It's long been suspected that Russia had attempted to influence the US presidential election last year, but since that possibility was looking more and more likely people started asking whether or not the same was attempted with Brexit. According to a report from Wired, it looks like they might have at least tried.
The report, which uses information from US security start-up New Knowledge, looked at the content posted by Russia-linked troll accounts, as part of the ongoing investigation into possible Russian meddling in the US election. It found that at least 139 tweets from 29 fake accounts backed the UK's exit from the EU, using a selection of Brexit related hashtags. They were also found to be stirring up Islamaphobic and anti-refugee sentiment, alongside some colourful racist language.
While 29 accounts might not seem like a lot, let alone 139 tweets, they had a combined following of 268,643 accounts, posting tweets that got shared hundreds of times. A lot of the tweets seemed to come after the referendum vote, however, meaning they couldn't have influenced the vote. It seems a bit strange that the tweets could come out so late, but if I were to speculate it could have been either a test run for the US election or an attempt to solidify the result in the minds the hardcore Brexit-enthusiasts.
A previous report from Buzzfeed tied 13,000 potential bots to anti-EU sentiment, but it isn't clear how many of those were actually tied to Russia. The New Knowledge information shouldn't be seen as a complete look at Pro-Brexit accounts with Russian ties either, since that was only ever intended as a snapshot of the whole situation. It's also worth mentioning that these bots were posting very US-centric content, and if Russia did have an active campaign to try and influence the vote it'd presumably have dedicated bots working on it.
No doubt this will end up in the official investigation of Russian Brexit influence, alongside any other evidence that comes to light.
Propaganda is nothing new, and countries have been involving themselves in foreign elections and votes for decades - possibly centuries. The only difference now is that social media makes it easier than ever before, letting bots target specific people and audiences with far less effort. [Wired via Engadget]