Twitter said only 1% of accounts in a massive pro-Brexit bot network were registered in Russia

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  • Twitter has said a 13,500-strong bot network which posted lots of pro-Brexit messages in the run up to the EU referendum in 2016 did not feature many Russian accounts.
  • Twitter said just 1% – or 135 – of accounts in the network were registered in Russia, and the company downplayed fears of Russian groups using its platform to interfere with the Brexit vote.
  • The original bot network was found and analysed by researchers at City University.
  • Twitter’s comments come as it and other big tech firms are under huge pressure to investigate how Russia may have used their platforms to spread misinformation during international elections and votes.

Twitter has downplayed suggestions that Russian groups used its platform to influence the outcome of the EU referendum in a letter to British politicians.

In its letter to the MP leading an investigation into Russian interference in Brexit, Damian Collins, Twitter said just 1% of accounts in a 13,500-strong pro-Brexit bot network were registered in Russia. That bot network had originally been identified by researchers at City University, which found thousands of accounts were created to tweet mostly pro-leave messages in the run-up to the campaign. The accounts disappeared shortly after the vote.

The university’s research coincided with growing political fears that the Russian government, through organisations like the Internet Research Agency, used social media to influence the outcome of the referendum.

Twitter’s policy chief Nick Pickles wrote in the letter:

“In reviewing the accounts identified by City University, we found that 1% of the accounts in the dataset were registered in Russia. While many of the accounts identified by City University were in violation of the Twitter Rules regarding spam, at this time, we do not have sufficiently strong evidence to enable us to conclusively link them with Russia or indeed the Internet Research Agency.”

Pickles said most of the other bot accounts had been suspended and labelled as spam.

But Collins was not satisfied with Twitter’s findings. In a letter responding to Pickles, he asked Twitter to confirm how many other bot accounts were controlled by Russia, even if they had not been registered there. He also wanted Twitter to identify which accounts showed possible characteristics of being a Russian bot.

“I’m afraid that the failure to obtain straight answers to these questions, whatever they might be, is simply increasing concerns about these issues, rather than reassuring people,” Collins wrote.

Collins will take the investigation overseas next month, when he and other politicians will grill US executives from Twitter, Facebook, and Google about fake news.

Twitter will send Nick Pickles to answer the queries, as well as its US director of public policy and philanthropy, Carlos Monje.

Facebook will also send a UK executive, policy director Simon Milner, and its head of global policy management, Monika Bickert.

Google will be represented by its vice president of news, Richard Gingras, and global head of public policy at YouTube, Juniper Downs.

You can read Twitter’s letter here:

You can read Damian Collins MP’s response here:

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