Bots for #Brexit


First thing: I think the UK’s vote to leave the European Union is a calamitous mistake. The worst in foreign policy since Suez in 1956 and quite possibly second only to Munich in the last century.

What I want to write about here, though, is the way in which that Leave campaigners (in the broadest sense) leveraged the use of Twitter bots in the campaign. A report now available on Arxiv (here) suggests that bots generated over three times as many pro-Brexit tweets (97,431) than pro-Remain messages (28,075) in a one-week period in June.

(The report also suggests a slightly higher proportion – 15.1% – of pro-Remain tweets were bot-generated than for Leave – 14.7%)

Did it matter? The paper suggests bots have “a small but strategic” impact. In a referendum of huge importance that was lost by a narrow vote that could be very important.

My personal experience was that the online field was much more important in the Scottish referendum, where the “Yes” campaign (in favour of Scotland leaving the UK) were very effective in mobilising online resources for people seeking to “research” the question.

One thing where both referendum campaigns were similar was that the pro-change campaign accused the other side of being “Project Fear” and used online resources to repeatedly reassure people that they need not fear the consequences of a Yes/Leave vote.

Happily, in Scotland, disaster was averted and so the accusation of Project Fear merely lingers. Over the EU it has now become Project I Bloody Well Told You So.

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