Brexit: Will the Leave Campaign’s Big Showing on Social Media Translate into Votes?

As Brits go to the polls today to vote on a high-risk referendum, the Leave side has already won the battle on social media. Could this victory translate into an Out vote? As we wait for the final verdict, Reputation Squad analyses data from its Brexitometer to take a look back at the last two months of an intense social media campaign designed to win the hearts and minds of voters.

Social media undeniably dominated by eurosceptics

Since the beginning of the campaign, eurosceptics have clearly triumphed on social media thanks to both a larger and a more engaged community than that of their pro-European opponents. Vote Leave, the officially designated campaign of the Brexiteers, totaled more than 5 million engagements these past two months1, more than two times the amount earned by its rival, Stronger In. We also have to note the strong influence of some non-official campaigns, particularly Leave.EU, which lost in its effort to be selected by the Electoral Commission. Leave.EU, which was judged by many to be less respectable because it was mainly supported by Nigel Farage’s UKIP, managed to surpass Vote Leave with more than 6 million engagements since the beginning of April. This was enough to tilt the balance in favour of the Out camp.

Nigel Farage shows his strength as the top influencer in the debate

The Leave side has benefited from the influence of some big names in British politics. While Boris Johnson, the highly charismatic ex-mayor of London, initially seemed likely to take the lead as the uncontested head of the Brexiteers, it was actually Nigel Farage who came to dominate the debate online. Far ahead of his challengers, the leader of the anti-European and anti-immigration party became the standard bearer of the pro-Brexit camp, with more than 1.8 million engagements on Facebook and Twitter. This was 3 times more than Prime Minister David Cameron achieved and nearly 4 times more than Boris Johnson. Despite his divisive stances, crude provocations and the hostility of a large part of the political class, Nigel Farage managed to largely outperform the leaders of the main political parties and establish himself as the big winner of the battle for influence on social media.

The economy and immigration top voters’ worries

On Twitter, discussion around the referendum grew continuously as the fateful day of 23 June approached. In two months, ‘Brexit’ was mentioned nearly 6 million times, with a peak of nearly 500,000 mentions on 22 June, the day before the vote.

But the battle between In and Out was about more than volume, it was also about ideas. Vote Leave, in an effort to position itself in line with the worries of everyday voters, initially made the NHS the center of its campaign messaging. It argued mainly that money saved by leaving the EU could be better spent on strengthening the National Health Service. In the last few weeks before the vote, however, it shifted its messaging to focus on the theme of immigration, which was seen as a wedge issue with voters that would boost turnout and engagement. This assessment seems to have been backed up by Twitter, where immigration was the single most used topic keyword in Brexit-related tweets, with nearly 90K mentions in two months.

Still, it was the economy that dominated the Twitter debate overall, making up 10 of the 20 most mentioned topic keywords. The economy was also the focus on the Stronger In campaign, which hammered home the simple logic that being part of the EU meant more jobs and lower prices, while leaving would provoke a decade of recession.

After the tumult caused by the murder of the young MP Jo Cox last week, the fate of the referendum on Britain’s place within the EU is highly uncertain. Whatever the decision made by the British, it will likely leave a better taste in the mouth of numerous pro-Europeans, who were frustrated by the inability of the Remain campaign to passionately defend the aspirational values of the European project. Instead, the campaign often seemed to spread fear by promising diplomatic chaos and economic disaster in the case of an Out vote. In this climate filled with uncertainty and sensationalist overreaction, the British people will have to make an irreversible decision that is likely to not only determine its own destiny, but that of all of Europe.

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