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Putin’s Brexit? The influence of Kremlin media & bots during the 2016 UK EU referendum.


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Russian media interference in EU referendum worth up to £4 million

- Report submitted to the Culture, Media and Sport select committee by digital agency 89up lays bare extent of Russian media interference
- Kremlin-backed outlets RT (Russia Today) and Sputnik had more reach on Twitter for anti-EU content than either Vote Leave or Leave.EU
- Call for parliament to investigate role of UK-based Russian propaganda outlets
- Russian bots reach during EU referendum was significant - equivalent to 29% of total reach of both Vote Leave and Leave.EU Twitter activity

Published in: Government & Nonprofit
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Putin’s Brexit? The influence of Kremlin media & bots during the 2016 UK EU referendum.

  1. 1. Putin’s Brexit? The influence of Kremlin media & bots during the 2016 UK EU referendum.
  2. 2. The true scale of Russian media interference in British democracy has not been exposed until now…
  3. 3. Key findings ● Russian state media in the UK had almost the same social media impact as the two main official Leave campaigns. ● Russian state media had a significantly larger impact on Twitter than the two official Leave campaigns combined, suggesting the potential work of bots. ● Russian state media interference in the EU referendum campaign had a value estimated at between £1,455,500 - £4,140,000. ● Russian bots delivered 10,000,000+ potential Twitter impressions during the EU referendum, with a reach nearly ⅓ of the Leave.EU account.
  4. 4. 5 - 44: Section 1: the role of the Russian state media in the UK during the EU referendum 45 - 65: Section 2: the role of Russian bots during the EU referendum 66: Appendix A: Terminology and Notes
  5. 5. INTRO Who is 89up? 89up is a communications agency with a specialist social media analytics team led by Josh Feldberg. Mike Harris provided insights into Russian propaganda methods. How did we do this work? Data was sourced from the Twitter Search API, Buzzsumo, the Facebook API and other scraping methods. For equivalent media spend information we used data from Kantar. Who paid for this work? No one. 89up undertook this work because as a team we are concerned about the role of autocratic regimes in shaping public opinion in democracies.
  6. 6. Section 1: the role of the Russian state media on UK citizens during the EU referendum There has been a lot of speculation about the role of the Russian government in the EU referendum in 2016. To date interest has focused on the impact of Russian bots. This report outlines the evidence for Russian interference that was hiding in plain view during the EU referendum.
  7. 7. The real story of Russian interference in the EU referendum was hiding in plain sight… Russian state media propaganda through Facebook and Twitter led to significant online traction
  8. 8. 261 Kremlin-aligned media published a significant number of unique articles about the EU referendum, or anti-EU articles from January 2016 until the day of the referendum. Our researchers analysed the most shared of these articles, and identified 261 articles with a clear anti-EU bias to the reporting. The two main media outlets were RT and Sputnik, with video produced by Ruptly.
  9. 9. The total value of Russian media for the Leave campaign in the six months before the EU referendum was £1,353,000 The PR value for the Leave campaign of the 261 heavily pro-Leave articles published by RT and Sputnik is estimated at nearly a million and a half pounds based on figures from a leading media monitoring tool (6). This excludes the significant social media value of these news articles. The figure is likely to be much higher. If articles with more neutral headlines - that potentially embedded negative content (see slide 21) this figure rises to £4,000,000. This also excludes the value of the TV broadcast by RT on Freeview.
