Russia-linked Twitter accounts ‘tried to divide UK’ after terrorist attacks

Tributes left near Finsbury Park mosque, north London, after a van was driven into pedestrians.
Photograph: John Stillwell/PA

Fake social media accounts linked to Russia were used to influence and interfere with public debate in the aftermath of four terrorist attacks in the UK this year, researchers have found.

At least 47 Russian Twitter accounts posted material after attacks at Westminster Bridge, Manchester Arena, London Bridge and Finsbury Park, according to researchers at the Cardiff University Crime and Security Research Institute (CSRI), who voiced concern that third parties were using social media to amplify the public harm caused by terrorism in Britain.

Of the 47 accounts, eight were especially active, posting at least 475 tweets about the four attacks, which were reposted more than 153,000 times.

The accounts intervened on both sides of polarised debates to ramp up the level of discord online, the research found.

Fake account owners also aimed messages at “thought communities” more sympathetic to and aligned with their online identities. There were multiple instances of them “@ing” Tommy Robinson, former leader of the English Defence League, and Nigel Farage, the former leader of Ukip.

The team, led by Prof Martin Innes, who directs the CSRI, concluded the use of Russian-linked social media to engineer social division in the UK, including through Twitter, was considerably more extensive than previously thought.

The report said: “In the wake of the 2017 terrorist attacks, platforms such as Twitter and Facebook were used to spread rumours, fake news and conspiracy theories to amplify and extend the impact and harm associated with the incident.

“Terrorist violence is fundamentally designed to ‘terrorise, mobilise and polarise’ its audiences, so if social media platforms are being ‘weaponised’ by third parties to amplify these effects, then they need to be required to urgently do something to mitigate this.

“The evidence suggests a systematic strategic political communications campaign being directed at the UK designed to amplify the public harms of terrorist attacks.”

CSRI derived the identities of the Russian accounts from several open source information datasets, including releases through the US Congress investigations and the Russian magazine РБК.

The research was funded by the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats.