World Cup, Brexit, Novichok, and Trump Visit: It’s a Rollercoaster Week for Britain

Who is playing who?

It’s been a busy news week for Britain, and the week has only just begun! The good news of course is that England has reached the semi-finals of the World Cup. The sad news is that an English woman, Dawn Sturgess, died from the chemical nerve agent Novichok that was also used earlier this year in an assassination attempt against a double-agent Mr. Skripal and his daughter.

I wanted to see if the Brits were making any links on Twitter between the World Cup and the Novichok incident. Two patterns emerged when searching on these two terms on Twitter. First, there was a general consensus that this is an extraordinarily busy week for Britain, with a potpourri of emotion on issues ranging from World Cup fever, to a government shakeup on Brexit, the Novichok-related death, and the mass protests expected for Donald Trump’s visit later this week. Many posts have lumped all of these topics together, because they are all big news items this week. Several individual posts jokingly link the attack to Russia, for example, showing images of Putin ordering Novichok for the upcoming semi-final match. Still, this stream of messages is relatively calm in tone.

In contrast, the second pattern is the louder pro-Russian messages that criticize the UK government for jumping to conclusions in blaming Russia for the Novichok poisoning. One explanation goes something like, “Why would Putin do something like a nerve agent attack during the World Cup, when this is one of the best World Cups in recent memory?”

Art work by Ukrainian artist Andriy Yermolenko

Other explanations generally drone on about how bad the UK is and how innocent and wonderful Russia is. What really sticks out from this stream of more vocal tweets is they appear to be from Twitter accounts of questionable legitimacy.

For example, one account is purportedly a man who is a pro-Scottish, anti-English, pro-Russian who actively tweets 7 days a week, 19 hours a day. He has an average of 48 tweets per day, mostly full of critiques against the UK and warm fuzzies about Russia. The second most active account in this analysis also had nearly 79,000 tweets, and ranted anti-UK, pro-Russian, and pro-Bashar al-Assad messages. The third most active account purportedly belongs to a Russian man living in Europe tweeting an average of 29 messages per day, 7 days per week, 17 hours per day with 51% being rated by Twitter as “terrible” sentiment and 14% as bad. His domain name is Kremlin-friendly, and is associated with several different IP addresses within the past year.

Meanwhile, Twitter’s stock price took a hit this week after the company reported suspending 70 million fake accounts over the past two months. The company tried to ease investor concerns by iterating that only those accounts that have not been active the past 30 days were suspended. Bravo Twitter for making an effort to clean up bad accounts. Ironically though, the most active accounts tweeting on both Novichok and the World Cup appeared to be trolls motivated to create havoc. For people so against democratic concepts like free speech, they sure do take advantage of it!

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