  10. 10. There was a heavy Leave bias to the most shared RT and Sputnik articles Of the 200 most shared RT and Sputnik articles referencing the EU referendum or Brexit we analysed, there was a significant bias towards positive coverage of the Leave campaign. Analysis of article bias
  11. 11. The bias is most stark when compared to other media outlets Whereas PBS covered announcements of the Leave and Remain equally, with the majority of their coverage clearly neutral; RT’s coverage was biased towards highlighting the activities of the Leave campaign. Analysis of potential media bias
  12. 12. No other state controlled media outlet came close to social exposure of Russian media Compared to other major foreign state-funded media outlets, the Russian media outlets led to significantly larger social media exposure. Here we include all shares for France24 and PBS (1), but we narrow RT and Sputnik to only pro-Leave articles - still the reach is markedly greater. Social engagement by foreign state-funded media platform
  13. 13. Russian MediaVote Leave Leave.EU Including only objectively anti-EU articles, Russian state media articles led to nearly as many engagements as the official Vote Leave website. When neutral articles on RT/Sputnik are filtered out, it is still the case that the Russian media had nearly as much social engagement with anti-EU articles as the official Vote Leave campaign. 263,000 287,000 1,700
  14. 14. Russian Media on Facebook Vote Leave on Facebook Facebook: Vote Leave spent $1.7 million on Facebook paid impressions. The Russian media delivered an estimate of 8,740,000 Facebook impressions just with anti-EU content. The equivalent value (using Vote Leave’s CPM) of estimated Russian media Facebook impressions would be $102,000. 146,000,000 8,740,000
  15. 15. Russian Media Vote Leave Leave.EU Twitter: Russian state media articles won the Twitter war - with significantly more potential Twitter impressions than any content from either anti-EU campaign website. We estimate the value of Russian media’s potential impressions on Twitter to be between $47,000 - $100,000 (8). 134,000,000 33,000,000 11,000,000
  16. 16. Why are RT and Sputnik different from other media outlets? News by mainstream UK publications - from newspapers to online magazines to the majority of our TV - is paid for commercially either by advertising, subscriptions or sales. The BBC - Ofcom-regulated and founded by Royal Charter - has a legal duty to provide impartial news. Online articles from RT or Sputnik UK are not regulated, either through self-regulation (IPSO) or statutory regulation (Ofcom, IMPRESS). Some online platforms are not subject to regulation or standards codes - but the clear difference is that they do not receive a significant state subsidy from the Russian government. Sputnik UK has an operating budget from the Russian government of £1.8m a year. There is little evidence of any commercial revenue except low revenue from Google adverts on the websites.
  17. 17. Why are RT and Sputnik different from other media outlets? RT (formerly Russia Today) has an international operating budget of around £250 million per annum (7). Its expansion in the UK prior to the EU referendum was seen as a way of increasing the Kremlin’s influence. As Richard Sandbrook, director of the centre of journalism at Cardiff University puts it: “It’s not a commercial proposition, therefore the main purpose must be to gain influence. It’s about soft power for the Kremlin”. The Russian government is paying for biased news to be published in the UK to influence British voters.
  18. 18. RT and Sputnik delivered extreme anti-EU content that was seeded across the UK The total number of impressions delivered by Russian media won’t ever been known unless Facebook and Twitter give the Culture, Media and Sport select committee data. For instance, an RT piece playing up French Euroscepticism on the eve of the EU referendum was shared 268 times directly from the RT Facebook group. We will look at this single piece of content to show the power of the Russian media.
  19. 19. Once posted, this single RT post was seeded by other Facebook groups from across the political spectrum, reaching between 11,800 (4) and 39,310 people. RT UK Facebook page 292k likes 325k followers “Page of Info” Facebook page 1.5k likes 1.5k followers “UKIP Hemel Hempstead” Facebook page 3.6k likes 3.3k followers “Traditional Britain Group” 39k likes, 41k followers “Huddersfield TUC” 22k likes, 21k followers
  20. 20. 167,144 estimated Facebook impressions Plus: 848,500 potential Twitter impressions To give an insight into the potential impressions per post we analysed around 5% of the shares (252 of 4,934 shares) of one of top 15 ranked RT posts on Brexit during this period. These 252 shares came from RT UK posting the content on their owned Facebook channel. From this single post we estimate the potential Facebook impressions delivered were a minimum of 11,800 potential impressions from shares to the major groups shown on the previous page, plus a further 248 shares by individuals with estimated reach of 8,382 potential impressions (5). Beyond this, there were a further 4,682 shares of which 4,348 were on Facebook and 323 on Twitter. We estimate these Facebook shares, if individuals would deliver 146,962 impressions. A data analysis of the Twitter shares shows this article on Twitter led to 848,500 potential impressions.
  21. 21. Even ‘impartial’ news reporting embedded anti-EU content Even more “impartial” news reportage on RT and Sputnik would lead a reasonable reader to a more Eurosceptic position through the use of visual links that led to Eurosceptic content. Often, embedded in the heart of neutral reportage would be links to more overt Eurosceptic news stories. Here we present one article which was a fairly impartial assessment of the latest polling data during the EU referendum. However, inside the article were embedded a series of leading tweets from other RT articles.
