evidence that large numbers of mechanised Russian social media accounts attempted to influence the result during the seven-week campaign.
Our research suggests there was an orchestrated attempt to propel Corbyn into Downing Street by bombarding the public with positive messages in support of Labour, using Twitter accounts that were mostly created after the election was suggested early last year.
At the same time, the Russian accounts identified in our research disseminated a deluge of negative propaganda against Labour’s main rival, the Conservatives. Comments such as “The Tories are literally killing our children” were retweeted by mechanised Russian accounts using fake English-sounding women’s names.
Professor Oleksandr Talavera, the Swansea University economist who collected the data, said: “The samples provide evidence that Russian language bots were used deliberately to try to influence the election in favour of Labour and against the Conservatives.
“The data represents just a small random sample and therefore the Russian-language automated bot behaviour we have observed is likely to be only the tip of the iceberg of their general election operation.”
Our research centred on millions of election tweets collected by Swansea University during the campaign. We narrowed them down to a sample of 20,000 tweets from accounts using Russian language or Russian place names that were posted in the four weeks leading up to the election. We employed a team of researchers to read each one to assess whether they were positive or negative for the main political parties.
We discovered that many of the messages were retweets sent by thousands of mechanised Twitter accounts — commonly known as bots. Most of the 6,500 Russian accounts supporting Labour were bots. They were typically created in huge batches at similar times in the lead-up to the election and were later suspended by Twitter’s moderators or shut themselves down.
These accounts were often easy for our researchers to identify because they frequently hid behind 15-character user names that contained a mixture of numbers and letters in upper and lower case. On some occasions they retweeted the same message of support within seconds of each other.
The results were stark. Nine out of 10 of the messages that expressed an opinion on Labour were positive and conversely nine out of 10 which mentioned the Conservatives were negative. The interest in the other main political parties appeared minor.
The story of the Russian attempt to influence the election begins on March 6 last year, when William Hague, the former foreign secretary, set a hare running in the Conservative Party by suggesting that the prime minister should take advantage of Corbyn’s dwindling support by calling an early general election.
Over the next 24 hours an army of Russian bot accounts was created. They were uniformly western women’s names accompanied by alphanumeric usernames and, although the principal language for the accounts was Russian, many claimed they were in the Pacific time zone. They would later take an unusual interest in the British general election.
The next month, after the prime minister stood outside Downing Street to announce the election, there was a series of new spikes in the creation of bot accounts identified by our researchers.
Many older accounts were also reinvigorated. Two days after the election announcement, Nikola from Moscow retweeted Corbyn: “They’ve broken their promises for seven years. How can we believe a word they say over the next seven weeks?” And AlecMoooody from the US retweeted a message railing against Corbyn’s alleged censorship by the BBC using the hashtag “Corbyn4PM”.
In evidence to the US Congress, Twitter would later identify both those accounts as creations of the Internet Research Agency, a shadowy company in St Petersburg that employs hundreds of “trolls” to post Kremlin propaganda on social media. During the American elections the agency waged a campaign of messages supporting Donald Trump and disparaging Hillary Clinton.
The Russian bots identified by our researchers followed a similar pattern in the UK election. Over and over again, they amplified tweets that supported Labour and those that attacked the Conservatives, helping the spread of the messages to hundreds, thousands and possibly millions of people. Much of the propaganda centred on key events in the election. At the times when the bots spread positivity for Labour, they would also spread almost equal amounts of negativity for the Conservatives.
So when the Conservatives launched their election manifesto on May 18 the bots stepped up the output of pro-Labour tweets and were withering about the Tories. For example, “Gabrielle Wilson” retweeted a message criticising Theresa May because that “manifesto abandons older people & will do nothing to address inequality”.
On closer inspection, Wilson’s first language was Russian and her account had an alphanumeric Twitter username of 15 characters, @NR2AtERXvfDy0Nx, which was the hallmark of many of the bots identified in our research. Her account has been suspended by Twitter.
The Manchester terrorist attack four days later was another opportunity for the bots to engage in British politics. They retweeted Corbyn’s condolences to the victims’ families and in the following days, one, entitled simply “Denis”, repeated the Labour leader’s calls for May to resign over cuts in police numbers.
The Denis account was curious. It was written in Russian Cyrillic characters and while the name was a man’s, the main photo was of a blonde woman. It also contained several pornographic images and positive messages about Trump — again a common feature linking some of the bot networks.
As the campaign developed, so did the growing cult of personality surrounding Corbyn. Rallies around the country would see unusual surges of support as social media came alive with the news that the Labour leader was in town.
Labour claimed this support was “organic”. The more the public saw the man and heard his message, they argued, the more they liked him. That may well have been true but our research also shows he was given significant assistance by the bots from Russia.
They avidly retweeted his personal Twitter account and broadcast his movements around the UK. In early June, “Lillian Morgan” retweeted a message from the pro-Kremlin broadcaster Russia Today inviting people to watch Corbyn’s speech in Reading. The event drew comment in the newspapers because a surprisingly large crowd attended during a workday lunchtime.
On closer inspection, Morgan’s username was @sMzNFVr7wWkTW04, her account was created in Russian and it was suspended at some point after she had tweeted. She was a bot.
The same family of bots were quick to defend the Labour leader whenever he found himself in hot water. The day before the Reading rally, Corbyn was pilloried for a disastrous interview on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour when he appeared unsure about the cost of his plans to provide free childcare.
Within hours, the bots started to weigh in heavily on Corbyn’s behalf. “JeremyCorbyn deserves the #respect of the #media and fellow #politicians,” retweeted “Heather”, “Hayley” and “Noelle” a few hours later at exactly the same time.
In fact, in our sample there were 34 accounts with similar-sounding English female names who retweeted this identical message that day in two batches less than 10 minutes apart. All the women were Russian speakers and their accounts had come into existence over the course of two days in the fourth week of the election campaign. They also all contained the familiar 15-character alphanumeric username and would later vanish from the Twittersphere.
By election day, the bots were again engaged imploring Labour supporters to get out and vote. “Jessica Langdon” was up early retweeting a message from the Corbyn-supporting journalist Owen Jones that said: “The Tories think they’re going to win big. Ring your friends, talk to your workmates, talk to younger voters. Tick tock.”
Ben Nimmo, of the Atlantic Council’s digital forensic research lab, told this newspaper that the evidence suggested the bots has been used in “a dedicated effort” to influence the election.
“If you compare the rhetoric on Russia from Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May it’s pretty obvious which one’s the Kremlin’s going to prefer,” he said.
He added, however, that the effectiveness of the bots and the precise role, if any, of President Vladimir Putin’s government in this attempt were questions that remained. The election did, however, provide the most extraordinary result. Written off at the outset, Corbyn defied his doubters and increased Labour’s share of the vote by more than any other Labour leader since 1945.
- Labour won the social media war because more people shared its posts even though the Tories outspent them on Facebook adverts
- When terrorists struck in Manchester and London Bridge, it was assumed Theresa May would benefit but Jeremy Corbyn gained support by focusing on police cuts
- Corbyn made rallies a campaign priority — and gathered crowds of 1,000 people with a few tweets
- Student turnout helped Labour win key seats such as Canterbury
“INSIGHT” RESEARCH TEAM: George Arbuthnott, Jonathan Calvert, Krystina Shveda, Louis Goddard, Mary O’Connor, Katie Weston, Malik Ouzia, Rebecca Gualandi, Rosie Bradbury