Analysts at City University of London revealed new evidence of networks of over 13,000 suspected Twitter bots that tweeted primarily pro-Brexit messages in the run-up to the EU referendum in June 2016 and then vanished from the platform in the weeks following the vote.
According to research originally published in the peer-reviewed Social Science Computer Review journal, the suspected bot accounts were eight times more likely to tweet content associated with a pro-leave vote.
"This is research that corroborates what Facebook and others say: that there are bots that serve to falsely amplify certain messages," co-author Dan Mercea told BuzzFeed News.
"There is a potential distortion of public communications and we want to get to the bottom of that. This amplification is of concern as it gives us a false sense of momentum behind certain ideas… If there is false amplification, how do we know if someone is genuine?"
Having analyzed more than 10 million tweets related to Brexit hashtags and accounts from June 10 to July 10, 2016, analysts found that, rather than creating outright fake news, the suspected bots worked to "amplify" already existing memes, hyperpartisan news, and supportive media stories.
"As patterns of malicious activity evolve, we're adapting to meet them head-on. On average, our automated systems catch more than 3.2 million suspicious accounts globally per week — more than double the amount we detected this time last year," a Twitter spokesperson said in a statement to BuzzFeed News.
"Studies of the impact of bots and automation on Twitter necessarily and systematically under-represent our enforcement actions because these defensive actions are not visible via our API, and because they take place shortly after content is created and delivered via our streaming API," the spokesperson added.