The sharing of Johnson’s Brexit tweets raises some interesting questions

Boris Johnson & Donald Trump
Peadar O'Cearnaigh

Academic Marc Owen Jones studied two of Boris Johnson’s Brexit tweets from 15 and 27 August. He found something, that could be revealing when he analysed 13,000 retweets of Johnson’s original messages.

Jones suggested that a large number of these retweets could either be “inorganic” or from Trump supporters.

His analysis also led Journalist Carole Cadwalladr to say some accounts sharing Johnson’s tweets may be either “fake” or “Trumpist”.

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Johnson’s tweet

On 15 August, Johnson tweeted:

He tweeted the exact same message on 27 August.

Analysis

Jones is an assistant professor in Middle East studies and digital humanities at Hamad bin Khalifa University in Doha. One of his key research areas is investigating “propaganda and Twitter bots”.

When he investigated the descriptions of the accounts that retweeted Johnson’s original tweets, he discovered a large number contained the word “Trump” or “MAGA”. MAGA stands for Make America Great Again, which was Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election slogan.

The account biographies mentioned the word “MAGA” 1,025 times and “Trump” 853 times. They only mentioned “#Brexit” 508 times. This is odd, according to Jones, as they were retweeting the comments of a British politician:

And while the accounts with “Trump” or MAGA” only accounted for 8% of the sample, it’s still significant according to Jones. It prompted him to look further.

Jones’ conclusion

While acknowledging the USA has a larger population than the UK, Jones feels one explanation for the many pro-Trump biographies is that:

If we make another assumption, that many of the accounts are inorganic trolls (i.e. paid to promote Trump and his policies), then it probably makes more sense.

This led Jones to suggest that based on his “ongoing analysis of Twitter propaganda”:

I would say organised entities are manipulating Twitter (including @BorisJohnson TL) in order to promote a hard-brexit. This #MAGA community’s other tropes are familiar and consistent –
they are anti-Corbyn, anti-Islam, often self described ‘patriots’, or veterans, pro-Israel and anti-fascists. I don’t doubt a huge number are real, but I am genuinely surprised by how many can consistently be so on message. 

Jones also suggested:

that of Johnson’s retweets, a large number of those promoting the message are accounts that clearly align themselves with Trump.

Jones concluded:

This is large scale analysis so I should re-emphasise a number of the accounts will be legitimate, but I’d wager a significant amount are absolutely not. We know enough now to assume that this type of behaviour is par for the course.

It is sad so little is being done about it. Anyway, be vigilant, and angry, and above all, #StopTheCoup.

Online reaction

Many people responded to Cadwalladr’s comments that people retweeting may be either ‘fake’ and ‘Trumpist’:

Keep questioning

While Jones’ findings are small in the greater scheme of things, it could be revealing of a far bigger picture. Also, his findings indicate that we need more people conducting this kind of analysis and investigation to counter far-right propaganda.

But even where this level of analysis is not possible, we need people to continuously question them and call them out.

Featured image Screengrab/BBC News & Flickr/Matt Johnson

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    1. Twitter – the problem and a solution

      Twitter and similar ‘social media’ bear inherent threat of inducing societal instability and sweeping reason entirely out of sight.

      It is not sharing opinion, however stupid and inflammatory instances may be, at fault. The problem rests with the mechanism deployed. Remarks get instant response. Responses cascade and branch off. The cult of ‘followers’ overshadows, knocks aside, the small voice of reason. Limited space for expressing an opinion encourages unnuanced remarks and discourages development of argument.

      Whereas topics such as ‘celebrity’ accounts of their bowel movement status are harmless that is not so for political discourse. Mr Trump exemplifies instant response taken to a fine art. Perhaps he has discerned the distracting nature of Twitter conversation and uses it to set agendas for discussion and to wrong-foot opponents. That need not cause worry because he entraps fools in his net and leaves them to fight among themselves.

      Other politicians and so-called ‘opinion formers’ jump into Twitter at the drop of a hat. That is often harmless too. However, when someone with power to exercise authority, e.g. a cabinet minister, offers instant response, one ought worry whether they thought matters through.

      Rabble rousers make hay on Twitter. Their opinions, suitably cast to be provocative, can give rise to huge Twitter swarms which are picked up by news media. In these days of barely sentient populations validity of a statement is determined by the number of adherents rather than by merit of argument (a similar criticism applies to representative democracy with universal franchise).

      Added to the Twitter mix is malign influence of advertisers, spin doctors, and apologists for corporate bad behaviour.

      The core cause of Twitter malady is immediacy of response. Responses can rapidly cascade into an equivalent of squealing speaker feedback in an audio system with microphone gain set too high or located too close to a speaker. That’s known as positive feedback. It a phenomenon found among many potentially self-referential systems.

      Another example is algorithmic high frequency trading on stock and commodity markets. This a widely prevalent market manipulation tool which when totally out of hand can crash markets before human oversight is aware of a problem.

      In all instances capable of generating destructive feedback there is a simple solution: introduce delay. That is achievable by moving a microphone away from speakers, by insisting stock market trades be placed by humans, and by delaying responses on Twitter.

