Researchers have found evidence of far-right Twitter accounts using suspicious means such as bots to amplify pro-Brexit content, with a “significant” number originating from outside of the UK.

Finnish cybersecurity firm F-Secure analysed 24 million tweets from 1.65 million accounts that contained the word ‘Brexit’ between 4 December 2018 and 13 February 13 2019.

They looked for “inorganic” activity – suspicious activity that looks unnatural, such as automated bot accounts and hybrid accounts that are part automated and part controlled.

The study showed how this type of activity was “far more prominent” among the Leave side of the Brexit debate, with a large number of amounts originating from outside of the UK.

By contrast, most of the observed Twitter activity from Remain-backing accounts appeared to be more natural.

The team discovered a range of tactics used by far-right accounts. They include using bot accounts to amplify the message of influential pro-Leave accounts, the spreading of “non-authoritative news sources” and foreign accounts tweeting and retweeting pro-Brexit content.

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Brexit Twitter bot campaign

There was also an overlap of other right-wing political content among some suspicious accounts, spreading non-Brexit news such as France’s Yellow Vest movement and support for US President Donald Trump.

The goal of all these far-right accounts is to make the activity appear as though it is part of a grass-roots movement, in a social engineering technique known as astroturfing.

“The activity we found happening on the ‘Leave’ side of the Brexit conversation was quite different from the more organic appearance seen in the ‘Remain’ conversation,” said Andy Patel, a senior researcher with F-Secure’s Artificial Intelligence Center of Excellence.

“And inorganic activity, in relation to political movements and events, can sometimes be indicative of astroturfing or the spread of disinformation.

“At the very least, our research shows there’s a global effort amongst the far-right to amplify the ‘Leave’ side of the debate.”

Multiple studies carried out by other research groups have shown that Twitter bots are being used to spread and amplify right-wing, populist content, such as the 2016 US Presidential Election.

Twitter has made efforts to crack down on bots in recent years, but as this and other studies show, the problem is still rife on the social media platform.

The study comes as the UK nears the Brexit deadline. On the 29 March, the UK will formally leave the EU without a deal unless an agreement is reached or there is an extension of the deadline.

Who is pulling the strings?

Despite the data’s large sample size, the researchers concede that the “scope of this report is too limited to conclusively determine whether or not there is a coordinated astroturfing campaign underway to manipulate the public or political climate surrounding Brexit”.

However, they add that the study provides a “solid foundation” for further investigation.

“Social networks generate huge volumes of data. Finding noteworthy trends and phenomena in this data can be complicated, resource-intensive work,” continued Patel.

“But social media is an important source of news and information that many people are still learning how to use.

“We really hope people see this research, see how much more there is to learn, and start building on our methods to create new, better understandings of what happens on social media.”

Read more: 24 hours, 7,000 bots: How Twitter amplification bots are faking popularity