Russian trolls used Twitter to stir division over Islam in the UK, study finds

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Twitter accounts linked to what has been called a Russian “troll farm” engaged in influence operations to stir division over Islam in the U.K., a new study has found.

Research by British social policy think tank Demos found that the vast majority of tweets from these operations, which were sent in the six months prior to the Brexit vote, circled in on Islam rather than the U.K.’s withdrawal from the European Union.

Accounts engaged in the influence operations were affiliated with Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA), a group the United States Intelligence Community has labeled a troll farm.

The Demos paper found that tweets addressing Islam between March and June 2017 had been retweeted 25 times more often than other posts. Two terror attacks occurred during that period, one on March 22, 2017, and one on June 3, 2017.

The study was formed by an analysis of about 9 million tweets from 3,841 blocked accounts associated with Russia’s IRA which were released by Twitter, Demos said in its research paper.

It found that, of those 9 million Twitter posts, 3.1 million had been typed out in English — making up 34 percent — and that 83,000 of those 3.1 million — 2.7 percent — were linked to the U.K., and were shared 222,000 times. “It is plausible we are therefore seeing how the U.K. was caught up in Russian operations against the U.S.,” the paper said.

It also found that, in the early stage of the operations, the Russia-linked accounts would tweet topics like fitness and exercise “as an attempt to camouflage fake accounts and begin to infiltrate the wider conversation.”

“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,” Alex Krasodomski-Jones, head of center for the analysis of social media at Demos, said in a statement Thursday.

“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,” Krasodomski-Jones said.

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

Social media giants including Twitter and Facebook have been clamping down on such influence operations from the likes of Russia, as well as Iran. Facebook recently said it had removed 82 pages and accounts linked to Iran that had posted politically charged memes.

The takedown of such accounts comes on the back of concerns that such operations were used to promote disinformation and sway voters during elections.

“Twitter proactively published these datasets for this exact reason — to further independent analysis and investigation, and to promote a shared understanding of the threats,” a spokesperson for Twitter told CNBC in an email.

“We welcome new findings from research entities and actively use them to inform our approach. All accounts in this dataset were previously suspended for violation of our policies.”

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