There is an almighty panic afoot. It seems that a vast army of trolls in fur hats with snow on their boots are ruining our democracy by doing stuff on Twitter. Yes folks, it's the Russians - even the Prime Minister was moved to say how naughty they are albeit in a wonderfully sinister way ("we know what you're doing").
Some perspective is needed here because, while it may well be the case that Russian spies sat at computers in St Petersburg are bombarding Twitter with stuff, the impact on elections ranges from pretty much zero to really not very much at all.
According to Oleksandr Talavera at Swansea University there are 150,000 accounts with "links to Russia" that Tweeted about Brexit during the campaign. Talavera is at the upper end of the spectrum of guesses about these Russian bots most other researchers give much lower figures for accounts that can be clearly linked to the folk in St Petersburg - 419 from researchers in Edinburgh, 13,493 from London University and just 54 from Oxford University.
Taking the 419, this is what they were doing:
Professor Laura Cram, director of neuropolitics research at the University of Edinburgh, told the newspaper that at least 419 of those accounts tweeted about Brexit a total of 3,468 times – mostly after the referendum had taken place.I'm pretty sure that the same will go for the bigger numbers. For a little context, however, we should note that there were literally millions of Tweets about the referendum - the LSE, for example, looked at 7.5 million in their analysis. Those Russian tweeters represent a drop in this ocean of Tweets. Let's remember also that there are about 10 million UK Twitter accounts (this matters because they're the ones with a vote) and let's also note that 17.4 million people voted to leave - rather more than have those Twitter accounts.
Commenting on the Brexit tweets, she told The Guardian the content overall was “quite chaotic and it seems to be aimed at wider disruption. There’s not an absolutely clear thrust. We pick up a lot on refugees and immigration”.
Even accepting that Russia did try to interfere in - disrupt, influence - the referendum (something that probably shouldn't surprise us), the evidence presented by researchers tells us that it really didn't make much difference at all, indeed it was swamped by a vast tide of Tweets from real people about Brexit. Indeed that LSE study showed just how Brexiteers were much more engaged and active:
There is clearly a pattern in the way the referendum campaign unfolded on Twitter, with those wanting to leave communicating in greater numbers and with greater intensity. Districts with a greater share of Twitter users supporting Leave also tended to vote for leaving the EU, so that Twitter activity correlates with voting in the referendum.We also know from that LSE blog that the same goes for Facebook, Instagram and Google search - as a senior politician (and remain voter) said to me: "Brexit voters were going to crawl over broken glass so they could vote to leave". I've been involved in politics for 40 years and have never seen ordinary voters - the sort who often don't bother - so motivated to turn up and vote. Public meetings were a thing of history in British elections, yet we held a debate in Cullingworth and filled the hall with over 250 people, most of them planning to vote leave.
This latest conspiracy theory - hot on the heels of the "it was big data" nonsense - reminds us that many of those who voted to remain are still in denial as to what the campaign outcome was down to. These inconsolable remain voters simply can't countenance that their 'business as usual' message got both barrels from an electorate that frankly didn't think that 'business as usual' was doing them any good. The result has been firstly to shout about how it was all the stupid people who did it and it's not fair, then to blame the Daily Mail followed by lots of overhyped scare stories about 'hate crime'. We then got the conspiracies - it was shadowy American billionaires, it was manipulating 'big data' and now it's the Russians.
The truth is that two-and-a-half million mostly older and working class voters who don't usually vote or vote infrequently decided on this occasion to go down to the church hall or school and stick a big firm X in the box marked "Leave the European Union". There were a pile of reasons why they did this but the main one was that the EU is a distant, unaccountable, corrupt and undemocratic institution a very long way away filled with people who have absolutely no connection with or idea about what matters in Denholme or Wyke or Scarborough. It really had absolutely nothing at all to do with Twitter, the Russians, Cambridge Analytica or whatever stupid conspiracy sobbing remainers dream up and if you think otherwise you really should get out more.