- Accounts based in a Russia "troll factory" have been tweeting Islamophobia in the U.K.
- The posts are thought to have been intended to influence a Brexit vote
- However, the aim might be broader than that, seeking to spread discord in British politics and society
- Still, many Brits online have warned against blaming Russia for home-grown intolerance
by Rosie Alfatlawi
Fake Russian accounts have been responsible for spreading Islamophobia online.
A Twitter account that originated a viral false story accusing a Muslim woman of ignoring terror attack victims has been revealed to be one of hundreds created by a Kremlin-linked facility.
The revelation has left many wondering why Russia would want to target Muslims in the first place.
One theory is that the intention was to influence public opinion in the U.K. in favor of leaving the European Union ahead of the referendum on June 23 last year.
Take note Brextremists. You're being used as a puppet of Putin.https://t.co/PfcxBPJC1O— James McGrory (@JamesMcGrory) November 15, 2017
Fear surrounding immigration was exploited by pro-Brexit campaigners. In particular, sensationalist claims were made over Turkey’s possible accession to the E.U. which would, they suggested, open the doors to migration from the Middle East
The same account responsible for the fake claims against the Muslim woman, @Southlonestar, had tweeted “I hope UK after #BrexitVote will start to clean their land from muslim invasion!”
“UK voted to leave future European Caliphate! #BrexitVote,” read another of its tweets.
University of Edinburgh researchers found 419 accounts operated by the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) had tweeted about Brexit 3,468 times, according to The Guardian.
The IRA which ran the St Petersburg-based “troll-factory” has been linked to a businessman close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, The Guardian claims.
Former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul called the U.K. decision to leave the E.U. was “a giant victory for Putin’s foreign policy objectives.”
That theory, however, seems to be undermined by the fact that 78 percent of the Russian-generated tweets on Brexit came after the vote.
The emphasis on the E.U. vote was, some have suggested, part of a broader project to spread division in British society.
A relief that this story has finally broken through into the mainstream. Evidence has been mounting for some time that the Kremlin supported Brexit to cause division in the UK and undermine our democracy https://t.co/eCMkZdFqxt— Molly Scott Cato MEP (@MollyMEP) November 15, 2017
Prof Laura Cram, director of neuropolitics research at the University of Edinburgh, told The Guardian posts on Brexit were “quite chaotic and it seems to be aimed at wider disruption.”
“There’s not an absolutely clear thrust. We pick up a lot on refugees and immigration.”
Among the tweets were those targeted at London’s first Muslim Mayor Sadiq Khan.
British MP and head of a parliamentary committee investigating “fake news,” Damian Collins, told the Guardian that the agency had aimed to “divide society and destabilise politics.”
Brexit certainly split Britain in two, and caused considerable internal issues for its major political parties.
It also provoked a rise in Islamophobia and Xenophobia. Hate crimes rose by nearly 4,000 in the quarter after the vote, according to figures published by the Press Association.
Still, many in the U.K. suggest it could be too tempting to blame the hatred surrounding Brexit on Russian trolls.
Commenting on Facebook, Michael Edward wrote: “Whether or not the Kremlin was involved is secondary. If they were, they played off Remain’s weak, prejudicial campaign.”
The image shared by @Southlonestar, for instance, was also tweeted by many genuine far-right British accounts and was later picked up by elements of the press.
It showed a hijab-wearing woman walking past a victim of the March Westminster Bridge attack, which killed five. The caption read: “Muslim woman pays no mind to the terror attack, casually walks by a dying man while checking phone #PrayForLondon #Westminster #BanIslam.”
Both the photographer and the woman herself later spoke out against claims she was unaffected.
The fake accounts accused of influencing British politics are among 2,700 shut down by the U.S. and handed to the House Intelligence Committee.
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