Brexit here?

People on both sides of the U.S. election are talking about it, but in very different ways

By Kevin Aiken

Trump with British politician and pro-Brexit leader Nigel Farage (photo: AP)

As the election draws to a close, Trump supporters are forecasting victory. Their model: Britain’s decisive vote earlier this year in favor of the Brexit referendum. The product of a popular revolt against the UK political leadership and elite opinion, it was not predicted by most of the polls and expert forecasts.

In the days just before the Brexit vote, the polls had the two sides virtually-tied. With Clinton and Trump now neck-and-neck, the comparison seems more apt than ever.

Here at Electome — a project of the Laboratory for Social Machines at the MIT Media Lab — we use advanced computer-science techniques to analyze the Twitter public’s response to the presidential election. With access to all Twitter data every day, we have developed algorithms that can identify English-language tweets sent from U.S. time zones, which we use to determine what American users of Twitter are saying about the race.

We’ve been tracking how exclusive followers of Trump (people who follow Trump and no other candidate) use the term Brexit, as well how exclusive followers of Clinton use it. Both groups have been talking about Brexit, but in very different ways. To supporters of Trump, Brexit was a good thing, something the American public should seek to emulate. To Clinton supporters, Brexit was a disaster and the last thing we need is our own version.

To see which U.S. policy issues the commenters tended to associate with Brexit, we pulled all election-related tweets that used that term since September 1st. Given the widespread discussion of Brexit as an economic issue within Britain, one might expect economy-related topics to also figure prominently in U.S. election tweets referring to Brexit. Three of the economic policy issues tracked by Electome (economy overall, plus immigration and trade) were in fact the most mentioned in Brexit tweets.

And the divide between Clinton and Trump followers was clear, as these sample tweets show:

Digging deeper into the data, we also identified the words that have appeared most frequently in election Tweets also mentioning Brexit. Below is a visualization of the words used by Trump followers and Clinton followers, respectively, along with Brexit. The larger the circle, the more often the word was used.

Will Tuesday bring the U.S. a surprise on a par with Brexit? Since Twitter is not a mirror of the U.S. public at large, we can’t predict. What is clear is that on both sides of the U.S. election conversation, Brexit has served as a prism to view the Trump-Clinton race. But the view varies dramatically, depending on which presidential candidate you happen to support.