Brexit: the effect of social media on politics

On the 23rd June 2016, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. While debates up and down the country occurred on traditional media, such as on television and in newspapers, arguably the liveliest debate was happening online.

Social media is increasingly becoming the number one source of information during political changes in the United Kingdom, and it’s no surprise with an estimated 38 million active social media accounts.

Most politicians and political campaigners now appreciate the importance of social media channels, such as Twitter and Facebook, for communicating with voters. This increase in online presence was especially prevalent during the recent EU Referendum, with two campaigns battling it out on the web – #StrongerIn and #VoteLeave.

The big question we’d like to explore at the moment is: does social media actually have an effect on our voting habits? Let’s investigate.

Why social?

Online campaigns have the power to reach thousands of voters instantly, directly and constantly – something which traditional methods simply cannot compete with. It also makes political candidates more accountable for their actions than before.

Many would argue that politicians are ‘hidden away in their ivory towers’, but that social media has opened up the gates. This also means that criticism is far more widespread and public. For example, take a look at some of the tweets that pro-Brexit politician, Boris Johnson, received recently. During the EU Referendum, he was hit by a barrage of tweets from the Remain campaign after he was labelled a ‘Putin apologist’. Whether it’s seen as political bashing, rhetoric, or actual feedback, it is undeniable that social media makes the good, the bad, and the ugly far more visible than ever before.

The campaigns

Looking at the actual campaigns themselves, both #StrongerIn and #VoteLeave used Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to communicate their messages.

Here are the key statistics:

Looking at the stats, the two campaigns were, for the most part, neck and neck. This is reflective of the result with 48.1% of voters voting remain and 51.9% voting leave.

Twitter appeared to be the most active platform for each campaign and arguably the most effective when it comes to campaigning. This is because, unlike Facebook, conversations on Twitter are open. Users are able to join in debates through hashtags or discover trending topics and easily connect with political leaders and voters alike.

So, does social media truly have an effect on voting behaviour?

Well, it’s complicated. Voters often have formed an opinion before logging on, meaning that online campaigns may only act to reinforce an established view. What’s more, during the referendum the largest percentage of voters were in the 65+ demographic, who are less likely to spend as much time on social media than those in younger age ranges. Therefore, there is an argument that individuals in this demographic aren’t as likely to have their opinion changed by social media activity.

The effect on younger voters

However, online presence does serve some purpose. Younger audiences are extremely active on social media, therefore there is a golden opportunity here for campaigners to influence young people’s votes. Yet, simply existing online isn’t enough to engage young people, and this was reflected in the final result. An estimated 36% of voters in the referendum were aged between 18-24, the lowest turnout of all the demographics.

Could it have been different?

Remain received 1,269,501 fewer votes than Leave, so it begs the question, would the results have been different if more young people turned up to the polling stations?

It is estimated that in 2015 there were 3,806,471 people aged 20-24 in the United Kingdom, but only 492,306 applied to register to vote in the EU Referendum. While it’s unrealistic to expect all 3 million under 24’s to vote, there is an argument to suggest that more needs to be done to engage younger people in politics. This is where social media is key. Taking Twitter as an example, the site has over 15 million active users in the UK and more than 65% of these users are aged under 34, therefore making the site one of the most powerful in targeting younger audiences.

And so, a domino effect is apparent. If the campaigns had focused more on engaging younger audiences, perhaps more would have felt inclined to vote, which could have led to a potentially different result. This is especially pertinent for the Remain campaign, as 75% of voters aged 18-24, who did in fact vote, chose to stay in the EU. Yet, only one piece of targeted content was created by #StrongerIn.

The future post-Brexit

However, it isn’t all doom and gloom for young voters. The post-Brexit fallout has already showed signs of mobilising young people to get more involved in politics. For example, the hashtag #NotInMyName took off shortly after the vote, with young people expressing their discontent with the result. Will this mean that, in future political decisions, we’ll see more young people voting? Only time will tell.

While social media may still be taking baby steps in having a concrete effect on politics as a whole, it is certainly one of the primary platforms to engage younger voters in politics and ultimately their future.

Have you seen any ways that social media has affected a political campaign? Be sure to tweet us @ThinkingAsOne.