‘Bot-like’ X accounts having ‘oversized influence’ on General Election – study

A new study has found that posts from 10 “bot-like” X accounts spreading disinformation and hate have been viewed more than 150 million times ahead of the UK General Election.

The accounts in question have shared more than 60,000 posts on social media platform X, formerly Twitter, since May 22, with those posts estimated to have been seen 150 million times, an investigation by non-governmental organisation (NGO) Global Witness found.

Many of the posts from these 10 prolific accounts contain “extreme and violent” hate speech, disinformation, conspiracy theories and praise Russian President Vladimir Putin, the organisation said.

It found that posts amplified by these bot-like accounts have spread Islamophobia, antisemitism, homophobia and transphobia, state that climate change is a “hoax”, that vaccines have created a “genocide”, and that Mr Putin is “the greatest president ever”.

The investigation found the bot-like accounts by searching among hashtags on migration and climate change covering a wide spectrum of views, from #welcomerefugees to #migration and #stoptheboats.

Rishi Sunak press conference
Frequent posting is considered to be a characteristic of a bot-like account (James Manning/PA)

Global Witness, an international NGO that focuses on the environment and human rights, said it considered accounts were “bot-like” if they had three or more “red flags”.

These included posting prolifically, having handles that end in a long string of numbers, and not having a profile picture that purports to be of the person running the account.

The 10 accounts identified by Global Witness have all posted frequently, with all 10 of them having days when they have shared more than 200 posts.

Four of the accounts have had days when they have shared more than 500 posts, and together they have spread some 60,000 posts since the election was called.

The study said: “The number of bot-like accounts we uncovered is also limited, but they have an extremely oversized influence given how prolifically they post and the number of people who are seeing their content.”

Nine of the bot-like accounts focus on UK politics and one focuses on US politics and the UK royal family but was uncovered through searches of accounts using UK-related hashtags, Global Witness said.

Two of the three accounts investigated by the NGO that have posted #stoptheboats encourage people to vote for Reform UK and all of the five accounts using the hashtag #labourlosing promoted Reform UK.

One of the 10 accounts had MBGA (Make Britain Great Again) alongside MAGA (Make America Great Again) and anti-migrant hashtags in their bio – it reposts anti-migrant, transphobic and far-right content and supports Reform UK.

On occasion it has posted nearly 600 tweets in a day and has increased the amount it posts since the election was called by more than 50%.

Another account described itself in its bio as being pro-Palestine, the environment and the NHS, is focused on stopping votes for the Conservative Party and regularly posts anti-Nigel Farage memes.

There is no evidence that any UK political party is paying for, using or promoting bots as part of their election campaigns, Global Witness said.

Someone signs into X on a black laptop with a white and blue screen
Social media has become a key element of election campaigns in recent years (Jonathan Brady/PA)

Ava Lee, campaign leader at Global Witness, said: “Political discussion online is often toxic – we all know that. But when we go on social media, we believe we’re seeing what real people think.

“While we might not agree with it, we trust that what we see are genuine views held by other voters.

“When that’s not true, when the conversation may have been influenced by someone who has paid for bots to spread division or to get a particular party into power, our democracy is in jeopardy.

“The UK is going to the polls in under a week. The US in four months. Half the world’s population this year. X, and all social media companies, need to clean up their platforms and put our democracies before profit.”

X did not respond to Global Witness or PA news agency attempts to obtain a comment on the findings.