      One means of calming Twitter is to prevent any response to a tweet, from anybody, for a period of minutes (randomly assigned each time from an interval of, say, ten minutes to thirty minutes). Additionally, nobody should be permitted to post new tweets, to respond to a tweet, or to re-tweet more than once in a determined period of time (this may vary according to the nature of the activity). In addition to encouraging a little thought this would scupper algorithmic ‘bots’.

      Social media have become public utilities. There is no reason why governments cannot individually, and collectively, impose sensible restraints. If Twitter were to be made hard to access in the UK until improvement is in place a rapid response is anticipated. Similarly, algorithmic trading ought be outlawed.

      —–

      atlanticcouncil@protonmail.com

    2. Another well written post, arguably as good as an entire article.

      I don’t think the solutions you propose would actually work the way you hope they would. I could be wrong, but here’s what strikes me as being likely to fail.

      In algorithmic trading, there are so many trades a second a human being just could not keep up (I think it’s in the region of 300 trades per second, maybe even more now as technology doesn’t stand still). If we were to insist that human beings must do this, I can see many other Nations not following suit, and I suspect the UK would put up the biggest fight against going back, all because a great deal of money would be lost in the change, for example wages and actual loss due to humans processing speed being much, much slower than a computer.

      The thing is that whilst we the people might want to outlaw algorithmic trading, them the corporations, and them the politicians, and them the military industrial complex, would be dead against it, and so we the people are unlikely to get our way, even though it might be safer for all of us, though saying that there wasn’t a single algorithm involved in the 1929 Wall Street crash, and there are plenty of other examples of non-machine-made disasters, directly attributable to human error.

      I suspect that a valid answer to algorithmic trading errors, would be a second (or more) algorithmic trade fault detector/s, which presumably (if it/they doesn’t/don’t exist already) would at least be able to catch errors in the first instance quicker than a human, and even the remedy could be programmatically handled.

      Admittedly this would likely still be something a human would only become aware of after the fact, but hopefully that would reduce the chances of a dire situation arising, unless of course the algorithmic trade fault detector/s themselves become faulty, leading again to a dire situation, now even more complex to decipher for a human.

      When it comes to social media like Twitter, your idea of introducing a delay and limit to responses would I think have the desired effect for a short period of time, but after that people would just find either other ways of circumventing those blocks, or give up and go somewhere else.

      The problem with introducing measures that delay or block, and going further to legislate them into place, is that they will be perceived as yet another infringement of civil liberties, and would certainly be yet another move towards the Orwellian Nightmare we are already well within. I agree that a delay could indeed give pause for thought, but then rash people don’t like being delayed, and thinkers don’t generally need to be regulated, or forced to think things through.

      Thinkers like yourself tend to ponder things before committing thoughts to words, with maybe a few instances where mistakes were made due to the volume of data, or facts which turn out to be unreliable due to someone else’s dishonesty or mistakes. I already know that you are the sort of person who reads through their own posts before posting, it is clear in your style.

      I think, and this really is just my opinion not a fact, that most people frequenting social media sites like Twitter, want very much to be able to fire-off rapid responses, and as many as they feel necessary, to put their point of view across. You and I and others on this site are doing so right now. That doesn’t in any way go against what you have insightfully pointed out about the nature and behaviour of social media users, I agree wholeheartedly with your assessments, excepting the proposed solution of introducing a delay and limit.

      I hate to say it, but I think it needs to be said, the real answer to all of these issues is education, education, education. Many users of the internet as a whole, are actually woefully ignorant of what dangers there are, and they also bring very poor debating skills to the table, which they make up for by bombarding sites with their badly constructed arguments and opinions. They don’t tend to care what they are writing, as long as it gets noticed, and if that starts a flame war, all the better, they got the attention and now feel important.

      Like you mentioned earlier though, it’s not the opinions right or wrong, that matter, in fact little of what anyone says on social media really matters, even this post is not something the World needs to listen to, no matter how much anyone might think so.

      Sure I would love it if social media sites like Twitter were actually a genuine forum for progressive problem-solving, and generally helping each other to attain better knowledge and communication skills, and sometimes I come across people like you who do give me reason to think and learn, and be grateful for it, but for the most part, it is people that just want to be heard and feel less powerless in the face of a great deal of fear-mongering, and real reasons to fear.

      This tells me that the real issue on all fronts, is that as a species we are terrible at communication, invariably we use it badly, and even when we do use it well, due to the fact that we are individuals, we can never be 100% sure that our communication efforts were fully understood by the receiver.

      I realise of course that saying we are bad communicators seems to fly in the face of facts, I mean are we not the most skilled communicators on the planet? We have hundreds of languages, codes and methods with which to convey the thoughts we have to each other, and yet we are generally so poor at communication, that misunderstandings, delusions, fake news, and so many other aberrations due to poor communication occur.

      The solutions to many of our problems are better communication, an effort that is sadly deliberately countered by a) people hating to be wrong and refusing to learn from their mistakes b) people who love living in ignorance but still want to be heard c) people who wish to lie to get what they want regardless of the consequences to everyone else d) people who hate life so much, they deliberately want to contribute to its destruction in any way that doesn’t bring immediate destruction to themselves.

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