Labour’s social media election campaign is being amplified by fake accounts pumping out positive messages about the party and its leader, Jeremy Corbyn.Both Labour and the Conservatives have invested heavily on social media promotion in this election, each spending in excess of £1 million to get their message out online.
But an Oxford University study into the use of automated web robots, or ‘bots’, to promote political messages found that as many as one in eight tweets about British politics are being generated by automated accounts.
Although it found that all the parties have bot accounts promoting their cause, those associated with the Labour Party were the most active in generating traffic. The bots, sometimes referred to as “sock puppet” accounts, can post up to 1,000 messages a day to the platform attacking the Tories or supporting Corbyn.
Monica Kaminska, co-author of the Oxford University study, said: “It is worrying because it has the potential to distort the conversation, it’s megaphoning marginal viewpoints, and because young people are turning towards social media as their primary news source.”
The study looked at around 1,363,000 tweets posted between the 1st and 7th May 2017, and which contained hashtags associated with the political parties. It found 21,661 tweets posted by Labour supporting bots during that period, significantly more than the 13,819 tweets put out by SNP bots, or the 13,409 tweets posted in support of the Conservatives.
Labour also dominated Twitter traffic during that time. According to the study: “Hashtags about the Labour Party appeared most often, representing 39.7 per cent of the party-specific tweets during the week as a whole. The Conservative Party generated the second highest proportion of the conversation at 26 per cent.
“At 19 per cent, the Scottish National Party generated a disproportionally high percentage of the conversation, especially given the size of the party. UKIP and the Liberal Democrats generated 9.6 per cent and 5.7 per cent of the traffic respectively.”
The Telegraph has tracked down a number of accounts which appear to be Labour supporting bots, including one, named “big mouth jimmy” and using the handle @Jimmymo82550950, which in the first nine days after its creation retweeted more than 5,000 tweets and liked more than 4,000 others, including some from the official accounts of senior Labour politicians including Corbyn and Diane Abbott.
The huge volume of posts was “not a human activity pattern”, Ben Nimmo, an analyst of disinformation and social media networks, told the paper.
He said: “They all look like classic sock-puppet accounts, set up to amplify a specific political stance. The ratio of retweets to original posts is very high, they’re effectively anonymous, the eight-digit numbers after each username are characteristic of fake accounts, and they were all created very recently.”
A Labour spokesman said: “Those accounts are absolutely, categorically nothing to do with us. We don’t have any accounts like that and we don’t run anything like that.”