It is impossible to accurately estimate the number of Russian state-sponsored accounts operating on Twitter and Facebook. Researchers come up with a wide range of possibilities, suggesting that Russian interference in British political and cultural life could come from anywhere between 50 and 150,000 accounts.
The explanation for this is not because the Russians are particularly secretive or expert at covering their tracks, but the attitude of Twitter and Facebook who fight attempts by independent researchers to come up with an answer. As a result, academics and analysts attempting to come up with a definitive answer often produce wildly divergent estimates.
Yin Yin Lu, a researcher at Oxford University, cited 54 Twitter accounts that had tweeted about Brexit and were included on a list of 2,752 users that the social network had concluded were actually operating from a state-backed “troll factory” in St Petersburg. Another researcher, at the University of Edinburgh, found almost 10 times as many from the same list: at least 419, according to Prof Laura Cram, director of neuropolitics research.
Researchers at City, University of London give a figure two further orders of magnitude higher: in October, they documented a network of 13,493 accounts “that tweeted the United Kingdom European Union membership referendum, only to disappear from Twitter shortly after the ballot”. Those researchers declined to guess at who might be pulling the strings of the vast botnet, but did say that they did not believe it “substantively altered” the tenor of the campaign.
But a fourth set of researchers have produced a higher still estimate: 150,000 accounts with links to Russia tweeted about Brexit in the run-up to the referendum, according to Swansea University’s Oleksandr Talavera, working with researchers from his university and UC Berkeley in America. That network of accounts came from nowhere to post huge numbers of tweets in the run-up to the vote – almost 40,000 messages on one day alone – then disappearing.
According to researchers from five different universities, then, the scale of Russian interference was somewhere between 50 and 150,000 accounts.
The problem for all the researchers is that only one organisation has the data they need, and Twitter is not willing to share it. We only know the names of any professional trolls at all because Twitter handed over a limited list of those accounts involved in US politics that it believed to be linked with the Internet Research Agency “troll army”.