In Depth

Russia ‘tried to swing election for Corbyn’

Experts warn it is impossible to prove who was behind social media ‘bots’

Russia attempted to swing last year’s general election in favour of Jeremy Corbyn by using social media robot accounts to promote the Labour leader, an investigation by The Sunday Times has concluded.

Research conducted with Swansea University identified some 6,500 Russian Twitter accounts that rallied behind Labour in the run-up to June’s vote, sending messages that were seen by millions of voters.

Analysis of these accounts, many of which used female English names, found nine out of ten messages about Labour were supportive of the party’s campaign. The same proportion of tweets about the Conservatives were hostile.

Around 80% of the automated accounts were created after Theresa May called the snap election. They were more active at key moments including the launch of the Conservative Party manifesto, the Manchester Arena bombing and televised election debates.

The fake accounts identified so far “are just the tip of the iceberg”, The Sunday Times says, and academics are asking Twitter to investigate the true scale of Russian meddling in British politics.

Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Secretary Matt Hancock expressed concern about the suggestion that state actors were behind the automated accounts, adding it was “absolutely unacceptable for any nation to attempt to interfere in the democratic elections of another country”.

However, The Independent says experts “cautioned that it was impossible to prove who was behind the networks, their motives or what impact they had in the ‘murky’ world of information warfare”.

The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, dismissed the assertion that Russians “tried to swing the election” in Labour’s favour as a “classic Sunday Times smear campaign”.

“This is ludicrous,” he told Sky News. “If I remember rightly, the Russian Embassy was putting out supportive noises towards the Tory party.

“If there’s an issue here about anything with Russian influence in our society, it’s about Russian oligarchs funding the Tory party – let’s have an inquiry into that.”

Russia has faced repeated accusations it sought to meddle in both the 2016 Brexit vote and US presidential election with social media ‘bots’. Data analysis firm Cambridge Analytica has been accused of illegally harvesting millions of people’s private data to specifically target swing voters with bespoke messages.

While online micro-targeting has become a major part of election campaigning in recent years, there is little evidence about how much it affects the outcome.

Swansea University Professor Oleksandr Talavera, who led the Sunday Times investigation, pointed to a study suggesting sentiments expressed on Twitter could affect the stock market. He said this suggested there might be an impact on elections, but added there is currently no way to quantify the outcome.

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