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More than 150 000 Twitter accounts — previously only tweeting about the conflict in Ukraine — turned their focus to Brexit in the days leading up to the June 2016 vote, data scientists from Swansea University and the University of California, Berkeley have revealed.
The researchers looked at accounts that tweeted in English, but had their language set to Russian. These accounts, which posted 1000 tweets a day before the vote, amped their activity up to 45 000 in the last two days, and 39 000 on the day of the election.
It is unclear whether these accounts were pushing for a Brexit vote, or if the main objective was merely to sow division within the UK. Their messages focussed on fearmongering and anti-Muslim sentiment, much like the strategy used by Russian accounts in the 2016 US election.
A separate study reported by The Guardian this week found that more than 400 of the accounts Twitter has identified as tools of the Kremlin used the platform to rally for Britain’s departure from the European Union.
The researchers only looked at Twitter accounts, as its user information is more accessible to the public, though it is largely assumed that the creators of these accounts will have targeted other platforms like Facebook.
A top cybersecurity official said in a statement Tuesday that Russian hackers had attempted to attack British energy, telecommunications and media industries in the last 12 months.
“We know what you are doing,” UK Prime Minister Theresa May said in a speech, addressing Russian government directly. “And you will not succeed.”
Russian accounts also targeted the 2016 US election, 2017 French presidential election, and, more recently, the Spanish government has suggested it interfered with Catalonia’s independence referendum.