Social Media Interference in the Brexit Vote

I have spent some time this year looking at reader comments on pro-Remain content on Facebook (mostly from the Guardian, Open Britain and Scientists for EU) and on Pro-Leave articles in the Daily Mail. I soon began to detect a good deal of repetition in comments from Leave supporters. See below for some examples. Now more and more evidence is coming to light about the role of social media in influencing the result of the EU Referendum.

The Evidence

An article published in the Times on 15 November 2017 and noted by the Reuters News Agency (no paywall) stated that Russian Twitter accounts posted more than 45,000 messages about Brexit in 48 hours during last year’s referendum in an apparently “co-ordinated attempt to sow discord”. The article reports that more than 150,000 mostly automated accounts based in Russia, which had previously confined their posts to subjects such as the Ukrainian conflict, switched attention to Brexit in the days leading up to last year’s vote, according to research shortly to be published by data scientists at Swansea University and the University of California, Berkeley.

In another example, a paper published in the journal Social Science Computer Review on 10 October 2017 shows that 13,493 twitter accounts were tweeting and re-tweeting pro-Leave information at the time of the referendum and were deleted shortly after. These accounts were bots and were able to reach a wide audience through re-tweets by bots and subsequently by real people. This paper does not specifically mention Russia, but you have to ask where these accounts were coming from.

It’s also becoming very clear that there was social media interference in the US 2016 presidential election and that this emanated from Russian trolls based in the Internet Research Agency in St Petersburg. An article in Wired published on 11 November 2017 highlights the extent of this. It’s clearly in the Russians’ interest to destabilise the US, the EU and the UK and, as someone who has worked in computing and information studies for many years, I can see how easily this can be done.

This may only be the tip of the iceberg. Plenty of research is also being carried out on the role of Cambridge Analytica in influencing both the US presidential election and the UK referendum by harvesting information from Facebook likes, and using this to influence voting patterns.

Repeated comments

It’s not too difficult to identify some frequent statements and topics from Leave supporters and to question where they came from.

1. “They need us more than we need them”

This trips well off the tongue. I have asked several times for concrete evidence to support this, but have never had a reply. This may be the case for a small number of sectors of the economy, but I find it difficult to see how the EU with a combined population of 7 times that of the UK and a GDP 5 times greater can be in this position.

2. “The vile EU”

I find the use of the adjective “vile” rather odd. It is not in common use in the UK. Nobody can tell me why they think the EU is vile.

3. “The Brussels dictatorship” and “the unelected bureaucrats in Brussels”

Nobody can tell me why they think there is a dictatorship in Brussels which presumably refers to the EU. This document from the EU web site describes how the EU works. In no way can it be described as a dictatorship. Citizens in the member states directly elect the Parliament which has to approve much of what the EU does. Members are elected by proportional representation and the UK has 73 seats out of the 751 total.

It seems to me that the current UK government is trying to turn itself into a dictatorship with its proposals to adopt the “Henry VIII powers” in the EU Withdrawal Bill. These will enable ministers to change any EU law which is transferred into UK law without parliamentary scrutiny.

4. Anti-immigration sentiment, especially about Muslims

These statements fail to distinguish between EU and non-EU immigrants. Many of them are racist, just inflaming the already strong divisions in UK society. They create the impression that most if not all immigrants are on benefits and are a drain on the economy.

EU countries are not predominantly Muslim. EU immigrants contribute £1.30 to the economy for every £1 they take out. The UK has not implemented the 2004 EU directive which allows member states to put controls on freedom of movement. Immigrants from outside the EU now outnumber those from the EU and are nothing to do with the EU and Brexit. The UK has been able to control non-EU immigration for years but it has had little success, allowing people to blame this on the EU.

5. Remainers are “traitors” or “unpatriotic”

Both these terms have inflammatory connotations of betrayal and are intended to portray remain supporters in a very bad light. I object particularly strongly to the use of “traitor” which points to treason, a crime against the state. I do not think it is unpatriotic to support what you believe is right for the future of the UK.

6. “The EU is holding up the progress of the negotiations”

This is not the case. On the first day of negotiations over 6 months ago, David Davis agreed to the timetable of first sorting out the issues of (1) EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU, (2) the exit bill, and (3) the Irish border. The EU have been waiting ever since then for concrete proposals from the UK who after all started the whole thing. Instead there is open disagreement among our politicians about what to do next.

There does appear to be a some progress on EU citizens. The exit bill is being kept quiet for as long as possible. It going to be embarrassing for the Brexiteers as it could well be about 60bn euros (£53bn) which is five times the net amount of last year’s annual payment from the UK to the EU (£10bn) and about £815 for every person in the UK at today’s exchange rate. My best bet is that it will be announced on a ‘day to bury bad news’.

There appears to be almost no progress on the Irish border. Northern Ireland voted to remain, but the DUP who are now propping up the Tory government (at a cost of another billion pounds) will not agree to a border in the Irish Sea. The Peace Process, which has held for almost 20 years after the long years of troubles in Ireland, is now looking insecure.

7. The EU is to blame for current parlous state of public services and NHS in the UK

This is blatantly not the case. Government austerity policies have drastically reduced the amount of funding for public services. You have to ask why the extra tax take from EU immigrants is not being spent on services. The NHS is really in trouble and is being infiltrated through the back-door by private companies whose prime motive is profit. This to my mind is a taste of what will happen if prominent Brexiteers get their way. US healthcare companies must be salivating at the prospect of increasing their profits at the expense of the sick within the UK. The most successful EU countries, especially our nearest neighbours in northern Europe, are social democracies with a strong belief in public services.

8. “I voted leave. The rest of my family voted remain but they have now changed their minds.”

This one is newer but it has appeared a lot recently. It is usually followed by a condemnation of the EU’s supposed intransigence in the negotiations. It seems to be yet another attempt to influence public opinion as polls are now showing that a majority now believe that the UK was wrong to leave the EU.

Facebook

I have begun to look a bit more carefully at the people who regularly post pro-Brexit comments on Facebook, not the ones who only ever write “leave now”, “out”, “you lost, get over it” etc, but those whose posts can, on the face of it, be quite plausible but do not stand up in the face of hard evidence. Many of them do not have a photo as their profile picture or any other information about themselves. You have to wonder exactly who these people are.

What now?

The Internet has created a level playing field in the dissemination of information. The onus is now on readers to assess the veracity of anything they read. I would like to see more educational tools to help people apply some critical appraisal and not merely repeat what they have read online. Sadly, it appears that the UK will be excluded from the latest EU initiative Towards a European Education Area 2025 where member states will co-operate on many educational programmes including “Mainstreaming innovation and digital skills in education”. This is exactly what the UK needs, and sharing resources and information to do it makes abundant sense. It’s just one of the very many benefits of EU membership.

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