New Demos analysis finds Russian influence operations on Twitter targeted at UK were most visible when discussing Islam

A new working paper published today by Demos think tank measures how much activity from Russian state-sponsored accounts released in the dataset made available by Twitter in October 2018 was targeted at the United Kingdom. We find:

  • There were three phases in Russian influence operations: under-the-radar account building, minor Brexit vote visibility, and larger-scale visibility during the London terror attacks.
  • Russian influence operations linked to the UK were most visible when discussing Islam. Tweets discussing Islam over the period of terror attacks between March and June 2017 were retweeted 25 times more often than their other messages.
  • The most widely-followed and visible troll account, @TEN_GOP, shared 109 Tweets related to the UK. Of these, 60 percent were related to Islam.
  • The topology of tweet activity underlines the vulnerability of social media users to disinformation in the wake of a tragedy or outrage.
  • Focus on the UK was a minor part of wider influence operations in this data.Of the nine million Tweets released by Twitter, 3.1 million were in English (34 percent). Of these 3.1 million, we estimate 83 thousand were in some way linked to the UK (2.7%). Those Tweets were shared 222 thousand times. It is plausible we are therefore seeing how the UK was caught up in Russian operations against the US.
  • Influence operations captured in this data show attempts to falsely amplify other news sources and to take part in conversations around Islam, and rarely show attempts to spread ‘fake news’ or influence at an electoral level.

Commenting on the findings, Alex Krasodomski-Jones Head of CASM, Demos, said

“Hostile actors have identified online news and media as a weak spot in our democracies, and this data is a window into how they have looked to exploit it.

It shows the moments we as a society are most vulnerable to falling for lies and disinformation – after a tragedy or an outrage, influence operations were at their most successful.

As accusations of interference in democracies around the world continue to fly, it’s vital we can continue to unpick and analyse the tactics, strategies and impact of influence operations online”

The full paper can be downloaded here

Methodological note

On 17 October 2018, Twitter released data about 9 million tweets from 3,841 blocked accounts affiliated with the Internet Research Agency.

By applying a combination of geographic inference, keyword analysis and classification by algorithm, we identified UK-related Tweets sent by these accounts and subjected them to further qualitative and quantitative analytic techniques.

About CASM at Demos

CASM at Demos is the leading think tank unit in the UK for digital political and social analysis. Over the past three years, CASM has produced academic research papers on digital health, on online social discussions and on the ethical considerations and methodologies required to understand online world, with research covered in over 80 publications worldwide and used as evidence by politicians and decision-makers in the UK and abroad.

Demos is Britain’s leading cross-party think-tank: an independent, educational charity, which produces original and innovative research.