U.K. Lawmakers Call Twitter’s Brexit Response 'Inadequate'

(Bloomberg) -- U.K. lawmakers have called on Twitter Inc. to provide more information on accounts that may have influenced the 2016 campaign to leave the European Union, after an original response by the company was branded “inadequate.”

The Chairman of Parliament’s Culture Media and Sport Committee, Damian Collins, released a letter Thursday to Twitter’s Chief Executive Officer Jack Dorsey demanding the company respond by Jan. 15 to queries about research by City University, London, concerning some 13,500 suspected automated accounts, or bots. 

Collins said a letter Twitter released Wednesday about Russian involvement in the vote didn’t sufficiently answer the questions he’d posed. That letter was sent to the Electoral Commission, Britain’s elections watchdog, which is carrying out its own investigation into whether the campaign to leave the EU broke spending laws. 

In it, Twitter revealed RT, an account run by the state-funded broadcaster RT, formerly known as Russia Today, spent $1,031.99 on six advertisements related to the campaign. Collins said his committee’s inquiry has a wider remit.

Twitter spokesman Ian Plunkett declined to comment on Collins’ criticism. But in its letter to Collins’ committee Twitter said its review of suspect activity around the EU referendum vote is continuing and that it would provide Collins’ committee with updates if it identified additional information.

Marco Bastos, a lecturer in media and communications at City University who co-authored the study of Twitter activity around the EU referendum, said he shared lawmakers’ concerns about lack of transparency from Twitter and Facebook on the issue of Russian interference.

He said while his own study was able to identify suspicious accounts that seemed to be part of a botnet -- a group of fake accounts controlled by a single entity and programmed to automatically tweet certain messages - the researchers did not have enough data to determine who was controlling this activity.

Bastos said Twitter itself, however, ought to have enough metadata -- information such as the IP addresses being used by these accounts, the times of the day they were active, and what other accounts they were linked to -- to get a much clearer picture of the scope of the botnet and who might have been controlling it. He cautioned, however, that sifting through this meta-data was an arduous task, requiring a lot of manual examination of accounts and metadata.

Facebook Inc. has also tried to dismiss concerns of Russian meddling in the Brexit vote. Collins on Wednesday attacked the social media giant for failing to address his questions about possible Russian interference in the 2016 referendum to leave the European Union and the June election.

In a letter to the committee released Wednesday, Facebook said the Internet Research Agency -- an entity that U.S. intelligence agencies have identified as part of a Russian-led effort to sway the U.S. presidential election -- only spent 97 cents on ads targeting U.K. audiences in the lead-up to the referendum. The money purchased three ads that were seen by about 200 people over four days in May 2016, according to the letter.

Collins said that Facebook should have conducted a more thorough investigation, going beyond just one known Russian-linked entity.

©2017 Bloomberg L.P.

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