London: Russian-linked fake social media accounts have systematically attempted to amplify social division in Britain around the terror attacks of the past year, according to a new study released on Monday.
Researchers at Cardiff University trawled through 30 million datapoints to identify at least 47 accounts on Twitter and Facebook used to “influence and interfere with public debate” following four British terrorist atrocities in 2017.
The team, at the university’s Crime and Research Institute (CSRI), found the most active accounts posted hundreds of incendiary and Islamophobic messages shortly after the attacks in Manchester and London, which users shared more than 153,000 times.
“The evidence suggests a systematic strategic political communications campaign being directed at the UK designed to amplify the public harms of terrorist attacks,” the researchers concluded.
The study cited eight accounts, built around “personal identities, clear ideological standpoints”, and which were “highly opinionated”, as most effective.
They would begin posting inflammatory messages less than an hour after incidents, generating thousands of retweets.
“Another day, another Muslim terrorist attack. RETWEET if you think that Islam needs to be banned RIGHT NOW!” tweeted @TEN_GOP, an account “adopting a right-wing, anti-Islam stance”, less than one hour after the Manchester Arena attack in May, the study said.
The message was retweeted 3,606 times, while the account had approximately 127,000 followers around that time, it noted.
Researchers also found the Russian accounts would deliberately target messages at activist celebrities and political figures, such as author J.K. Rowling, who have large follower bases and would provide a bigger platform.
“By engaging with these digital interactions, high profile figures have been responsible for spreading messages originating from false accounts, massively extending their reach,” the report said.
“They are analogous to ‘carriers’ of a virus that unknowingly and unwittingly encourage its spread across a population.”
Part of a project focused on how so-called soft facts — “rumours, fake news, conspiracy theories and propaganda” — influence the aftermath of terrorist attacks, the CSRI team also found the Russian accounts would mimic rhetoric from right-wing British figures.
Those behind the handles were “skilful” in camouflaging their real identities, and social media companies need to do more to tackle the problem, the study said.
“Terrorist violence is fundamentally designed to ‘terrorise, mobilise and polarise’ its audiences, so if social media platforms are being ‘weaponized’ by third parties to amplify these effects, then they need to be required to urgently do something to mitigate this,” it added.