Is the revoke Article 50 petition being hijacked by bots? Unlikely, say experts

Over three million people have signed the petition to revoke Article 50 and cancel Brexit. But are they all real?

In recent years, automated programs known as bots have come to be used for artificially inflating Instagram follower counts, mining bitcoin or swaying online polls.

Given the staggering speed at which the petition is racking up signatures, you may be forgiven for asking if the same thing is being applied here.

Some commentators have even tried to suggest that people should sign up multiple times using the same email address.

Naturally, this idea was swiftly shot down because the system has been built not to allow the same email address to submit a vote more than once.

In fact, the government’s petitions system has a very robust defence against automated bots filling in votes.

Each vote requires an authenticated email address and a verifiable UK post code in order to be counted. And the government took its system to task a couple of years ago after it was swamped with petitions following the original referendum result.

‘When the new Petitions service was built last year one of the primary design goals was to make it fast and accessible – especially on mobile devices where we get the majority of our traffic,’ explained Andrew White from the Government Digital Service (GDS), a unit of the Cabinet Office tasked with running online services.

‘This means that we can’t use anti-abuse technologies like captchas as they have significant accessibility, privacy and performance issues,’ he said.

Ilia Kolochenko, CEO of security firm High-Tech Bridge, believed it could be possible: ‘It’s relatively easy to influence such petitions with automated bots. Even if sophisticated anti-automation and anti-bot systems can help, they are not a perfect solution.

‘There is always a delicate balance between making it easy to vote and protecting the online petition from malicious actors,’ he told Metro.

‘Additionally, external influencers may hinder the voting process by overloading the voting system and crashing it, or creating fake voting websites to make people think they voted, when in fact they have been duped. Therefore, such open petitions merely serve a non-binding indicator of a public opinion, and their authenticity and thus legitimacy is always questionable.’

Regardless, Theresa May has said she does not see revoking Article 50 and keeping the UK in the EU as an option.

‘If you look back to what happened in the referendum, we saw the biggest democratic exercise in our history.

‘And there was a clear result that we should leave the European Union. We said here’s the vote, what is your decision, and we will deliver on it.

‘And I believe it’s our duty as a Government and as a Parliament to deliver on that vote.’

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