“Two of the most prolific Twitter accounts supporting Boris Johnson have displayed bot-like behaviour, while three of Jeremy Hunt’s top followers have suspiciously high post rates.
The Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a London-based think tank researching political extremism, monitored the tweets mentioning either Jeremy Hunt’s or Boris Johnson’s handles, or their respective campaign hashtags, #HastobeHunt and #BackBoris, between May 24 and June 30.
The ISD researchers found that three of the top ten accounts engaging with Jeremy Hunt posted over 100 tweets a day, while another account in the top ten had been suspended as of June 30. The ISD sets the threshold for suspiciously high activity levels at more than 50 tweets a day.
Out of the top ten accounts mentioning Boris Johnson or his campaign, three produced over 100 tweets per day; two of those three accounts, the ISD says, presented “bot-like” behaviour and had already been spotted by the organisation when researching online “inorganic amplification” of UK political parties.
The majority of the tweets targeting Hunt do not seem to be directly connected with his leadership bid, but rather with his tenure as foreign secretary, mentioning topics such as war, human rights, and refugees rights. The suspended handle, @Kazem24529196, was the third most active Hunt-mentioning account and mostly tweeted about Iranian refugees’ resettlement in Turkey. Another account in Hunt’s top ten, @Ali85972170, has been suspended by the time of publication and seems to have mostly been tweeting about Sudan and other refugees issues.
Most of these issue-focused accounts were not hostile or aggressive towards Hunt himself. In contrast, the fifth most active account targeting Hunt, @EUVoteLeave23rd, has a decidedly anti-Hunt and pro-Johnson slant. It also appeared in Johnson’s top ten as the third most active account.
First created in 2016, @EUVoteLeave23rd pushes a pro-hard Brexit, pro-no deal agenda. It has over 35,000 followers, the identity of its owner is unknown, and its profile image features a Brexit Party rosette overlaid with a Back Boris tag.
According to the ISD, during the EU election campaign, @EUVoteLeave23rd was the most active account engaging with the Conservative Party; until recently, it was strongly opposed to the Conservatives, and to Theresa May’s leadership in particular. From late February to late June 2019, @EUVoteLeave23rd directly mentioned the outgoing prime minister in 10 per cent of its tweets.
The account styles itself as belonging to a former Conservative turned Brexit Party fan; now, it supports the Johnson campaign. According to the ISD, the account’s posts appeared times 1,309,493 between its creation on February 22, 2016 to June 27, 2019 – a figure that includes tweets, retweets, other accounts retweeting its posts, and deleted tweets. Although many of the account’s tweets appear to be original content, the volume and frequency of its posting, with an average of over 90 tweets a day, and a high number of retweets evince that at least some elements of automation might be at play.
Over the past few days, the account has been particularly active amplifying tweets that mention Boris Johnson’s account in a positive context, or feature the #BackBoris hashtag. Out of the last 3,200 tweets the account posted, over 500 contained Johnson’s handle and almost 1,000 contained the campaigning hashtag.
The account also mentioned Jeremy Hunt in 937 tweets, most of them rather scornful – one recurrent thread being that Hunt’s Brexit policy would be just a rehashed version of May’s. “It seems to pick up and retweet tweets that have either hashtags or flags in their handles,” says Chloe Colliver, head of the digital analysis unit at ISD.
“You could easily automate an account to pick up certain things and automatically retweet them if they had certain messaging. This looks like a managed account that is set up to pump out pro-Brexit accounts and messaging.”
Yin Yin Lu, a research affiliate at the Oxford Internet Institute, says that the account’s blend of human-generated content and aggressive retweeting caught her eye already back in 2016 during the EU referendum campaign. “It was quite interesting how it spits out original content at high volume, and the volume is so high that it has to be pre-programmed,” she says.
“From April to June 2016, it was very engaging, compared with the average sort of automated accounts or bot accounts,” Lu says. “On average, bot accounts had about 1.5 retweets, and non-bot accounts had 4.4 retweets. This account, even though it’s partially automated had an average retweet count of almost 11. It shows that the network it’s involved with is quite extensive – it’s got 36,000 followers.”
The ISD points out that, according to the Information Operations Archive, the account, had 172 interactions (mostly retweets) with accounts known to be associated with Iranian or Russian state-backed disinformation operations.
“This shows that even if these are not important accounts in themselves, they are useful as part of a wider strategy to polarise people online,” Colliver says. @EUVoteLeave23rd did not reply to a direct message asking for more information.
Another emphatically pro-Boris account, @WeBackBoris, was also flagged by the ISD for what looks like automated behaviour. The account was created in 2011, but only started operating on June 3, 2019 when it tweeted 245 times. Over the following month, the account posted almost 15,000 tweets and tens of thousands of retweets. It did not reply to a direct message asking for more information.
Twitter, in an emailed statement, said that “platform manipulation and spam are against the Twitter Rules and we take aggressive enforcement action when we identify violations of our policies.”