Watch out for the Brexit bots

Should I stay or should I go?
Should I stay or should I go?
Image: Reuters/Luke MacGregor
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

As the Brexit vote draws closer, undecided voters will need to make up their minds. Some will turn to friends and family. Others will turn to news channels. A piece of advice: Whatever you do, avoid Twitter.

Out of 1.5 million tweets between June 5 and June 12, 54% were pro-Leave, 20% were pro-Remain and 26% were neutral, a recent study showed. The vote isn’t necessarily going to mirror the Twitter trend because many of the accounts adding to the conversation don’t have human voters behind them.

From over 313,000 accounts sampled, a third of the tweets—half a million—came from less than 1% of the accounts, according to researchers Philip Howard and Bence Kollanyi. No human can manually generate so many tweets repeatedly. The sheer volume signals that a strong element of automation is involved.

In the weeks leading up to the referendum on UK’s possible exit from the EU, political bots have dominated Twitter accounts. They continuously retweet posts with hashtags that support their stand. US presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton also are suspected of involving bots to grow their social media presence.

The problem isn’t the bots themselves—it’s the fact that users may not realize a bot is behind the account, propagating unnecessary or false information and starting rumors. There is also the danger of journalists unintentionally drawing information from bots when using social media.

“In the case of the StrongerIn-Brexit debate, the two single most active accounts from each side of the debate are bots,” the researchers write. Both accounts, @ivoteLeave and @ivotestay, follow similar algorithms: They only retweet messages that support their side and generate no new content. Some pro-Palestinian bots seem to have been repurposed to support Brexit, too, the report states.

On June 23, when Britain will decide whether to end its 43-year relationship with the EU, bots will likely actively try to sway votes. They could have an impact; 15% of the voters will decide their vote on the day itself.