UK ELECTION: Suspicious accounts with Nigerian following being used to push pro-Reform UK content on TikTok

Nunua Toka UK

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Apr 17, 2023
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As Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer faced their first head-to-head debate of the election campaign, all eyes were on how they would perform.

But cybersecurity experts at Cardiff University working with ITV News noticed a collection of accounts with "unusual behaviour" on TikTok pushing support for Reform UK.

Clips of the ITV Leaders' Debate, alongside the accompanying interviews with other parties, were repurposed for TikTok, but it was obvious how many comments included the phrases 'Vote Reform' or 'Reform UK' being posted on repeat.

Polls indicate there's been an increased level of support for Reform UK since the start of the election campaign, which rose further after Nigel Farage stood to be leader. However the weight and repetition of the comments, as well as the behaviour of some of the accounts, raised questions.

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There's no evidence to suggest Reform UK have had any involvement establishing the accounts, though all are clearly “Reform-supporting”, according to analysis by ITV News and the team at Cardiff University.

Analysis was conducted on 14 different videos posted to the ITV News and ITV Politics TikTok accounts around the one-hour ITV debate between Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer and accompanying 'Leaders Interview' programme. Only two of the 14 videos featured a representative from Reform UK.

In that time, roughly 4% of all comments across these videos consisted of the same Reform-supporting comments “Vote Reform” or “Reform UK”, which were repeated.

They far outstripped other comments openly supporting other parties.

In total there were 7,766 comments across all 14 videos.

From this, 45 different accounts were identified as repeatedly promoting Reform UK through their comments, to drum up support for the party.

Twenty three of those accounts had enough data for ITV News to analyse properly.

Experts working with ITV News believe more than half of the 14 accounts analysed could potentially be ‘bots’ or automated fake accounts, while an additional 25% displayed ‘bot-like’ behaviour.

This meant they were often posting content unrelated to their profile, or had a formulaic username, such as first name, surname and then a series of four different numbers.

The remaining 20% of those accounts analysed appeared to be legitimate accounts.

We tried messaging the 14 suspicious accounts on TikTok. Only three of them replied, stating they were supporters of Reform UK - but said they didn't want to speak to us when we requested a call.

The other accounts did not reply to us and we have not been able to establish if they are genuine.

All the accounts we analysed are thought to have originated in the UK, though a number had a disproportionate amount of followers, which experts at Cardiff University were able to trace to Nigeria. Those experts believe these may be bought followers, or ‘bots’ which help boost comments to increase prominence and engagement.

Across the Reform UK supporting accounts, more than 3,122 follower accounts were traced to Nigeria by our experts.

ITV News found a number of sites openly selling TikTok followers, with 1,000 followers costing as little as £15.

We also looked at the videos we had posted specifically relating to Reform UK. These included interviews with former leader Richard Tice and Nigel Farage, which had nowhere near the same scale of repetitive comments supporting the party.

A similar pattern of behaviour was also identified by the same experts across both X and on ITV News' live stream of the debate on YouTube.

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So could these followers be linked to 'bot-farms'?
Bot-farms are a collection of automated scripts designed to click or post content automatically, to either boost engagement or grow a following. Usually, they’re made up of a large collection of phones or tablets, connected to a controlling device, that then carry out repetitive tasks.

There have been similar allegations about bot farms influencing previous elections. In 2020, Facebook – whose parent company is Meta – claimed they’d discovered a Russian-led network of bot farms, outsourced to workers in Ghana and Nigeria.

However, experts at Cardiff University say there are “no indicators at this time” that, if these are bot farms, they've been established by or are working for, Russia due to the different nature of the way the accounts were set up.

Why is this happening?

The responses from some of these accounts show they are being run by Reform supporters, while others are still unproven and could well be inauthentic. However, experts maintain all the accounts aimed to amplify Reform UK’s messaging to a wider audience who might not otherwise be intending to vote for the party in July.

"This is hardly surprising", explained cybersecurity expert Tom Kirkham observed similar behaviour during the US elections in 2016 and 2020.

"It's a huge issue. It's hard to exaggerate the sheer size of the hacking industry. There are some estimates that in 2023, the industry was up to $10 billion."

Kirkham said social users can be more alert to what's real and what might not be: "You should be suspicious of any user generated content, just read the comments.”

"Make no mistake. These are highly professional coordinated campaigns.

"We all have a responsibility to realise that this is a clear and present danger."

A week on from our videos being posted, Reform-related comments began appearing as a 'blue comment' in the search bar at the top of many of them.

Our experts suggested this could be because TikTok's algorithm had been influenced by the weight of comments, and was prompting users with the option to search for more 'Reform UK'-related videos.

A spokesperson for Reform UK denied any involvement and claimed it was "laughable" they’d have the means or the inclination to set up these accounts.

They also said they were "delighted about the organic growth of online support", but said that does bring some accounts who are not formally associated with the party, and that "actively subvert and lie about who we are".

TikTok, who are investigating the accounts, told us: "We continue to protect the integrity of the UK General Election on TikTok by partnering with fact-checkers and the Electoral Commission to elevate reliable information in our Election Centre and strictly prohibiting deceptive behaviour, which we relentlessly pursue, remove, and report. It's disappointing that ITV have refused to provide evidence to support their supposed findings."

The Electoral Commission, which oversees UK elections, told us there is nothing specific in electoral law regarding the use of social media accounts, whether fake or genuine.

As a result, they urged voters to look out for an imprint, a requirement for election material showing who has paid to promote it, so they can be clear about who is trying to influence them.

"We encourage campaigners and parties to fulfil their vital role responsibly and to consider the impact of their activities on public confidence in elections," they said.
 
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