Are fake pro-Reform UK social accounts influencing the election?

Reform UK manifesto

Fake Bots Influencing Reform UK Voters?

As a reporter focused on disinformation and its impact on social media, my main task is to identify and expose false information spread through social media platforms. I specifically look for instances of deliberate deceit and provide my readers with accurate and verified information to counteract these falsehoods. It’s a crucial job, given the rising concerns about the influence of disinformation on public opinion and society as a whole.

Reform UK manifesto - Figure 1
Photo BBC News

An X account has been sharing repeated messages such as "Vote for Reform UK" and "Reform UK is the only party with a genuine plan for the UK" numerous times every day since the election campaign began.

The social media accounts with usernames like GenZBloomer have come under scrutiny from the BBC for repeatedly posting messages of support for Reform UK. These accounts are active on various platforms including X, Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok and have posted hundreds of comments in favor of the political party.

Other people on social media are saying that these accounts are fake and run by robots. They believe that these robots are skewing the online conversation to make it seem like more people support Reform UK than actually do.

The BBC got in touch with the individuals operating the accounts and discovered that a few of them are actual UK voters who genuinely think they are aiding the party on their own. Nevertheless, others were unable to demonstrate their legitimacy.

While monitoring the recommended posts on our Undercover Voters' feeds, I noticed a recurring trend of comments. These are actually made by 24 fictional individuals scattered around the UK, formulated solely for the purpose of social media investigation during the election. We keep their profiles private with no added friends. They simply engage with and observe applicable content, including likes and follows.

Marianna Spring: What's the reason for me monitoring 24 mobile phones during the election?

In a message, the GenZbloomer account informed me that their primary objective currently is to revive and uphold the traditions and principles of British culture.

After worries about outside influence in past voting, a few people on social media have proposed that GenZbloomer - along with other corresponding accounts - might not have UK origins. They've highlighted certain expressions that a UK native might not typically employ, such as "make an article" rather than "write an article" and "neighbourhood tavern" instead of "local pub".

Some people believe that the GenZbloomer profile may be a parody. This is especially true when considering a particular blog post shared on platform X. In the post, the account claims that young men are facing difficulties finding traditional British women to date. The reason behind this, according to the post, is that women believe they are superior to others due to their love for reality TV shows such as Love Island, as well as their admiration for the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer.

The individual who identified themselves as the mastermind of GenZbloomer informed me that they were situated in the "region of Annesley England," which seemed like an uncommon method to depict the tiny hamlet in Nottinghamshire. Additionally, they offered a mobile phone number with a UK code.

They had given me the nod to talk to them over the phone, but when I tried reaching out to them, all my calls were ignored.

GenZBloomer has written a plethora of content on Reform UK on the X platform.

The WhatsApp account identifies itself as a business account for a "consulting agency" and displays a profile picture of a cartoon character without a face wearing a microphone headset.

In communications that contained grammatical errors, the individual proclaimed themselves to be a "voter from generation Z" who desires a "suitable Brexit, but it was destroyed by the Conservative Party".

The statement stated that they were cooperating "with Reform UK" in an effort to "aid them in their success and promote their beliefs throughout the United Kingdom".

The individual who sent me messages did not present any proof to back up their statement. In addition, a spokesperson from Reform UK stated that this particular profile had no affiliation with the party. According to Reform UK, they have already contacted social media platforms regarding other bogus accounts claiming to be linked with their party.

I received some replies from GenZbloomer that seemed like a joke. They described that they needed to talk to a Reform Party county organizer first before talking to me, but they also mentioned that it shouldn't be a problem because Reform has a very lenient screening procedure.

Following a lengthy exchange of text messages, my telephone number seemed to have been restricted.

Several individuals on social media have alleged that automated programs, known as bots, are making comments in favor of Reform UK.

It appears that individuals who use social media are currently more prone to accusing other accounts of being bots. This includes claiming that these accounts are negatively impacting trust and disrupting the discussion that takes place online. Interestingly, some of these accounts that are being accused of being bots are actually legitimate.

Over the last ten years, there have been noticed efforts from unfriendly countries, like Russia, to create conflict and publicize certain beliefs during elections in Western countries. They have employed groups of social media profiles referred to as "inauthentic accounts" by social media companies and labeled as bots or "troll farms" by users. It remains uncertain whether these accounts had any impact on changing people's opinions.

Over the past few weeks, Reform UK has experienced a significant increase in their poll ratings, which could be one reason why they are gaining more presence in online discussions.

