If you’ve been following the latest news about Brexit, then you’ve probably heard about the so-called ‘Surrender Act’.
It’s Boris Johnson’s way of describing the Benn Act, passed by Parliament earlier this month to prevent No-Deal Brexit. This forces Johnson to seek an extension to Article 50, if he can’t reach a deal with the EU by October 19, 2019.
Unsurprisingly, Johnson and his supporters didn’t take kindly to this legislation. They claimed that the Act would ‘undermine’ Britain’s negotiating power with the EU.
#SurrenderAct immediately started trending on Twitter. But who exactly was tweeting it? I jumped into the analytics to find out.
When did the hashtag start?
When analysing a hashtag, I like to start by checking when it was first tweeted, and by whom. #SurrenderAct was first used by an account that really didn’t want to look like a bot…
Below we see a sharp spike in activity around the hashtag. It was tweeted over 3000 times over 12 hours (mainly during the UK night time).
So who else is tweeting about #SurrenderAct? Below are the top 10 most active hashtag users. In the rest of this post, I’ll put these accounts under the microscope.
Bot, cyborg, or organic human?
You’re probably wondering how many of these accounts are bots. Time for a quick reminder about what bots can (and can’t) do on Twitter. They’re pieces of code designed to amplify a particular hashtag, user or keyword. DFR Lab has a useful guide for spotting automated accounts.
The most obvious indicator of ‘bot-ness’ is high levels of activity, i.e. non-human tweeting patterns. Other top indicators are anonymity: e.g. no photo, or a generic one, a non-specific (usually political) bio, and a vague location, e.g. ‘England’, and amplification: only retweeting or liking other people’s tweets – i.e. boosting their messages in a quick and low-effort way.
Bots are less effective in human-to-human engagement, such as arguing with other Twitter users. That’s more likely to be human operators (or cyborgs, which mix bots with humans).
So, if boosting #SurrenderAct was the main purpose of these accounts, then we’d expect to find evidence of typical bot-like behaviours.
Let’s take a look at three interesting accounts within the top 10.
1. The Hyper-Prolific Tweeter
This account is new to Twitter, having joined in March this year. It has no photo (only the typical ‘egg’) and no bio. Definitely low effort.
But its rate of tweeting is impressive! During a short space of time, ‘christine’ has achieved a rate of over 1000 tweets per day.
Researchers cite a number of different benchmarks for assigning ‘bot-ness’. The Oxford Internet Institute says it’s an average of 50 tweets per day. DFR Lab is more generous. It claims that 72 tweets per day would be suspicious, and over 144 would be ‘highly suspicious’.
Remember too, that retweeting is faster and lower effort than creating replies or original tweets.
As shown above, ‘christine’ is going full bot. 100% of the account’s activity is retweets, all from the Twitter for iPhone app.
2. The Latent Islamophobe
‘Sue Reap’ is at number eight among those who most tweeted #SurrenderAct. There’s some interesting things going on with this account. Its bio is peppered with Tommy Robinson references and hashtags.
The account joined Twitter over seven years ago. But a couple of quick advanced searches shows that it didn’t tweet anything for most of 2012 or 2013.
Or, perhaps it did, but those tweets got deleted…It’s not easy to know.
Suddenly, ‘Susan’ springs into action in late 2013/early 2014 with a flurry of anti-Muslim tweets.
We can see that this account has a suspiciously high activity rate, producing 126.88 tweets per day, of which 22% is replies.
This rate puts the account close to the DFR Lab’s ‘highly suspicious’ bracket of 144 tweets per day.
So has ‘Susan’ given up on Tommy?
Not in the slightest. He’s still foremost in her mind, right up there with leaving the EU. It’s practically an obsession.
3. The ‘true-blue’ Brexiteer
This account is likely to be ‘organic’, i.e. a normal human user. It’s become quite Brexity in recent years, but still within the realms of normal human behaviour.
‘Pat’ was an early adopter of Twitter, joining in 2009, possibly when he/she was 55 (guessing from the handle). That would put them in their mid-60s now; the typical Brexit voter demographic.
At the beginning, ‘Pat’ tweeted everyday comments about garden parties and Michael Jackson. There was no sign of anything political.
Even in April 2016, when the referendum had already been announced, ‘Pat’ was still tweeting happily about normal things: celebrities, photography and TV shows.
By May, as Britain inched ever closer to that fateful date of June 23, 2016, the political side of ‘Pat’ suddenly became apparent. Out came the pro-Brexit tweets.
Despite this, the account is still within the realms of being normal. An activity rate of 33 tweets per day is nowhere near ‘botness’. What’s more, the 82% of replies shows that this account engages a lot with other users, rather than simply retweeting things blindly. This is not typical ‘bot’ behaviour.
It’s likely to be a typical older Brexit voter who has become somewhat radicalised by the tribal nature of this whole debate (it’s not just Brexit voters; but happens to both sides).
These are just a tiny sample of the millions of accounts out there engaging with political content.
Key takeaway: Don’t just assume everyone is a bot; instead think critically before jumping to conclusions.