Leave versus Remain: the digital battle


Dr Andrew Mullen

Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Politics at Northumbria University.

He is the author of The British Left’s ‘Great Debate’ on Europe (Continuum, 2007); The Political Economy of the European Social Model (Routledge, 2012); The Battle for Hearts and Minds on Europe: Anti- and Pro-European Propaganda in Britain since 1945 (MUP, forthcoming); and Labour and Europe: Developing a New Perspective (MUP, forthcoming).

Email: andrew.mullen@northumbria.ac.uk


EU Referendum Analysis 2016 - section 7

Section 7: Social Media

Just as the 2015 General Election has been characterized as the first ‘digital election’ in Britain, so the 2016 EU Referendum could be characterized as the first ‘digital referendum’. Both the official Leave (‘Vote Leave’) and Remain (‘Britain Stronger in Europe’) campaigns utilized key aspects of the successful Obama Model developed during the 2008 and 2012 US Presidential Elections – more specifically big data mining, data analytics, micro-targeting and social media – in an attempt to identify and then mobilize their respective supporters.

the Leave campaign was much more successful at targeting than the Remain campaign

Campaign strategists Dominic Cummings and Matthew Elliott (who successfully organized the 2004 referendum campaign against a North East regional assembly and the 2011 referendum campaign against electoral reform respectively) directed the Leave campaign, while Stephen Gilbert and Craig Oliver (who were associated with the Conservatives’ successful 2015 General Election campaign) headed the Remain campaign. With the exception of the adverts that were placed in the Metro freesheet in the two days before the poll, both campaigns eschewed the traditional political advertising approach and blanket distribution of campaign materials, in favour of a targeted and digital approach in their respective air and ground wars. The internet, social media and new political communication technologies were utilized for the purposes of voter registration; fundraising; intelligence gathering; and message dissemination.

In May 2016 Prime Minister David Cameron met with representatives from 30 leading technology companies – including Facebook, Instagram, The Lad Bible, Snap Fashion, Twitter and Uber – in an attempt to encourage voter registration. The key targets were young people who were less likely to be on the electoral register and who were more likely to vote to Remain. Research from the United States, and data pertaining to the 2015 British General Election, suggests that digital voter registration operations are highly effective.

The official Leave and Remain campaigns obtained government grants of £600,000 to fund their activities, and also received substantial donations from corporations and wealthy individuals. Moreover, they both used the internet and social media for fundraising purposes, specifically to elicit modest donations from activists and members of the general public – as did the dozens of other registered organizations that participated in the referendum.

Utilizing big data mining – drawing upon canvassing returns, social media traffic, voter records and other sources (e.g. consumer databases about newspaper readership, shopping habits, etc.) – the Leave and Remain campaigns also used the internet and social media for intelligence gathering purposes to construct detailed and personalised voter profiles. Using analytics software – the Voter Identification and Contact System, developed in-house, in the case of the Leave campaign and NationBuilder in the case of the Remain campaign – with their in-built algorithms, the respective campaigns were able to assign each voter with scores (on a scale of one-to-five) based on how likely they were to vote and how likely they were to vote to Leave or Remain. This data was then used to compile target lists for digital advertising, door knocking (e.g. Get Out the Vote operations) and telephone contacts.

For the first time in British election history, the Leave campaign developed an interactive smartphone app that was downloaded by tens of thousands of people. Encouraging subscribers to sign up their friends and family and asking permission for Vote Leave to be able to access their smartphone contacts, this app provided a further means of harvesting valuable data about potential Brexit supporters and disseminating key campaign messages.

The Leave and Remain campaigns both used the internet and social media for message dissemination purposes. The key messages of the Leave campaign were ‘Take Back Control’, particularly over immigration policy, while the key messages of the Remain campaign were the economy and the risks associated with Brexit. The Leave campaign had 554,297 ‘likes’ on Facebook, while the Remain campaign had 561,277 ‘likes’. Both campaigns spent millions of pounds on Facebook and online advertising. The head of Labour In for Britain, a separate campaign to that deployed by Britain Stronger in Europe, confirmed that the Labour Party alone spent over £1 million on Facebook and online advertising and successfully reached 13 million people in the process. Although excluded from the Leave campaign, UKIP, Nigel Farage and Leave.EU played a significant role in the quest for Brexit. While generally ignored by the mainstream media, which tended to focus on the Conservative ‘blue-on-blue’ attacks and debates, UKIP contracted Facebook to distribute speeches by Farage, plus campaign video footage – and such clips were watched by millions of people.

In theory, the Remain campaign possessed a number of advantages. Firstly, maintaining EU membership constituted the status quo option, while withdrawal represented the choice of radical change. Secondly, much of the Establishment, in Britain and internationally, supported Remain. Thirdly, until the official period of ‘purdah’, Prime Minister David Cameron was able to deploy the political communication machinery of the state in support of Remain. Fourthly, although the Conservatives were officially neutral, the Remain campaign had the use of at least some of the party’s resources (e.g. activists, voter data, etc.), plus the official support of the Labour Party and its political communication machine. The Leave campaign, which lacked the support of any political party and which was denied access to the resources of the state, had to build its infrastructure largely from scratch. In terms of political communication, both the Leave and Remain campaigns were fairly evenly matched – deploying similar digital approaches. The critical difference, however, was that the Leave campaign was much more successful at targeting than the Remain campaign. Although the result was close, that is the main reason why the Leave campaign was victorious.