The U.S. presidential election wasn’t the first time Russia used social media and fake news to interfere in Western democracies.
According to the The Times of London, Russian Twitter accounts also went hyperactive ahead of the U.K.’s Brexit referendum, urging people to vote for leaving the EU.
The report comes a day after Prime Minister Theresa May publicly rebuked Russia in a speech for trying to “sow discord in the West” with fake news and divisive social media campaigns.
“We know what you are doing and you will not succeed,” May said in comments directed at Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Times cited research done jointly by the University of California at Berkeley and Swansea University in Wales that reckoned that over 150,000 Twitter accounts based in Russia, which had previously concerned themselves mainly with issues like Russia’s backing for Ukrainian rebels and its annexation of Crimea, switched their attention to Brexit in the days leading up to the 2016 vote.
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Activity peaked around June 23, the day of the vote, as nearly 45,000 messages were posted within 48 hours. They dropped off to near-zero almost immediately after the referendum.
One typical account was Sveta1972, created a month before the vote and giving its location as Gelendzhik, a town in southern Russia. Sveta1972 posted 92 tweets about Brexi—in English—between June 20 and 24, including one that called on the U.K. to “make June the 23rd our Independence Day,” according to The Times.
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As with the election of Donald Trump, who came to power promising a radically different approach to U.S. foreign relations and security, the Brexit vote broke with the political consensus that has dominated Western politics for decades. In another parallel with the U.S. election, the margin of the Brexit vote was relatively small (51.9% for Leave, versus 48.1% for Remain) but, at 1.27 million votes, still too large to be explained by Russian propaganda alone.
Evidence provided to the U.S. Congress by social media giants Facebook and Twitter in recent days has suggested that the real aim of such Russian trolling may have been less to ensure victory or defeat for any individual candidate than to deepen divisions within the U.S..
By that logic, the ultimate goal is to neutralize and paralyze Western foreign policy—especially in regions where Russia is trying to assert its influence such as eastern Europe and Syria.