The Handwriting on the Facebook Wall: Brexit Was Never Only EU

06/27/2016 07:02 pm ET

Mabel Berezin and Thomas Davidson, Cornell Sociology

Friday morning after the Brexit vote, Google Trends in Britain reported a 250% spike in the question “what happens if we leave EU?”  Besides raising the question why no one thought to ask this before voting, this spike suggests that Brexit may never have been about the fine points of EU membership. The idea, suggested by many, that non-EU migration may have been the driving force in 2016 is borne out by research we conducted on the spring 2015 British parliamentary election

Until recently the UK Independence Party, which fueled the Brexit vote, was a minor player in British politics. How, then, did it  manage to orchestrate a campaign that succeeded not only in forcing Britain out of EU but also setting off a possible cascading demand for EU referenda in other European countries?

In spring 2015, we were wondering how a party like UKIP surged ahead in the British Parliamentary elections, gaining a historic 12% of the votes, despite Britain’s legacy of soft nationalism. For answers, we used computational text analysis to examine all postings on the Facebook page of UKIP as well as Britain First, a far right party, in the weeks prior to the 2015 general election.   

Britain First is known for its anti-Muslim actions, including “mosque invasions,” and had pledged support for the Eurosceptic party; as their slogan ran, “UKIP at the ballot box, Britain First on the streets.” The group has used a viral strategy to garner more online supporters than any other political party despite its extremism, with over 1.4 million Facebook followers, many of whom also support UKIP. Thomas Mair, the neo-Nazi sympathizer who assassinated Jo Cox in the week before the Brexit vote, allegedly shouted “Britain first” as he shot and stabbed the MP.

Our findings from studying thousands of postings and conversations from spring 2015 casts the Brexit vote in a stark light. While UKIP as a party claimed to disavow racist and overtly xenophobic rhetoric, focusing on issues of national autonomy and sovereignty, the Facebook data tell another story.  UKIP’s supporters had no problem using the extreme language and promoting the xenophobic ideas of Britain First. 

 We identified a small group of people who posted on both UKIP and Britain First’s Facebook pages. UKIP supporters who posted to Britain First’s page appeared to be trying to tap its vast reservoir of online supporters to mobilize votes for UKIP. For example, we were able to identify a UKIP candidate in a local election who posted this on Britain First’s page: “It costs our country millions a day to be in the EU...We pledge millions in foreign aid yet people on our own doorstep are going without…By voting UKIP you will be helping to make that change. It’s common sense really.” While the language is not as incendiary as many of the posts on Britain First’s page, it is notable that a UKIP candidate is appealing for support from the extreme right.

We also found Britain First supporters couching their support for UKIP in Islamophobic terms.  One post reads: “When this is a Muslim country in 20 years time. Lets see who's laughing then. Bunch of mugs. Nigel Farage [UKIP Leader] greatest politician by far bloke’s a living legend.” [sic]. Many others also declared support for UKIP on Britain First’s page, with the party name appearing as one of the most frequently used words.

During the Brexit referendum campaign, UKIP shrewdly exploited the fear of non-EU migration that we observed in the 2015 Facebook conversations and also raised the specter of Turkey joining the EU.  A widely criticized poster that came out days before the vote featured a wave of Syrian refugees—actually in line at the Slovenian border—with the caption “Breaking Point.” 

Conversations on Facebook were not the only factor driving the Brexit vote, of course. David Cameron’s misjudgment as to the level of discontent in Britain, coupled with an intractable and very public European refugee crisis that escalated in the summer and fall of 2015, surely contributed to the outcome.

But social media and the conversations  it permits is playing an ever increasing role in contemporary political campaigns. If political analysts and pundits had paid some attention to the handwriting on the Facebook wall in spring 2015, they may have developed more efficient strategies,  resulting in a very different  Brexit outcome. 

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