How #CatsAgainstBrexit could’ve saved the EU

Analysing the Internet’s response to the EU referendum debate

THE GIST: #CatsAgainstBrexit has taken the Internet by storm just a few days before the EU referendum. How did the Remain camp succeed in leveraging the Internet’s mightiest weapon for an effective last minute social media campaign and “social meowvment” that actually worked?

The Internet loves cats. And today we have learned that cats could have a substantial impact on a political vote that is described by many as a defining moment in the history of Britain and Europe. Only three days before the UK’s EU referendum, #CatsAgainstBrexit started trending on Twitter.

For the past few months, I have been collecting and analysing large-scale social media data on the EU referendum to better understand the grassroots level of political campaigning — especially, because the polls have pointed in opposite directions, continuing to tell different stories about the contest. After publishing early results, I have received several media requests from the BBC, the New York Times, The Economist, Globo and Voice of America, explaining my data that shows how the Remain camp is losing the battle online and how social media is used by both sides to mobilise supporters and win the race.

In the last 30 days alone, we’ve recorded a 20x increase in EU referendum activity on social media. This is largely driven by social media activity on the Remain side. For example, #voteremain has now 70 times more posts on Instagram than a month ago. That stacks up against just a 5x increase for #voteleave, which gives the Remain side a comfortable lead of 12.2 percentage points online as the more uncertain voters are backing to stay in the EU. #Brexit saw a 37x increase over the past month, but is increasingly becoming a more neutral term to refer to the debate as a whole, rather than to spread the Leave message.

Today, however, everything changed when cats entered the debate. Using the #CatsAgainstBrexit hashtag, they have overtaken social media to rally British Internet users against a possible Brexit. They believe a united Europe is something worth fighting for — with paws, humour and cuteness.

European cats united

The hashtag was started by Lilian Edwards from the University of Strathclyde with a picture of her cat at 3.16 p.m. on June 18, 2016. In her tweet, Lilian wrote that her cat Java was supposedly sad because of the chances of Brexit. Since 55% of Lilian’s followers are based in the UK, the hashtag was picked up by her colleagues and friends, gradually spreading through her network.

Two days later, in the morning of June 20th, the #CatsAgainstBrexit hashtag started trending after reaching approximately 5K tweets, which is unusually low for Twitter’s Trending section. This is likely due to the gathering of MPs in the House of Commons on Monday morning.

At 4 p.m. the hashtag was picked up by several blogs and news sites. That’s also the time when Lilian’s cat Java was joined by another cat, Cookie, to be “stronger together”. By 11 p.m. in the evening there were close to 33K tweets tagged with #CatsAgainstBrexit. That’s more than 2,800 cats per hour, echoing what experts have been saying about the online cat craze all along: “The cat propaganda machine is ruthlessly effective.

We estimate that on June 20, 2016 the #CatsAgainstBrexit hashtag reached a global audience of 25.8 million, generating 76.1 million impressions on Twitter. This is a remarkable information cascade for an ordinary Twitter user with less than 2,600 followers.

Cat fight over Brexit

However not all Internet cats side with Bremain. The immediate reaction from the Leave camp has been to hijack the hashtag and, subsequently, attempt to introduce #CatsForBrexit as a contrarian hashtag to win over the British Internet public. Even though all attempts to get this hashtag trending failed, it was still able to generate an impressive 8.87 million impressions reaching an estimated audience of 8.03 million Twitter users on its first day.

For example, a Twitter user from Reading, UK conjectures that “cats would probably vote out, but then immediately meow loudly to get back in again.” It appears that some of these cats have very particular preferences when it comes to the EU referendum.

It is striking, nevertheless, that one of the most popular Leave cats on Twitter is a reference to the embarrassingly outdated “I Can Has Cheezburger?” lolcat meme from 2005. Other Leave cats have been relying on similarly outdated memes such as Grumpy Cat from 2012 and Limecat from 2004. This shows just how much the Leave camp is out of touch with modern Internet culture.

A purrfect social strategy for Remain

This is not the first time that animals have taken up arms for or against the EU referendum. The BBC has recently reported how unpredictable social media success can be, using the example of Anton, the lizard-chasing dog from Mallorca. Anton has been actively campaigning for the Remain camp and, at some point, has shared one of the most discussed photographs in the EU referendum debate on Instagram.

Considering the overall negative tone of the Remain campaign and its over-reliance on economic expert opinions, it is really surprising to see this somewhat whimsical and hilarious movement that is driven by ordinary British citizens.

Back in 2009, Prime Minister David Cameron himself has already praised the Internet’s powerful ability to “transform moans into movements; excite the attention of hundreds, thousands, millions of people and stir them to action.” And this precisely what happened today.

#CatsAgainstBrexit is the long-awaited creative response to the dullness and lack of originality of the official Remain camp, making the case for an IN vote less about numbers and more about people (or cats for that matter).


About the author: Vyacheslav (@slavacm) is a doctoral candidate at the Oxford Internet Institute, researching complex social networks, digital identity and technology adoption. He has previously studied at Harvard University, Oxford University and the London School of Economics and Political Science. Vyacheslav is actively involved in the World Economic Forum and its Global Shapers community, where he is the Curator of the Oxford Hub. He writes about the intersection of sociology, network science and technology.