  22. 22. Although the content of the piece was relatively neutral, embedded in the piece were three tweets with leading titles.
  23. 23. Facebook Engagements + Twitter / Instagram / LinkedIn / Pinterest shares Facebook Engagements Estimated potential Facebook Impressions Potential Twitter Impressions Vote Leave 319,901 287,491 16,436,000 33,000,000 RT 215,337 191,139 7,349,568 120,000,000 Sputnik News 47,813 40,465 1,390,333 14,000,000 1,970 1,729 489,190 11,000,000 * See note (5). estimated Facebook impressions based on number of shares on Facebook and average number of friends per user, 338 Social media reach of Russian media anti-EU articles vs. Leave campaign
  24. 24. Russian media in the UK has a developed social following 292k likes 325k followers 66K Twitter followers 54k YouTube subscribers 278k Instagram followers (global channel) 2.7m likes 3m followers 55.4k Twitter followers 45k YouTube subscribers 17.8k Instagram followers (all global channels) 9k likes 9k followers 7.5k Twitter followers 24k YouTube subscribers (global channel) 30.7k Instagram followers 230k likes 244k followers 52.5K Twitter followers 304k YouTube subscribers 1k Instagram followers (all global channels)
  25. 25. 934,229 653,201 255,374219,469219,135 Estimated Potential Facebook Impressions
  26. 26. Key questions for Facebook and Twitter ● How much did RT, Sputnik and Ruptly spend on advertising on your platforms in the six months before the referendum in 2016? ● How much have these media platforms spent to build their social followings? ● Sputnik has no active Facebook page, but has a significant number of Facebook shares for anti-EU content, does Sputnik have an active Facebook advertising account? ● Will Facebook and Twitter check the dissemination of content from these sites to check they are not using bots to push their content?
  27. 27. Key questions for Facebook and Twitter ● Did either RT, Sputnik or Ruptly use ‘dark posts’ on either Facebook or Twitter to push their content during the EU referendum, or have they used ‘dark posts’ to build their extensive social media following? (11) ● What processes do Facebook or Twitter have in place when accepting advertising from media outlets or state owned corporations from autocratic or authoritarian countries? Noting that Twitter no longer takes advertising from either RT or Sputnik. ● Did any representatives of Facebook or Twitter pro-actively engage with RT or Sputnik to sell inventory, products or services on the two platforms in the period before 23 June 2016?
  28. 28. Russian Media vs Other State Media
  29. 29. Bias Results Summary Russia ● RT - Leave: 73% Neutral: 21% Remain: 6% ● Sputnik - Leave: 58% Neutral: 38% Remain: 4% France ● France 24 - Leave: 2% Neutral: 38% Remain: 60% USA ● PBS - Leave: 25% Neutral: 50% Remain: 25%
  30. 30. Russian Media in detail
  31. 31. Overview 1,730 is the total number of Twitter posts on Brexit by Russian media from: - Russian Today - Ruptly - Sputnik News These tweets had a combined reach of 970 million total potential impressions
  32. 32. (Day of Brexit) Russian media tweeting Brexit updates, with tweets of both anti-Brexit and pro-Brexit sentiment. On the day of the EU referendum, Russian media significantly increased their push on Twitter on referendum stories
  33. 33. Top 10 Most Popular Hashtags
  34. 34. Most mentioned users: sample tweets
  35. 35. Our analysis of bias Our researchers assessed the most shared articles about the EU or the EU referendum debate between 1 January and the close of polls on 23 June 2016. We divided the articles into three categories based on the criterion: What would a reasonable reader infer the bias of this article was? A number of the RT/Sputnik articles were straight reporting of the facts, or had quotes from both sides of the debate. We classified these as ‘neutral’, e.g. there was no objective bias. For articles or comment pieces that emphasised positive aspects of the European Union, or of the Remain campaign, we classified these articles as ‘Remain’. No social share data for articles that were Remain or Neutral is included in our analysis of anti-EU articles. Articles that a reasonable person would infer had a bias towards the Leave campaign, or were overtly negative about the European Union, we classified as ‘Leave’ - these are the articles that we analysed in more detail and that the social data relates to.