A representative from Reform UK expressed happiness to BBC about the natural development of bolstering support on the internet. However, the representative also brought attention to the existence of some profiles that do not have official ties with the organization. These accounts actively misrepresent Reform UK and spread false information about its identity.

The representative stated that there are individuals who hold an inaccurate belief that the sole method for people to become supporters of Reform UK is through being tricked in some manner through the internet.

Overall, I discovered over 50 profiles that displayed indicators of being fake on various social media platforms, endorsing Reform UK. However, it's possible that these accounts were actually legitimate.

These characteristics may involve a pseudonym and display image without any recognizable attributes, the absence of followers or seemingly genuine acquaintances - and only interacting with controversial or divisive posts, or re-sharing the same repetitive statements.

The BBC conducted an investigation on the voters of Bridgend and discovered that they were exposed to content containing potentially fake comments made by automated programs known as bots.

A few individuals didn't share any content of their own. Some of the people appeared to be located outside of the United Kingdom. In the past, they were discussing politics and sports linked to the United States of America, or animal cruelty before transitioning to Reform UK. A number of the individuals also spread unproven beliefs about Covid-19 and shared posts that stood against Ukraine while showing support for Russia.

I haven't come across any other reports that talk about other political groups in a similar manner or receive the same charges.

A lot of these profiles didn't reply when I tried to reach out to them. However, a user with the username341317847855 got back to me. He introduced himself as Martin and was willing to have a conversation with me over the phone. He spoke to me from his van in a peaceful area of London.

"I am certainly a genuine individual. However, I am exceedingly tired of the government and the Members of Parliament," he declared. He didn't take the bot allegations seriously and even joked about it by suggesting I refer to him as "Martin the Bot." He also expressed no concern that these accusations could potentially harm Reform UK's online presence.

Martin declared that he didn't receive any support or motivation from any political organizations or individuals to express his opinions. He confirmed that he himself chose to participate and cast his ballot in this upcoming election, which is his inaugural attempt.

Upon investigation, the BBC discovered that the said account displayed certain characteristics typical of a bot account. However, they were able to track down the true owner: a novice London voter named Martin.

I received information from a few more of these profiles who insisted that they were actual individuals from the United Kingdom expressing their own political beliefs. They even provided me with proof to back up their claims.

A statement made by a person named Matt on a particular account stated that "I declare with full confidence that I am not an automated program. My political views do not belong to any specific party or group."

According to his TikTok account, he claimed to be a 46-year-old welder from Bury. However, he has not uploaded any pictures or content to his profile, only leaving comments on other users' videos.

He informed me that he had not been directed by any political faction or individual to express his support for Reform UK.

Matt mentioned that viewing comments on social media from other profiles who had similar thoughts like him made him and others realize "they are not alone in their sentiments and opinions".

Based on Matt's experience, it appears that comments which enhance the notion of backing for a political party, regardless of whether they're from genuine UK voters or fake profiles, have the potential to encourage additional actual individuals to participate.

This election has presented further proof that regular people on social media and unidentified accounts have a comparable ability as political parties to influence online discussions.

A representative from TikTok shared with the BBC that they have implemented "additional regulations to fiercely combat election meddling from foreign countries."

According to a representative from Meta, the parent company of popular social media platforms Facebook and Instagram, participating in activities that are not genuine or creating false accounts is in opposition to their policies.

The company X, which was previously known as Twitter, stated that they "delete accounts that participate in manipulating the platform."

Out of the three residents of Bridgend who were part of the Undercover Voters project, two of them were shown content that was suggested by the Reform UK bot, which made certain claims.

The Undercover Voters are made-up profiles created to depict different voters in key areas throughout the UK. These profiles check out and interact with posts and information that relates to their persona. The data and insights from the National Centre for Social Research guide the content they engage with.

To tell this tale, I looked into the social media posts of certain made-up voters who live in Bridgend, a Welsh area where the Tories currently have power but Labour is aiming for victory.

A man named Gavin, who is over 60 years old and tends to support right-leaning political views, has been receiving a lot of information about Reform UK on his social media accounts. This content includes posts with comments that are suspected to have been written by bots. Gavin is quite interested in politics.

Conversely, Eluned is a 72-year-old Welsh Nationalist who aligns with leftist politics and is a staunch advocate for the European Union. However, several individuals have expressed apprehension that the profiles promoting Reform may actually be automated programs, and have left multiple messages and remarks to this effect on Eluned's page.

Lily, who is 18 years of age, doesn't seem to have an interest in the field of politics. Her social media timeline is replete with information and updates about the iconic Taylor Swift.

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