Russian Twitter Bots Are Better For Headlines Than Winning Elections

It was the talk of the weekend on social media this weekend alongside whether Amber Rudd fell on her sword -- she did -- and whether Sainsbury's and Asda would get the go-ahead to merge and become bigger even than Tesco.

The Sunday Times has the scoop that it had uncovered, working with the University of Swansea, that some 6,500 "bots" had been set up by Russia to tweet positive message about Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party ahead of last June's election. The story runs pretty much as you would expect. The bots pretended to be women, and many were even honest enough to say their first language was Russian. Nine in ten tweets they put out were positive about Labour, and correspondingly, nine in ten were critical of the Conservative party. 

The inference is that the Russians have been caught red-handed trying to influence an election in which Corbyn's appeal suddenly went through the roof and left the Conservative Government having to do a deal with Northern Ireland's DUP to cling on to power. 

it sounds very much like a scene out of the amazing hit series Homeland, in which the issue of fake social media accounts being used to influence politics has been excellently depicted. In fact, The Sunday Times alleges it has found evidence there may be as many as 20,000 Russian-back bots 

Only I'm really not too sure what impact a few thousand bots spouting pro Labour messaging would have. Who on earth follows robots? Who retweets them, other than other bots? OK -- some people might have fallen for a message or two and followed a bot that was pretending to be a real-life woman.

Don't get me wrong. This is a serious issue if it can be proven that one state is trying to influence elections in another through automated bots. There is a case to answer, and at the very least, the accounts need to be suspended. However, the question arises:  how much difference does it make? 

For me, the AggregateIQ work on Brexit is of greater interest. It supposedly did for the Leave campaign what Cambridge Analytica claims to have done from Trump, and others. Using Facebook data gained through an unrelated app and using it to target key voters with political messages is far more influential, in my opinion. The ICO is claiming that AggregateIQ is not helping in its enquiries,  but ultimately, the company will just stick to its guns that it is outside the UK and it was using data that people gave their permission for, even if that consent looks pretty shaky and certainly morally questionable to the outside world.

As for bots on Twitter and the general election last year, I'd go as far as to say they would have had little impact.

What did swing the election were the parties. The Tories seemed very tired and boring, just constantly repeating "strong and stable" while Labour was so effective in reaching out to young voters the term "youthquake" became the Oxford Dictionary's word of the year. There was a radical re-nationalisation programme, and the promise of free university education that hit a chord with the youth, who traditionally don't turn out in such large numbers as their parents.

it was policies that gave Corbyn the momentum (if you'll pardon the pun) going into the election. Theresa May took some bad advice, looked at the polls and thought all she had to do was repeat "strong and stable" in front of tv cameras for a couple of months while pointing out she wasn't Jeremy Corbyn. She was very negative and tired, Corbyn seemed alive with radical ideas and an awakened youth following.

So, Theresa May's plan spectacularly backfired -- but I'd suggest that Twitter bots had very little to do with it. It is most definitely an issue, and Twitter needs to close down such accounts, but I'd say from what we know so far, and observations of following the last election, it was policies and a swelling of youth sentiment that made it such a close run affair, not Russian Twitter bots. 

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