Impact of social media on the outcome of the EU referendum


Vyacheslav Polonski

Network scientist at the University of Oxford and a Global Shaper at the World Economic Forum. He has previously studied at Harvard University, Oxford University and the LSE.

His research focuses on the dynamics of social influence, social networks and the emergence of collective behaviours online.



EU Referendum Analysis 2016 - section 7

Section 7: Social Media

When Prime Minister David Cameron announced his resignation this morning following Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, it was impossible not to notice the irony of his situation. In his 2009 data speech, he described the Internet as an “amazing pollinator” that “turns lonely fights into mass campaigns; transforms moans into movements; excites the attention of hundreds, thousands, millions of people and stirs them to action.” This power has now been turned against him, as millions of people were motivated, persuaded and mobilised through the Internet to vote for Brexit.

not only were there twice as many Brexit supporters on Instagram, but they were also five times more active than Remain activists

For several months, the Leave camp has been building momentum online and has been setting the tone of the debate across all major social networking platforms. Our large-scale social media data analysis shows that not only did Brexit supporters have a more powerful and emotional message, but they were also more effective in the use of social media. We find that the campaign to leave had routinely outmuscled its rival, with more vocal and active supporters across almost all social media platforms. This has led to the activation of a greater number of Leave supporters at grassroots level and enabled them to fully dominate platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, influencing swathes of undecided voters who simply didn’t know what to think.

For example, we have captured 30 weeks of data from Instagram, analysing over 18k users and 30k posts. This data indicates that not only were there twice as many Brexit supporters on Instagram, but they were also five times more active than Remain activists. The same pattern could be found on Twitter, where we found that the Leave camp outnumbers the Remain camp 7 to 1. The online momentum of the Leave camp was equally evident in the support they received from the community. On average, Instagram posts from the members of the Leave camp received 26% more likes and 20% more comments, while the most active users in the dataset were also all campaigning for a Leave vote. Furthermore, the top 3 most frequently used hashtags in the data come from the Leave camp and were well integrated into all networked conversations online: #Brexit, #Beleave and #VoteLeave. Using the Internet, the Leave camp was able to create the perception of wide-ranging public support for their cause that acted like a self-fulfilling prophecy, attracting many more voters to back Brexit.

This can be explained by a combination of factors. First, the main Leave camp message was much more intuitive and straightforward, which is particularly important for social media campaigning. Second, their message was also highly emotionally charged, which facilitated the viral spread of Leave ideas. There is evidence to suggest that high arousal emotions such as anger and irritation spread faster than messages focusing on rational or economic arguments, particularly on social media. In this regard, we have observed many instances where people expressed utter confusion about the economic arguments on both sides. Considering that the reasons for Leaving were more emotional, and that the average Internet user was exposed to a deluge of Brexit posts on a daily basis — both from friends and strangers online — we warned that a British exit vote could be a real possibility.

Remain lost the battle online long before it lost the political battle on the ground. The overwhelming Leave sentiment across all social networking platforms was consistent and undeniable, yet many Remain supporters chose to ignore the voice of the Internet as something that has no connection with the real political world. They believed that Britain would never vote to leave the EU and discounted social media as a playground for trolls and teenagers.

Instead of responding with more relatable emotional messages, the official Remain camp continued to rely on calculated rational arguments and a relentless tide of economic forecasts. When #CatsAgainstBrexit started trending, we saw a glimmer of hope for Remain, but sadly the whimsical power of Internet cats was not enough to turn around the debate. In fact, the volume of tweets that urged Britain to #VoteRemain was quickly dwarfed by the enormous turbulence caused by the trending #IVotedLeave hashtag on the day of the referendum.

Following the results of the referendum, 52% Leave and 48% Remain, the Internet public continued to be cataclysmically divided on this important issue and responded with a mixture of surprise, frustration and dark humour. On the one hand, the Leave side euphorically celebrated this new British #IndependenceDay from the EU. On the other hand, the Remain side reacted with memes and pictures to voice their intense frustration and sorrow – channelled through the trending hashtag #NotMyVote. And once again, the Internet is being used to mobilise people to protest against the referendum results across the country, join “vigils for our country’s common sense”, sign a petition for a second referendum and even to make London an independent state and join the EU with #Londependence.

Social media has changed the nature of political campaigning and will continue to play a key role in future elections around the world. As more and more people spend a significant proportion of their everyday lives online, social media is becoming a more powerful force to assist and influence the spread of political ideas and messages. What the EU referendum has taught us is that this accelerating technology is open to all and can be used to shape the public agenda and drive social change — for better or for worse.