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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 14 November 2018

Russian trolls stoked UK hatred of Islam after terrorist attacks

Research shows most visible Russian twitter accounts spoke about Islamaphobia the most

The Kremlin has denied accusations it is behind the Internet trolling (Lonely Planet)
The Kremlin has denied accusations it is behind the Internet trolling (Lonely Planet)

Fuelling Islamophobia and provoking religious divisions were the main focus of Russian Twitter accounts targeting the UK, research has found.

The internet trolls came to the fore in 2017 when three separate terror attacks hit the UK, with posts on Islam retweeted 25 times more often than other previous messages.

When Twitter released the data of 3,841 accounts linked to the St Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency in October, initial investigations found a significant amount of pro-Leave Brexit-related messages.

However, further studies by the Demos think-tank in London of 83,000 UK-related tweets has shown that posts about Islam gained greater traction online.

Observers say Russia's actions were part of a ploy to sow discord in the west.

The most visible account, @TEN_GOP, shared 109 tweets related to the UK, 60 per cent of which talked about Islam.

It was a Twitter account falsely claiming to be run by the US Republican party in Tennessee, but in fact operated by a Russian state operative, according to Demos

“In our estimation, the ‘big guns’ focused on Islam more,” it said. Overall, in the top ten most noticeable accounts, 43.9 percent of their 428 Tweets were related to Islam.

Visibility was measured by multiplying the number of tweets the account sent by the number of retweets those messages received on average.

“Influence operations captured in this data show attempts to falsely amplify other news sources and to take part in conversations around Islam, and rarely show attempts to spread ‘fake news’ or influence at an electoral level,” the paper said.

“Sharia NO-GO areas in BRITAIN. Citizens blocked from their own suburbs. Only #Trump can stop this here!” said one post, which was retweeted 319 times. Others, also widely shared, accused Muslim refugees of being behind sexual assaults and acid attacks.

“London is the first victim of Islamization! Will America be the next? #WorldRefugeeDay #NeverHillary,” said another. The prevalence of messages supportive of Donald Trump were part of a wider trend among the 9 million tweets posted by the Russian trolls.

In contrast, London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, a Muslim, came under fierce attack from the Russian trolls as the UK was hit by a trio of devastating terror attacks in mid-2017. He was accused of sympathising with extremists with one tweet aimed at Mr Khan being shared nearly 14,000 times.

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After the Westminster attack in March last year, 815 messages related to Islam and the UK were sent and retweeted 32,501 times.

In May, following the Manchester bombing, 156 tweets went out and were shared 5,674 times. Only a couple of weeks later after the London Bridge stabbings, 445 tweets were posted by the Russian accounts with 60,324 retweets.

“7 more dead in London because of climate change. Oh wait, nope, it's Islamic terrorism again. #LondonAttacks,” said one tweet shared nearly 3000 times.

It is unclear why the accounts were less active during the Manchester bombing, despite significantly more casualties.

While the state-operated accounts were active from 2011, they focused on topics such as fitness until about 2016 when they had built up enough followers, the report said.

They gained a degree of visibility after the Brexit vote but the scale of Russian troll operations hit a peak after the 2017 attacks, researchers found.