  36. 36. Russia Today We analysed 98 pro-Brexit or anti-EU articles from between 1 January 2016 and 23 June 2016. These were shared or engaged with a total of 270,781 times. Breakdown of shares by platform: - Facebook: 215,337 engagements - Twitter: 21,816 shares - LinkedIn: 466 shares - Pinterest: 162 shares Twitter: - Shared by over 10,500 unique users from the RT Twitter channel. - 74% of these users shared just one of the articles. 16% shared more than one
  37. 37. Sputnik News Between 1 January 2016 and 23 June 2016 Sputnik News published 168 pro-Brexit or anti-EU articles. These were shared or engaged with a total of 47,813 times. Breakdown of shares of this anti-EU content by platform: - Facebook: 40,465 engagements - Twitter: 6,861 shares - LinkedIn 93 shares - Pinterest 155 shares Twitter: - Tweets from the Sputnik Twitter account about Brexit were shared by 3,389 unique users. - 81% of these users shared just one of the articles. 19% shared more than one - There's a 7% overlap between people who retweet Sputnik and Russia Today
  38. 38. Russia Today article samples 28,787 engagements / shares 20,597 engagements / shares 8,234 engagements / shares 6,886 engagements / shares 6,812 engagements / shares 6,497 engagements / shares
  39. 39. Russia Today article samples 6,059 engagements / shares 5,221 engagements / shares 3,474 engagements / shares 5,596 engagements / shares 4,934 engagements / shares 4,386 engagements / shares 3,893 engagements / shares 3,451 engagements / shares
  40. 40. Russia Today article samples 2,374 engagements / shares 148 engagements / shares 1,770 engagements / shares 834 engagements / shares 1,104 engagements / shares
  41. 41. Sputnik news article samples 15,138 engagements / shares 4,787 engagements / shares 366 engagements / shares 859 engagements / shares996 engagements / shares
  42. 42. Section 2- the role of Russian bots: All languages
  43. 43. Key findings ● Russian bots did play a role in the EU referendum. Russian bots identified by the US Congress and Buzzfeed delivered over 10,000,000+ potential Twitter impressions during the EU referendum. This is equivalent to around 29% of the total impressions delivered direct from the Vote Leave Twitter account during the referendum (2).
  44. 44. Overview & Key Questions Period of Analysis: (1.1.2016 to 23.06.2016) ● Analysis of Russian Bots as revealed by US lawmakers (2,752 accounts) and 45 others, as revealed by BuzzFeed ● This is an analysis of a small segment of discovered Russian bots (City University, London found 13,500 potential bot accounts) ● Who are the primary active bots seeding and sharing content about Brexit in the global twittersphere? ● What is being shared about this topic both within the core community and beyond? ● What was the extent of influence of these bots on the results of the referendum?
  45. 45. Overview ● Total number of posts: 2,598 posts (number of posts related to Brexit by Russian bots in all languages) ● The word clusters (left) provide a snapshot of the most commonly discussed topics related to Brexit by Russian bots between 1 Jan 2016 and 23 Jan 2016 ● Combined, these tweets created over 10 million total potential Twitter impressions
  46. 46. (Day of Brexit) Various Russian bots tweeting. Buzz chart: Jan 2016 - 23 June 2016
  47. 47. Mix of pro-Remain and pro-Brexit hashtags Top 10 most popular hashtags used by the Russian bots
  48. 48. Most mentioned users by the Russian bots 1/2 German national and international television news service German national weekly newspaper Editor writing for ZEIT Online President of the @EU_Commission German social media user
  49. 49. Most mentioned users by the Russian bots 2/2 Donald Tusk, President of the European Council. German finance reporter at Welt (German national daily newspaper) Bloomberg: business news (New York/ International) German politician and Member of the European Parliament from Germany Ex-prime minister of UK
  50. 50. Most mentioned users by the Russian bots: sample tweets
  51. 51. Most mentioned users by the Russian bots: analysis ● Within the top ten most mentioned users by Russian bots, 60% are German. ● Out of the remaining 40% of mentioned users, 10% of users are British. The one British user is the UK prime minister at the time of the referendum, David Cameron. ● The other 30% of users are American and European. ● Rather than the bots generating new content about Brexit they are mostly retweeting German users’ tweets about Brexit. As a result, several of the tweets are in German.
