Talking past each other: the Twitter campaigns


Dr Simon Usherwood

Senior Fellow on the ESRC’s “UK in a Changing Europe” programme, as well as Senior Lecturer at the University of Surrey.


Katharine Wright

Katharine Wright

Research Fellow on the ESRC’s “UK in a Changing Europe” programme and Teaching Fellow in the Department of Politics, University of Surrey.


EU Referendum Analysis 2016 - section 7

Section 7: Social Media

Online campaigning has become an increasingly important part of the modern political portfolio, as a way of reaching supporters and communicating core messages without the filter of the mass media. The EU referendum provided a good demonstration of these new approaches, with both sides aiming to extend their reach as much as possible, given the unusual situation of every vote having equal weight (unlike a General Election run under FPP).

the majority of those who are deeply engaged with the issue have been so for a long time and that it remained a marginal issue for many voters

This has been the key motive for following the social media campaigns of those groups contesting the referendum, particularly on Twitter, to understand better the messages that they are making, the way in which they frame and the extent to which their followers have been picking these up. Here we summarise our weekly analyses from the campaign period itself, to give the bigger picture, drawing on over 31,000 tweets from ten different groups.

Leave dominated online

Throughout the campaign, Leave groups have been both more visible and more popular than their Remain opponents. In terms of followers, this is true whether we look at the two lead groups – Vote Leave and Stronger In – or the Conservative and Labour pairs, or indeed the camps as a whole. This reflect the much longer establishment of eurosceptics online, plus the more visceral nature of their campaigning. Indicative of this is the dominance of Leave.EU, which even without securing the official designation, has maintained a clear lead over any other group, with 1.5 times as many Twitter followers as all the Remain groups in our sample.

If we consider volumes of output, then the disparity is smaller, although in only two weeks in our sample period have the Remain camp tweeted more than Leave. While the last three weeks saw a massive increase in tweeting by the two official groups, this still saw Leave produce more content. Incidentally, we should note the final week’s volumes were brought down by two days when almost no activity took place online, following Jo Cox’s murder.

The campaign only belatedly caught the public’s attention

Whatever might have been happening elsewhere, online there was only a very late uptick in public engagement with groups’ Twitter activity, be that increased numbers of followers and improved rates of retweeting groups’ content. Twitter follower growth did strengthened in the last few weeks, but it has not approached the rates seen around the time of Cameron’s European Council deal. This suggests that the majority of those who are deeply engaged with the issue have been so for a long time and that it remained a marginal issue for many voters, the high turnout on the day notwithstanding. This suggests campaigners on all sides might need to reconsider strategies for subsequent contests.

Likewise, when we consider our standardised measure for audience engagement – the average number of retweets per tweet per follower – then there is no clear movement either for groups as a whole or for individual groups. If there has been any pattern then it is that the more focused groups have a generally better rate of engagement than the broader ones. Of course, this measure masks the generally larger effect of engagement by Leave, driven by the much larger follower base. In short, Remain might have been more efficient in their reach, but Leave dominated in simple volume.

Campaigns have become less positive over time, but negative campaigning doesn’t clearly work

Both camps become more negative in their framing of content over time, as measured by the split between positive claims about their position or group, versus negative ones about the alternative or their opponents. This has also been true of the three main groups: Stronger In, Vote Leave and Leave.EU.

While the TV debates in the last weeks did contribute to this substantially, given the scope for immediate critiquing of opponents, the trend long predates these events. Our analysis does not yet offer up a convincing explanation for why this occurs, but one possibility is that there has been a shift from generic arguments to more specific reaction to events, which produces a similar type of effect to that found with the TV debates.

If there has been a growth in negative framing, then it has not been an unambiguous benefit to groups. Taking our sample as a whole, we do not find that negative framings clearly out-perform positive ones on our engagement measure (average number of retweets/tweet/follower). Positive arguments and negative comments about other groups shown very similar rates , while negative arguments and positive mentions of one’s own group trail a bit behind.

The campaigns have been (mostly) consistent in their approach to Twitter

Stronger In’s Twitter campaign was built primarily around business, trade and the economy, with spikes in other issues at certain times. For example, at the beginning of June there is a significant jump in the number of tweets related to domestic issues. Overall, the campaign has built its message around a core message on business and the economy and the actions of the other campaign.

Vote Leave conducted a very different social media campaign to Stronger In, using Twitter to promote its own campaign efforts, rather than engaging the opposing campaign, or focusing on specific issues. Rather, the campaign has focused consistently on a range of issues – politics; domestic issues; immigration; business, trade and the economy; security – but none of these have come to dominate.