Fighting the EU referendum online: strategies, frames and successes

Simon Usherwood, Senior Fellow of UK in a Changing Europe, and Katharine Wright, Research Fellow of UK in a Changing Europe, argue that social media campaigning will be crucial to the outcome of the Brexit referendum. New research shows us what in and out groups are saying online. This piece is part of the UCL European Institute’s first guest editor week on openDemocracy.

As in all aspects of modern politics and indeed all aspects of the modern world, online activity is a crucial aspect of referendum campaigns. The possibilities of un-mediated messaging directly to voters and of creating interactive and participatory communities combine to offer a powerful incentive to move into online spaces for all political actors. In a referendum – a contest with a binary outcome – the potential to engage and mobilise supporters for a referendum vote is even stronger, so it comes as no surprise that the British referendum on the EU is being hotly contested online.

Over the past year, we have looked at the content and structure of online materials being produced by the various ‘single-issue’ groups involved in the referendum as part of the ESRC’s UK in a Changing Europe programme. We have focused our energies on tracking nine groups. From the ‘Remainers’ camp we have Conservatives in Europe for Britain, StrongerIn, Scientists for EU, Labour for Europe; while from the ‘Leavers’ camp we have Grassroots Out, Vote Leave, Leave.EU, Labour Leave, Conservatives for Britain. These groups, we believe, will continue to play a central role in not only producing content on the referendum but also in motivating voters to go to the polls in June. This is all the more true because, ever since David Cameron confirmed that he would not force his MPs to hold the same line as the government, it has been clear that this will not be a party political contest. Although parties will certainly be involved, this one will be fought between ad-hoc constellations of campaigners, who might more normally be found on the opposite sides of political debate.

Such a method does not, of course, capture the entirety of the referendum debate. Groups are not the sole participants – witness the stream of pronouncements from businesses, parties, and pressure groups – and we do not take account of how the media processes and re-presents groups’ materials: while TV coverage is and will be relatively balanced, through legal obligation, the print press will pursue their various interests and agendas with vigour, as has been very vividly demonstrated in recent weeks. Finally, as the campaign date had only just been fixed, these results are more reflective of the state of play at a particular moment and we’d encourage you to come to our regular postings for more up-to-date analysis.

Our analysis focuses on their social media accounts, namely Twitter. It’s important to note that tweets do not so much demonstrate what core group members actually believe – that’s irrelevant – but instead what any given group thinks is the best way to convince people of their argument. This is the paradox of referendums: they create incentives to win at almost any price, even if winning has very negative long-term consequences.

In and out campaigns on Twitter

Perhaps tellingly, Leave groups have attracted much larger audiences than their Remain counterparts on Twitter. Leave.EU has captured by far the largest audience with more than 60,000 followers on the social media service, and the two Leave party political groups sit ahead of their Remain counterparts.


Number of Twitter followers for each of the nine groups during the week prior to the European Council where David Cameron secured his deal.

Examining what the groups are talking about involves categorising the content of groups’ official Twitter accounts to capture key themes. We broke this content down into 14 different categories, including:

Immigration Public opinion
Politics Role in world
Domestic (health, food, agriculture, science, environment, culture) External views on the place of the UK either in or out
Security Criticism of EU
Business/trade Positives of EU membership
Campaign related tweets Opposing campaign
Social security Celebrity or public figure endorsement

We saw a number of patterns emerge in seven days prior to the European Council meeting on 17 February, in which David Cameron secured his deal. Most obviously, all the twitter accounts had at least 20% of their tweets related directly to their campaign, including campaign news and events. In particular, the majority of Vote Leave and Leave.EU tweets were campaign related.

The campaigns linked to political parties dedicated the greatest number of tweets to ‘politics’ (in the narrow sense of the political mechanics of the referendum itself), with the non-affiliated campaigns largely avoiding this theme. The exception among the non-aligned campaigns was Leave.EU, with 25% of its tweets focused on political issues. In particular, they focused on criticising the Prime Minister David Cameron and the deal with the European Council.

Immigration cropped up as an issue for both the in and out campaigns. Vote Leave gave the strongest focus to the issue with 6% of their tweets dedicated to the topic, arguing in part that “the EU’s open-border policy ‘is likely hanging a sign welcoming terrorists to Europe’”. Scientists for Europe and StrongerIn also looked at the issue, suggesting EU membership was the best way to deal with the ‘#migrantcrisis’.

Security did not feature prominently in the tweets this week from either side, with only Conservatives for Britain, StrongerIN and Leave.EU making minimal reference to the issue. This could reflect the absence of the issue from the news that particular week, although this will be one to watch given David Cameron’s interest in pressing this agenda’.

With the exception of Grassroots Out (which only produced 21 tweets), all of the ‘out’ campaigns dedicated between 8% and 14% of their tweets to criticising the EU. Similarly, the ‘in’ campaigns dedicated between 10% and 11% of their tweets to extolling the virtues of EU membership. The exception on this side was Conservatives in Europe for Britain, which only produced three tweets this week.

Business and trade featured in most the twitter feeds but with the exception of StrongerIn’s twitter feed this issue did not dominate.

