Brexit bots and the UK election

FT analysis of how the most prolific bots are responding to the UK vote on June 8

© FT/Charlie Bibby

Some of the automated Twitter accounts, or ‘bots’, that were among the most prolific during the UK’s EU referendum campaign have turned their attention to the UK general election, tweeting with increased frequency about Ukip and Labour.

An FT analysis of bots tweeting pro-Leave hashtags between June 2016 and May 2017 revealed that they demonstrated sustained interest in British politics — particularly Ukip and, to a lesser extent, the Labour party. Occurrences of the hashtag #Ukip among the bots outnumbered those of #Labour by more than four to one between April 18, when the election was called, and May 21.

Social bots of Brexit

Ukip is currently polling at four per cent, according to the FT poll of polls. Labour is on 36 per cent, trailing the Conservative party by eight points.

Separate research by the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) at Oxford university found that “highly automated accounts generated more tweets using Labour party-related hashtags” between May 1 and 7, but was not able to determine whether these tweets were in support of Labour.

Monica Kaminska, a co-author of the OII report, told the FT: “Our research didn’t extend to attributing bots to any particular political party.”

There was also “a lot of overlap between accounts using Labour-related hashtags and Conservative-related hashtags”, Ms Kaminska said.

After the election was called, the Brexit bots quickly began to incorporate hashtags such as #GE2017 into their tweets. The FT analysis found that, in the week the election was called, use of the hashtag #Labour increased by more than 2,000 per cent on the previous week. However, the number of tweets using #Ukip was still considerably greater.

As Ms Kaminska emphasised, the use of “party-relevant” hashtags can only be said to indicate that there were tweets on the topic of a particular party, not whether the tweets were supportive or critical.

Last year, the bots’ interest in Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump increased steadily as November’s US election approached. There was also a marked shift in focus away from the EU referendum towards US politics at the beginning of November. The bots continued to tweet using Trump campaign slogan hashtags such as #DrainTheSwamp and #MAGA (“make America great again”) after the election.

How we identified the Brexit bots

An FT analysis of 70,000 tweets from the seven days leading up to the EU referendum showed that, of the 20 most prolific accounts, all displayed indications of high levels of automation, tweeting between 150 and 1,000 times per day using at least one hashtag per tweet. One benchmark used by researchers to identify highly automated accounts is a tweet rate of 50 per day using at least one hashtag.

A June 2016 study by the OII concluded that almost a third of referendum-related tweets were generated by less than one per cent of the accounts in a sample of over 300,000. The researchers also found that bots were more than three times as likely to use hashtags “associated with the argument for leaving the EU”: 7.6 per cent of the 1.5m-tweet sample used these hashtags, whereas tweets using exclusively pro-Remain hashtags constituted only 2.2 per cent.

Having identified the 20 most prolific bots at the time of the referendum, the FT retrieved all of their available tweets — over 2.2m — dating back to the beginning of 2016. This data enabled us to analyse the rate and content of the bots’ tweets over a period of almost 18 months.

There were pronounced spikes in the tweet rates of all the bots around the date of the referendum, with the majority reaching their peak rates for the entire period within a week of the June 23 vote.

While most of the bots never again came close to tweeting at those rates, there were some intriguing exceptions. The account @Col_Connaughton, for example, posted an average of two tweets per day before January 4, 2016. On that date — the first Monday of the year — its rate shot up to almost 1,500 tweets per day. It averaged a rate of over 1,400 tweets per day between then and May 21, 2017.

Brexit bots’ tweet rates

Tweet counts exclude accounts’ retweets of themselves.

Project support and analytics tools provided by Crimson Hexagon.