  52. 52. Most retweeted Tweets by the Russian bots
  53. 53. Most retweeted Tweets (2) ● All accounts behind the top ten most retweets by Russian bots have been suspended by Twitter, hence likely to be bots themselves. Also, all accounts are from Germany that can be geographically located. ● 70% of the top retweets are by the user '@blackjackweiner’. There is a limited insight into this account given its suspension, however their profile says that they joined Twitter in December 2015. ● Consequently, top retweets are equally German dominated as with most mentioned users, and again, for inexplicable reasons.
  54. 54. Summary The total number of posts related to Brexit by known Russian bots is 2,598 and the total number of tweets related to Brexit by all users within this period is 22,110,853. Consequently, from this narrow segment, Russian bots are responsible for 0.0117% of tweets related to Brexit (in all languages). The City University, London research found 5% of all EU referendum tweeters were either deleted or recycled with a new name
  55. 55. Russian bots: English
  56. 56. Overview ● Total number of posts: 999 (number of posts related to Brexit by Russian bots in English) ● The most common terms are “brexit” (40% of posts) and “eu” (27% of posts)
  57. 57. (Day of Brexit) Same as all languages Key Drivers of Conversation
  58. 58. Top 10 most popular English hashtags used by the bots
  59. 59. (Same as all languages) (Same as all languages) (Same as all languages) Latest comment, analysis and discussion from the British newspaper, the Guardian U.K. news, blogs and original content offering coverage of various topics Most mentioned users 1/2
  60. 60. (Same as all languages) British financial journalist An American television cable and satellite news and satire channel MP, Former Prime Minister of Estonia Latest from the Finnish Government and ministries Most mentioned users 2/2
  61. 61. Summary ● The top ten most mentioned users by Russian bots in English are a mix of British (40%), European (40%) and American (20%) ● The total number of posts related to Brexit by Russian bots in English is 738 and the total number of tweets related to Brexit by all users within this period (in english) is 19,852,148. ● Out of the total number of tweets by Russian bots, 34% are retweets (almost the same as all languages) ● Consequently, this segment of Russian bots are responsible for 0.0037% of tweets related to Brexit (in english). City University’s figures are significantly higher.
  62. 62. Appendix A: Terminology and Notes
  63. 63. Terminology ● Paid social - social media content that the delivery is paid for ● Organic social - social media that is shared by users because they want to show the content to their followers (regardless of platform). ● Estimated impressions - this is a calculation based on industry estimates of how many people see a piece of content posted either on Facebook or Twitter. For instance, John Doe has 100 friends on Facebook and posts a link with an image for a political article, our estimate that 10 of John’s friends would see this in their timeline. Joe Doe has 100 Twitter followers, our estimate is between 5 and 10 of John’s Twitter followers would be served any of John’s tweets. ● Potential impressions - refers to estimates of the number of people who could have seen a Tweet. 5 users each with 1,000 Twitter followers tweet a link, this would be 5,000 potential impressions, as potentially 5,000 people could see the link.
  64. 64. Notes on research ● (1) PBS and France24 shared content, data from Buzzsumo. ● (2) Russian bots delivered over 10,000,000+ potential Twitter impressions during the EU referendum. This is equivalent to around 29% of the total potential impressions delivered direct from the Vote Leave Twitter account from 22 Jan 2016 until 3 June 2016. This is based on the total number of tweets from Vote Leave in this period (790) x average number of Vote Leave followers during this period (44,142) based on a follower count of 34,872 on 22 Jan 2016 and 49,983 on 3 June 2016 (we used a straight line estimate). ● (3) Based on an average mean Facebook user having 338 friends according to Pew Research. Impressions is the maximum potential number of people who see a post, based on the number of Facebook shares times by the average number of Facebook friends per Facebook user. The real figure is likely to be significantly less, but we cannot tell reach as each post by each Facebook user could lead to a different number of impressions. ● (4) 39,310 is calculated using the higher figure for ‘likes’ and ‘follows’ for each Facebook page (there can be overlap between likes and follows, but also no overlap, so using the larger figure of the two gives a conservative estimate of actual people having engagement with an account - eg. one user may like and follow one page, another user may just follow that page). The total across all the pages is divided by estimated organic reach which at the time of the EU referendum, a conservative estimate is around 3%. Many Facebook pages with an engaged audience saw considerably higher reach, often over 10%, but we are using a lower, more conservative figure for Facebook pages.