Breakdown of Twitter content by subject area (10-17 February)










How groups talk about what they talk about

Negative campaigning? Nigel Farage during an interview. Ian Forsyth/Getty Images. All rights reserved. As much as the content of social media matters, so too does the tone and the approach. Indeed, much of the debate so far has been about how the debate should work, rather than the substantive issues themselves. Both Leave and Remain camps have been accused (and have accused the other) of negative campaigning. We make no particular value judgement about the merits of negative campaigning, but note that the incentives to engage in it during a one-off referendum are very strong, where ad hoc groupings spring up and the longer-term impact on reputations is quite limited. In a contest with a binary outcome (leave or remain), ‘doing what it takes’ might seem to be a credible option, especially if the campaign itself is likely to be forgotten once the result is announced. Given that we have yet to see the emergence of a profound national debate on Britain’s place in Europe and the world (and only limited prospects of such a debate occurring), punching below the belt might appear to be a low-cost option.

To unpack the idea of negative campaigning, we have further categorised each tweet in one of four ways:

  1. Positive arguments about the value of the group’s preferred outcome. Thus, StrongerIn might talk about how EU membership helps the British economy;
  2. Negative arguments about the perils of the opposite results to the group’s preferred outcome, e.g. StrongerIn talking about job losses following withdrawal;
  3. Positive references to the group itself, or to those on its side. Here we include all the tweets about events and campaigning run the group, e.g. StrongerIn talking about launching a new regional group;
  4. Negative references to other groups, e.g. StrongerIn questioning Vote Leave’s competence. This potentially also includes groups on the same side, given the various factions on both sides.

Remember that all the groups have one clear goal: namely to win the referendum. While some will want to accentuate the value of their preference, others will focus on the dangers of going the other way, while others still might choose to question the ability of their opponents. On a methodological point, we have not created a neutral category. There were only very few such instances of no value being imputed, and we categorised these as positive when they do occur.

In the charts below, we show firstly the breakdown on our matrix for each group, and then for each camp. Again, the data used is for the week to the end of 17 February.

Usherwood-Fig-3a.jpg Usherwood-Fig-3b.jpg

As is immediately evident, there is a wide variety of content between the groups. While Reform in Europe and Grassroots Out only produced positive tweets during this time period, there was a lot of negative messaging from Conservatives for Britain and the three main groups (Vote Leave, Leave.EU and StrongerIn). Mostly, negative messaging was on substantive points and regarded the costs of making the wrong choice, rather than on attacks on other groups. In our weighted average for the two sides, we see that both focused approximately 60% of their tweets on substantial arguments. Leave groups tweeted mainly on the costs of membership, leaving 40% for references to themselves and others. These were overwhelmingly about the success of setting up new groups, canvassing or events, while only a handful (9 tweets among 402 in total) saying anything negative about others. Even Labour Leave, who have the highest percentage of negative comments about other groups, only achieve this because one of their seven tweets in this week was critical of the Labour party: hardly a wave of ad hominem attacks.

Thus we need to be careful about the charge of negative campaigning. While there is a good deal of negative messaging about the dangers of not going along with a group’s preferred outcome, this does not extend to more personal attacks on other groups’ competence or approach.

One final point to note is the relationship between the groups, something that has been alluded to several times already. The interactions between the different groups (as illustrated in the diagram below) shows how the social media discussion about group rivalries plays out: thickness of lines is proportionate to volume of tweets. If we take direct mentions of other accounts, we can see that the two camps primarily talk to themselves, rather than each other. StrongerIn is clearly dominant on the Remain side, drawing in interest rather than pushing it out. The picture is more mixed for Leavers, with Labour Leave gathering most interest, albeit dwarfed by the large volume from Leave.EU to Grassroots Out, groups that have much in common. Further complicating the issue is the mentioning of one’s own group, mainly through retweeting of other accounts’ postings. As Laura Cram has noted in her excellent piece on hashtags, the Leave campaign seems to be well ahead in generating volume and profile online.


@ mentions of EU campaigns. Analysis of tweets from the 28/2 to 3/2/2016. Grey = ‘in’ to ‘out’; Blue = ‘out’ to ‘in’; Green = to own campaign; Red = ‘in’ to ‘in’, or ‘out’ to ‘out’.

Some concluding remarks

Online campaigning will play a crucial role in the EU referendum, not least because it represents one of the most efficient ways of reaching out to those voters for whom this is a central issue. Moreover, campaigners prize their ability to tailor different messages for different audiences, and we can already see how this is playing out between the different groups that are active in the debate. Message diversification and niche marketing are going to be key tools in the run-up to the referendum itself, as both sides seek to maximise turnout of their voters.

Perhaps the most useful idea to take from all of this is that the referendum does not look like it will be shaped primarily by the package that David Cameron is seeking from the European Council, but rather by the wider issues that we have discussed above. The more instinctive approach will count for a lot here – we might think of it in terms of whether you’re more a Michael Caine or an Emma Thompson – and social media will be a key channel for articulating those ideas.

Dr Simon Usherwood is Associate Dean and Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Surrey and a Senior Fellow of the ESRC’s UK in a Changing Europe programme.

Katharine A. M. Wright is a Research Fellow working on the ESRC’s UK in a Changing Europe programme. She is also a Teaching Fellow in International Politics at the University of Surrey.

This piece is co-published with openDemocracy.

NoteThe views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

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