It is a new struggle being quietly waged by the Ministry of Defence – one where the battlefield is a constantly shifting one. In the era of fake news and so-called infowars with Russia, Britain’s military establishment has launched a clamp-down on bogus Twitter accounts masquerading under the official MoD banner.

At least three Twitter accounts – including one in the name of the new defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, and another in the name of his predecessor, Michael Fallon – have been suspended this year by Twitter following protestations by the MoD.

Another, using the name of the Royal Air Force, was also transferred to the control of the department, according to details released under the Freedom of Information Act. It comes after a complaint by the Foreign Office in September resulted in the suspension of a Twitter account that was set up by RT, the Kremlin-backed news channel formerly known as Russia Today, as part of an extensive online project to mark the Russian revolution’s centenary.

However, the MoD’s interventions appear to have come too late to prevent some from being taken in by the spoofs. Alistair Bunkall, Sky News’s defence correspondent, announced to his own Twitter followers last month that Gavin Williamson, the new defence secretary would be using a new Twitter account: @GwilliamsonUK.

Others suspected foreign involvement in the now suspended account, with one user describing it as “more Russian than the Siberian tiger” and others pointing out that it had wrongly used the title “Secretary of Defence”, as well as American spellings.

Another account subsequently suspended following an MoD intervention, @RTHonMFallon, still managed to fool constituents and at least two regimental accounts which it followed.

Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson in Downing Street this month.
Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson in Downing Street this month. Photograph: Jack Taylor/Getty Images

“Welcome to Twitter and thanks for the follow. I’ll keep you up to date with your local Infantry Regiment #FiercePride,” tweeted @rhqpwrr, which is described as the official account of Regimental Headquarters of the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment.

Following a MoD complaint, Twitter initially ruled that @RTHonMFallon was not in violation of its policies, but the social media giant later relented.

A dormant account, @RoyalAirForce, was meanwhile transferred to the MoD and has been awarded one of Twitter’s blue ticks to confirm its authenticity.

The increased attention paid by the MoD to fake accounts comes against the backdrop of increasing concern about Russian influence in British politics. It emerged last month that more than 400 fake Twitter accounts believed to be run from St Petersburg published posts about Brexit.

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh identified 419 accounts operating from the Russian Internet Research Agency attempting to influence UK politics out of 2,752 accounts suspended by Twitter in the US. One of the accounts run from the Kremlin-linked operation attempted to stir anti-Islamic sentiment during the Westminster Bridge terrorist attack.

Twitter has also come under pressure to release examples of UK-related postings linked to a Russian “troll factory”, with one senior MP citing concern at possible “interference by foreign actors in the democratic process of the United Kingdom”.

Damian Collins, the chairman of the Commons culture, media and sport select committee, said he wanted to see examples of posts about British politics after Twitter handed a list of the 2,752 accounts to the US intelligence committee.


Ben Quinn

The GuardianTramp

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