Thinking#Beleave – Did social media win it for the Leave campaign?

#Beleave – Did social media win it for the Leave campaign?

I’ve suspended the series of posts on how technology hijacks our minds for this week, to focus on the Leave win in the UK’s EU referendum. I want to ask whether the Leave campaign won the social media battle and therefore the referendum war.

Leave won on Facebook

The New York Times has an interesting piece on how the Leave campaign won on Facebook:

  • 33 million Brits are on Facebook every month, so it’s the place to win.
  • Seven of the top 20 pages with the most engagement around the term “European Union” were for Leave.
  • Only two pages (“Britain stronger in Europe”, no. 8, and David Cameron’s page, no. 18) were clearly in favour of Remain.
  • The top two pages with the most engagement were for Leave.
  • Over the last six months “Leave” pages were interacted with (likes, shares, comments) three times as much as “Remain” pages. In other words the Leave message ” landed harder and most likely spread further on Facebook by a large margin.”


Leave won on Instagram

Vyacheslav Polonski, a DPhil candidate on networks at Oxford, has been doing some fascinating work on Instagram users and the referendum. During the campaign he did an analysis of about 13,000 hashtags on Instagram from almost 16,000 users. His work published in May is worth reading. In many ways he wasn’t as surprised as many by the result. Here is his reflection last Friday, just after the results were known: “not only did Brexit supporters have a more powerful and emotional message, but they were also more effective in the use of social media. 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. 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.”

Polonski’s work in May showed:

  • There were twice as many users on Instagram calling for Brexit than those for Remain.
  • These supporters are more vocal on line, and more active in sharing.

Interestingly, in May Polonski commented “This is indeed alarming, because these online opinions can influence voters who are still undecided on the EU.”

Leave won on Twitter

The Leave campaign seems to have won Twitter as well. In mid-May Talkwater showed that Leave hashtags were leading Remain hastags about 60/40. Polonski also comments that he was seeing a strong win to Leave on Twitter (7 to 1).

Why the win? Emotion and simplicity are the keys

Why the win on social media for Leave? It seems emotion and simplicity share well on Social Media and the Leave campaign had these two factors in spades. As Polonski comments: “On the one hand, the main Leave camp message was much more intuitive and straightforward, which is particularly important for social media campaigning. On the other hand, 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.”

A word on the polls

I’ve seen a few people on social media berating the polls for getting this one wrong. The polls were actually fairly accurate. They had the two camps line-ball. You can see that pretty clearly in this poll-tracking model from Huffington Post:


The people that got this one wrong were the betting markets. They were predicting a 75% or better outcome for the Remain campaign all along. Here’s how they flipped as the results came out (from PredictWise):


The Economist has a piece on what might be going on here. It’s worth a post in itself at some stage I suspect.

Over to you

I’d love your reactions to why the markets missed this. And also your views on social media and its role in democracies. Polonski himself despairs of the increasing echo-chamber effect that he found consistently in his Instagram study.

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