Twitter could have helped predict the Brexit result

A new study evaluates how the online campaigns around the UK leaving or staying in the E.U. foretold the historic vote’s outcome.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Frank Augstein, file

Britons shocked the world last year when 52 percent voted to leave the European Union. But a new British study suggests that the Twitterverse already knew that was going to happen.

The study “Sticks and stones: Comparing Twitter campaigning strategies in the European Union referendum,” which was published in the British Journal of Politics and International Relations, found that Leave campaigns were more successful in their messaging, recruitment, and engagement on Twitter in part because those who wanted to remain in the E.U. didn’t have a clear strategy.

Researchers Simon Usherwood and Katharine AM Wright analyzed 18,000 tweets posted by the three most prominent campaigns — Stronger In, Vote Leave, and Leave.EU — during the previous six months leading up to the June 2016 vote. They found the Stronger In campaign failed to mount a successful online strategy that may have ultimately influenced the vote.

The Remain campaign saw the most growth online, gaining 360 percent more followers in four months, but its 48,314 followers was eclipsed by the Leave campaigns’ combined base of 163,228. Stronger In was also slightly more likely to bad mouth its opponents, the researchers found. Nearly one-fifth of Stronger In’s tweets were negative mentions of other groups. Vote Leave was close behind with 18.6 percent of their tweets negatively mentioning Remain supporters. Leave.EU was least likely with only 13.7 percent of its tweets condemning opponents.

Both Leave campaigns were unsurprisingly critical of the E.U. and were much more likely to make gloom and doom arguments. The groups also dedicated nearly 40 percent of their tweets to self-aggrandizing statements — more than twice the amount of negative mentions of opponents.

But what sunk the official Remain campaign was its lack of focus and messaging that was too reactionary, the study found.

“Stronger In presented a much less confident and flexible strategy, both online and off” because government figures delayed openly endorsing the campaign, as well as displayed a “profound lack of experience in articulating positive arguments about the value of EU membership,” researchers wrote.

Researchers found evidence that Stronger In’s Twitter campaign took a more “scattergun approach” that relied on making individual arguments to diverse groups, rather than articulating an overarching message. That strategy left Stronger In too reliant on discrediting initiatives pushed by the Vote Leave and Leave.EU campaigns, a reactionary tactic that fed the Leave campaign’s position of “questioning of elite authority.”

Meanwhile, Leave campaigners were able to create a sizable presence more than three times that of Stronger In. That footprint allowed the campaign to connect with people’s growing concerns of helplessness by “aggregating and connecting previously disparate individuals and themes into a broad coalition of opposition to the EU,” researchers wrote.

Simon Usherwood, the study’s lead researcher from the University of Surrey, noted in a news release that “the outcome of the Brexit vote on 22nd June 2016 would not have been as shocking had more attention been paid to what was happening on Twitter.”

“Twitter exposed the flaws of Stronger In’s campaign, particularly the inability to gain popular interest in its ideas about the benefits of remaining in the EU,” Usherwood said. “With campaigning online now becoming the norm for political parties, it is important they learn from the failings of Stronger In.”

The study’s findings bolster previous research that Twitter and other social media platforms help facilitate echo chambers where users are surrounded by like-minded accounts. The issue of echo chambers became increasingly concerning in 2016 as both Europe and the U.S. faced contentious votes and elections where people were more likely than usual to seek out bias-affirming news and online spaces.

And with other major votes looming, namely France’s highly divisive presidential election, it’s possible that a look at Twitter activity surrounding top official campaigns supporting top contenders Marine Le Pen, the far right candidate, and moderate Emmanuel Macron could help predict the victor. Polls open for the country’s second round of voting Sunday.


Twitter could have helped predict the Brexit result was originally published in ThinkProgress on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.