High political stakes
The atmosphere in Britain is becoming increasingly heated as October 31st inches ever closer. This is the date when the country will leave the European Union — if all goes to plan for Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party. Right now the political stakes are higher than ever.
Parliament has tried to protect the country from the potential catastrophe that may result from leaving without a deal. In the nick of time before prorogation, they passed a last-minute bill into law, designed to compel Johnson to seek an extension, if he can’t reach a suitable deal with the EU by the end of October.
Johnson has already lost multiple times in Parliament, despite his efforts to prorogue it for an unusually long time. Last week, a Scottish court ruled that this prorogation was unlawful. This week, the case goes to the English Supreme Court, where it will be challenged.
In this highly-charged environment, Twitter has provided a constant source of lively political debate around Brexit. Many issues are bubbling up at present, some more relevant than others, but here I want to explore a particularly interesting hashtag.
#BritainIndependence has been popping up a lot lately. The first thing to do is to find out when it was first used, and who first used it. The hashtag came fairly late to the game, on September 9, via a user called ‘Trevor’, whose screen name is stuffed with pro-Brexit hashtags.
Signalling ingroup identity
A quick glance at Trevor’s bio is revealing. First, his bio is a strong indicator of his self-professed identity on Twitter. It contains a lot of words that reflect traditional conservative, nationalist, family-oriented values, such as ‘Christian’, ‘white’, ‘loyal British subject’, and ‘married’.
This creates a sense of group identity, designed to give Trevor’s profile immediate appeal to others who identify with similar values – i.e. signalling that he is part of an ingroup. In this case, the ingroup is pro-Brexit Twitter users.
The references to popular British football teams (Arsenal and Rangers), is likely designed to portray the account as belonging to a genuine working-class British citizen – another effort at signalling ingroup identity.
But the cultural references feel jumbled: Arsenal is an English team, while Rangers is a Scottish team. That plus the random mention of Northern Ireland means this bio doesn’t quite ring true. In fact, it feels like someone playing at being a Brit, perhaps for nefarious reasons.
What’s more, ‘neighbor’ is spelled in US English. No genuine speaker of British English would use US spelling; especially a man who seems so deeply committed to British patriotism. Clue, ‘Trevor’ is likely not the grassroots British man that he pretends to be.
We could dig much deeper into ‘Trevor’s’ account, especially his past tweet history. His account is devoted to tweeting about Brexit, even though it was created in September 2015, before Brexit existed. It would be interesting to see what ‘Trevor’ was tweeting about between then and June 2016, but that’s a topic for another post...
Next up, let’s take a look at how Twitter users have been interacting with the #BritainIndependence hashtag, since ‘Trevor’ coined it on September 9th (coincidentally, just in time for the prorogation of Parliament).
All of the most retweeted tweets on the #BritainIndependence hashtag come from users with heavily pro-Brexit screen names (and usernames like @Brexit4me and @Feck_the_EU), suggesting one-topic accounts that exist simply for the purpose of engaging with Brexit-related discussions.
Retweets have two main functions, 1) they spread a message across Twitter, 2) they create validation for the message via social proof (i.e. if other people have engaged with this tweet, then it must be worth engaging with).
Liking (or favouriting) tweets reinforces the sense of social proof, while also increasing the likelihood of the tweet being seen in other users’ feeds.
The below tweets contain strong evidence of typical adversarial narratives, designed to promote a sense of tribalism, i.e. “us vs them”.
- ‘Unelected judges’ and ‘hijacked by extremists’ (fits into narrative of the EU/Remain supporters being ‘anti-democratic’)
- ‘Tattooed Eastern European thug’, and ‘brutal rape’ (fits into narrative of foreigners and ‘The Other’ as being threatening, especially to women)
- ‘Me, just a patriot’ (supports the narrative of pro-Brexit voters as being especially patriotic. This is a similar notion to that conveyed by Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again (#MAGA’), which coincidentally appears in many of the user bios tweeting the #BritainIndependence hashtag.
Clearly, the #BritainIndependence hashtag exists to stoke further divides between the two sides in the Brexit debate, while creating the illusion of widespread support for the pro-Leave side. It’s highly likely that the hashtag was initialised for that very purpose, as the nature of ‘Trevor’s’ account suggests.
Furthermore, it’s telling that this hashtag coincides with several significant real-life events in the Brexit timeline that could threaten the pro-Brexit side, including the beginning of (unlawful) prorogation and the case going to the Supreme Court.
But why are so many of the top posting accounts so similar, with their bios stuffed with tribal keywords ? And why are so many of them blatantly US-centric, or with such obvious cultural errors (such as the spelling of ‘favorite’)?
This could indicate an organised social media manipulation campaign aiming to astroturfing support for the pro-Brexit side and create even deeper social and political division at these critical junctures for Britain.
As the key Brexit date of October 31 inches closer, the discussion is certain to get even more heated – and we’re sure to see lots of interesting social media activity.
I’ll post further analyses here between now and October 31st.
Samantha North is a PhD candidate in computational social science at the University of Bath, researching online disinformation, tribalism & political influence campaigns. Follow Samantha on Twitter.