  65. 65. Notes on research ● (5) We are using a reach figure of 33.4 for each individual organic post. This figure is based on the average Facebook user having an average number of friends of 338 and an estimated organic reach of 10% from link posts by individuals giving 33.4 as a reasonable estimate of the number of people who would see each post shared by an individual. Many of the posts will have been shared by groups or pages with large numbers of followers giving bigger reach than 33.4; this is offset by Facebook posts reaching people outside the UK though the Leave campaign organic figures include non-UK nationals (it is difficult to separate this data). Facebook page sizes based on figures from late June 2016; eg. Vote Leave (554k). ● (6) The figure for the value of Russian media coverage of the Leave campaign is based on 261 Brexit articles published by RT between 1 January 2016 and 24 June 2016, of which 98 had a pro-Leave slant and 163 articles published by Sputnik International which had a clear pro-Leave slant according to our researchers. We will publish the full list for transparency. Each RT article has a media value of £5,681 and each Sputnik article £4,886, according to media monitoring organisation Kantar. ● (7) We use an average of $1.45 USD to GBP for the period 1 January - 22 June based on historical data. We exclude the major fall in the currency after the result of the referendum was known.
  66. 66. Notes on research ● (8) The figure for the value of Twitter impressions is based on the Twitter API search result of 200,000,000 impressions for content on RT/Sputnik converted into delivered impressions using a 5% potential to delivered impression conversion and a CPM of $7 (the 2016 Twitter global figure). The global figure of $7 CPM is arguably lower than the UK CPM in 2016, especially during the EU referendum. The conversion of 5% is a medium figure based on a low number of accounts with over 100k followers sharing the content, which tallies with our analysis of the shares. We give two figures, one at 5% conversion, one at 10% conversion. ● (9) Ruptly had 84,781 likes as of 6 October 2016 and 28,099 a year before on 31 October 2015. Based on straight line follower growth we estimate Ruptly had 60,000 followers in June 2016. With 72 videos posted on their channel plus the organic shares we estimate their total Facebook impressions to be 10,850,000. ● (10) The top 100 articles were analysed for their coverage of either the Leave or Remain campaigns; our researchers considered how a reasonable person would read the coverage and draw a conclusion as to whether the coverage was positive (or negative) about either the Leave or Remain campaigns, or was neutral about the campaigns. Articles negative about the EU are included in the Leave coverage. An article which highlighted an announcement by a particular campaign - without coverage for the other campaign - is categorised as coverage for that campaign.
  67. 67. Notes on research ● (11) 'Dark Posts' are social media posts which are promoted through the social media platform’s advertising tools to target audiences. The posts are referred to as ‘dark’ as they cannot be seen by users unless they have been specifically targeted. These posts cannot be seen on the advertiser’s social media account at all.
  68. 68. RT most influential sharers of content by Klout score RT Leave articles 16,545 Total Posts 120 million total potential impressions Author Name @TRobinsonNewEra Tommy Robinson GB @georgegalloway George Galloway @Trump_Videos Deplorable Covfefe @End_of_Europe Stephanie Cisnero @janimine Jani @V_of_Europe Voice of Europe @CherylShuman Cheryl Shuman @COLRICHARDKEMP Richard Kemp @RayJoha2 Raymond Johansen @_HankRearden #Bossy Hank III @davidicke David Icke
  69. 69. Sputnik most influential sharers of content by Klout score 3,389Total Posts 14 million total potential impressions Author Name @SputnikInt Sputnik @PrisonPlanet Paul Joseph Watson @TRobinsonNewEra Tommy Robinson GB @End_of_Europe Stephanie Cisnero @V_of_Europe Voice of Europe @YourAnonGlobal Anonymous @MikkiL Mikkil #BRINO #Brexit GBUS @WellyTopping Welly Topping @HouseCracka General Deplorable @DonaldTrumpWall DonaldTrumpWall