London: A former pro-Brexit campaign spokesman has angrily denied that they used Twitterbots to influence the public in the lead-up to the 2016 referendum.
The comment came as a group of UK parliamentarians are stepping up efforts to investigate whether Russian money was behind a push to influence the vote through targeted social media misinformation.
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“It does feel at long last as if politicians in Britain are waking up to the fact of Kremlin subversion of our democracy,” Labour MP Ben Bradshaw said on Tuesday.
“Putin had made no secret of the fact he wanted a Brexit vote. His main strategy is to weaken and destabilise Europe and Brexit is so far his biggest success.”
Mr Bradshaw, a former Blair government minister, has been raising questions repeatedly on the topic since early this year and said at first he was treated as a “crank and eccentric”.
But now others share his concerns, he said.
“We need to get the facts out quickly so the British public can have confidence that the referendum was conducted fairly and legally.”
On Tuesday a House of Commons select committee published a letter to Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg, requesting “information regarding the use of Facebook advertising and pages by Russian-linked accounts in the lead up to and during the 2016 [Brexit] Referendum”.
US President Donald Trump and key members of the Brexit push, which include Nigel Farage (to Trump’s right). Arron Banks, left of Trump, Andrew Wigmore, to the right of Farage. Photo: Twitter/@RaheemKassam
The committee is investigating “fake news”, and “part of this inquiry will focus on the role of foreign actors abusing platforms such as yours to interfere in the political discourse of other nations”, wrote Damian Collins MP, chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee.
Last week Mr Bradshaw also alerted Parliament to “the role of dark money” in the EU referendum, pointing to reports of “illegal” donations to the Democratic Unionist Party’s pro-Brexit campaign, and “new questions over the real wealth of Arron Banks, the main financial backer of Leave.EU”.
The historic Brexit vote divided Britain. Photo: Bloomberg
Mr Bradshaw told the Parliament there was “widespread concern about foreign, particularly Russian interference in Western democracies”.
Andrea Leadsom, leader of the House of Commons, replied that it was an “incredibly important point” and “I absolutely share his concern that we need to make sure that all donations are indeed permissible and legal”.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg Photo: AP
A string of reports in recent weeks have exposed secret and even potentially illegal campaign activity during the Brexit referendum.
Experts from City University of London published research earlier this month revealing that a network of 13,493 Twitterbots – automated Twitter accounts – had been deployed during the Brexit referendum campaign, only to disappear shortly after the ballot.
Andrea Leadsom, leader of the House of Commons. Photo: Bloomberg
The automation of political communication risked “the possible distortion of vital processes at the heart of contemporary liberal democracies”, the research article said.
The bot network – botnet – they examined had thousands of accounts tweeting in a concerted fashion to promote content associated with the Vote Leave campaign – such as disaffection with immigration and nationalistic appeals.
Former UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage. Photo: Bloomberg
If a botnet was used by Brexit campaigners then it could have fallen foul of laws that require election communications to be clearly sourced, to ensure transparency about who is campaigning.
Also this month, a series of reports from openDemocracy covered what it described as “worrying new details about the ‘dark money’ that bankrolled Brexit, and the loopholes that still allow secret donors to push their political agendas in the UK without public knowledge”.
The site investigated a £435,000 ($734,000) donation to the Brexit campaign of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which the DUP has insisted had fully complied with the law.
The Electoral Commission had reportedly levied a £6000 fine in connection with a mysterious Scotland-based group that made the donation, though details were confidential.
The site also asked how Arron Banks – the millionaire friend of Nigel Farage who bankrolled UKIP and its Brexit campaign – was able to pay for his donations, as there was evidence he was less wealthy then had been thought.
Former Leave.EU head of communications Andy Wigmore has previously revealed using Facebook profiling technology he called “creepy” to target voters with anti-EU messaging.
In August he tweeted that “we had our own bots in Bristol and we used AI [artificial intelligence] to target specific groups – it worked because we knew who to hit”.
But asked again this week about Leave.EU’s use of Twitterbots, he angrily denied it.
In an email to Buzzfeed News published on Tuesday he said believing that automated Twitter accounts “work or can hypnotise the electorate in anyway [sic]” was equivalent to believing that “Elvis is alive and well and living in Croydon, David Cameron is a lizard and Nigel Farage is in fact gay”.
He said his August tweet had just been “sarcasm… no bots were used by any of the Leave teams and bots make zero difference on anything”.