Sunday, 8 April 2018

Discerning Truth in the Age of Ubiquitous Disinformation (4): Russian Involvement in the Referendum and the Impact of Social Media Misinformation on Voting Behaviour

Discerning Truth in the Age of Ubiquitous Disinformation (4)

Russian Involvement in the Referendum and the Impact of Social Media Misinformation on Voting Behaviour


Kalina Bontcheva (@kbontcheva)


In my previous blog posts I wrote about the 4Ps of the modern disinformation age: post-truth politics, online propaganda, polarised crowds,  and partisan media; and how we can combat online disinformation


The news is currently full of reports of Russian involvement in the referendum and the potential impact of social media misinformation on voting behaviour

A small scale experiment by the Guardian exposed 10 US voters (five on each side) to  alternative Facebook news feeds. Only one participant changed his mind as to how they would vote. Some found their confirmation bias too hard to overcome, while others became acutely aware of being the target of abuse, racism, and misogyny.  A few started empathising with voters holding opposing views. They also gained awareness of the fact that opposing views abound on Facebook, but the platform is filtering them out. 


Russian Involvement in the Referendum


We analysed the accounts that were identified by Twitter as being associated with Russia in front of the US Congress in the fall of 2017, and we also took the other 45 ones that we found with BuzzFeed. We looked at tweets posted by these accounts one month before the referendum, and we did not find an awful lot of activity when compared to the overall number of tweets on the referendum, i.e. both the Russia-linked ads and Twitter accounts did not have major influence. 

There were 3,200 tweets in our data sets coming from those accounts, and 800 of those—about 26%—came from the new 45 accounts that we identified. However, one important aspect that has to be mentioned is that those 45 new accounts were tweeting in German, so even though they are there, the likely impact of those 800 tweets on the British voter is, I would say, not very likely to have been significant.

The accounts that tweeted on 23 Jun were quite different from those that tweeted before or after, with virtually all tweets posted in German. Their behaviour is also very different - with mostly retweets on referendum day by a tight network of anti-Merkel accounts, often within seconds of each other. The findings are in line with those of Prof. Cram from the University of Edinburgh, as reported in the Guardian

Journalists from BuzzFeed UK and our Sheffield  team  used the re-tweet  network to identify another 45 suspicious accounts, subsequently suspended by Twitter. Amongst the 3,200 total tweets, 830 came from the 45 newly identified accounts (26%).  Similar to those identified by Twitter, the newly discovered accounts were largely ineffective in skewing public debate. They attracted very few likes and retweets – the most successful message in the sample got just 15 retweets.

An important distinction that needs to be made is between Russia-influenced accounts that used advertising on one hand, and the Russia-related bots found by Twitter and other researchers on the other. 

The Twitter sockpuppet/bot accounts generally pretended to be authentic people (mostly American, some German) and would not resort to advertising, but instead try to go viral or gain prominence through interactions. An example of one such successful account/cyborg is Jenn_Abrams. Here are some details on how the account duped mainstream media:

http://amp.thedailybeast.com/jenna-abrams-russias-clown-troll-princess-duped-the-mainstream-media-and-the-world 

“and illustrates how Russian talking points can seep into American mainstream media without even a single dollar spent on advertising.”

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/shortcuts/2017/nov/03/jenna-abrams-the-trump-loving-twitter-star-who-never-really-existed 

http://money.cnn.com/2017/11/17/media/new-jenna-abrams-account-twitter-russia/index.html 

A related question is the influence of Russia-sponsored media and its Twitter posts. Here we consider the Russia Today promoted tweets - the 3 pre-referendum ones attracted just 53 likes and 52 retweets between them.

We analysed all tweets posted one month before 23 June 2016, which are either authored by Russia Today or Sputnik, or are retweets of these. This gives an indication of how much activity and engagement there was around these accounts. To put these numbers in context, we also included the equivalent statistics for the two main pro-leave and pro-remain Twitter accounts:



Account
Original tweets
Retweeted by others
Retweets by this account
Replies by account
Total tweets
@RT_com -  General Russia Today
39
2,080 times
62
0
2,181
@RTUKnews
78
2,547 times
28
1
2,654
@SputnikInt
148
1,810 times
3
2
1,963
@SputnikNewsUK
87
206 times
8
4
305
TOTAL
352
6,643
101
7
7,103






@Vote_leave
2,313
231,243
1,399
11
234,966
@StrongerIn
2,462
132,201
910
7
135,580


We also analysed which accounts retweeted RT_com and RTUKnews the most in our dataset. The top one with 75 retweets of Russia Today tweets was a self-declared US-based account that retweets Alex Jones from infowars, RT_com, China Xynhua News, Al Jazeera, and an Iranian news account. This account (still live) joined in Feb 2009 and as of 15 December 2017 has 1.09 million tweets - this means an average of more than 300 tweets per day, indicating it is a highly automated account. It has more than 4k followers, but follows only 33 accounts. Two of the next most active retweeters are a deleted and a suspended account, as well as two accounts that both stopped tweeting on 18 Sep 2016. 

For the two Sputnik accounts, the top retweeter made 65 retweets. It declares itself as Ireland based; has 63.7k tweets and 19.6k likes; many self-authored tweets; last active on 2 May 2017; account created on May 2015; avg 87 tweets a day (which possibly indicates an automated account);. It also retweeted Russia Today 15 times. The next two Sputnik retweeters (61 and 59 retweets respectively) are accounts with high average post-per-day rate (350 and 1,000 respectively) and over 11k and 2k followers respectively. Lastly, four of the top 10 accounts have been suspended or deleted. 



Disclaimer: All views are my own.

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