The Brexit divide on Twitter

Ever since a somewhat dazed David Dimbleby announced the result of the European Referendum to a surprised nation, we have been aware that Britain is a country divided.

Statistics and polls[1][2][3] have painted a very distinct picture of who ‘Leavers’ and ‘Remainers’ are, with stark differences in where they live, their overall levels of formal education, voting habits, newspaper readership and attitudes towards immigration. There will undoubtedly be more revelations emerging about these two groups over the coming months. But how are these initial divides currently being articulated and understood by voters themselves? As a microcosm of society, social media is an interesting place to start looking.

Over the period of 29 June – 6 July, I collected and made sense of around 450 tweets that contained either the #Brexiteer (Leavers) or #Remainiac (Remainers) hashtags – both seemingly used as pejorative terms to describe opponents – to identify some of the key ways in which each side tweeted about the other from within their respective echo chambers. This is not a rigorous analysis that reflects the algorithmic approach Demos generally takes to its digital research methodology but we can start to see some interesting themes emerging nonetheless.

As these names suggest, there is some noticeable hostility between the two groups. According to Remainers, the Brexiteers seem to shoot first and ask questions later, much like their musket-wielding namesake. They are accused of not knowing what they were voting for and prioritising the ‘wrong’ issues – as previous Demos research has shown, namely immigration and sovereignty. Brexiteers therefore face a condescending interrogation of their political beliefs.

One tweet reads “….Classic #Brexiteer : Exploded politics in this country so now I’m going for a jolly….”, in response to Boris Johnson’s absence from the Tory’s post-Brexit leadership bid. Another tweet asks “Without slogans, can a #Brexiteer pls [SIC] tell me what real world benefits they expect from leaving? Remember: no slogans”. The Brexiteers are assumed to depend on campaign slogans to justify their actions, perhaps at the expense of thinking about the effects Brexit would have on wider politics and the economy: “….are you proud to have played your part as a #BREXITeer in the ongoing dire political & economic chaos that has followed?”.

One Twitter user even suggests a more fitting name for them; “I’ve decided I don’t like the term “#Brexiteer”, sounds way too adventurous and buccaneering for what it actually represents. #pensioneer?”. It’s clear that the online rhetoric surrounding Brexiteers is drawing heavily on generalisations about their demographics – namely that they are uneducated and old – which has led to the creation and reinforcement of a negative caricature.

For their part, the Leavers themselves are fighting fire with fire, describing the Remainiacs as young and brainwashed – an overly precious ‘Generation Snowflake’, who wilfully shout at Brexiteers from the comfort of their ‘safe spaces’.

One tweet reads “Typical thick as **** brainwashed young #Remainiac….”. Another takes aim at safety pins, worn to support the anti-xenophobia campaign launched to combat post-Brexit hate crimes; “get your safety pin sorted your nappies slipping LOL #Remainiac babies”. One telling tweet reads, “#remainiac #losers protest in London. #generationsnowflake Throwing #tantrums #londonout #nobrexit #safespaces”.

Remainiacs are constructed here as eternal victims; “Haven’t you ran [SIC] out of victim cards yet? I’m sick & tired of #Remainiac bleating!”. They are privileged “pseudo intellectuals” who do not accept democracy unless it results in a decision they want; “Yet another leftie/#remainiac twat who doesn’t believe other people should hold different views to herself”. Again, it is age and education which are mobilised here to portray the Remainiacs negatively.

Both sides appear to be using demographic divides as weapons, whether it’s perpetuating the stereotype of the elderly, right-wing Brexiteer or the young, naïve Remainiac. But the approaches of the two camps are distinct in one key way. At least on Twitter, many people seem to want answers from the Brexiteers. Did they really know what they were voting for? Do they feel any remorse now? By contrast, Leavers are less interested in questioning Remainiacs, who are simply subjected to dismissive abuse. They have their protests mocked and their intellect questioned.

It’s clear there is a need for healing and unity, when according to new Demos research, the divisions that have leapt forth since the Referendum are having such sinister consequences. But this small piece of research underlines just how entrenched and hostile the climate between the 52 and the 48 has become – and how long the road ahead appears to be. Without finding this common-ground, however, there is a danger that patronisation and aggression will perhaps become the norm when discussing politics – both online and in wider society.

 

 

 

[1] Lord Ashcroft, How the United Kingdom voted on Thursday… and whylordashcroftpolls.com/2016/06/how-the-united-kingdom-voted-and-why

[2] Ashley Kirk, EU referendum: Which type of person wants to leave, and who will be voting to remain? The Telegraphtelegraph.co.uk/news/2016/06/22/eu-referendum-which-type-of-person-wants-to-leave-and-who-will-b

[3] Stian Westlake, U Can’t Touch This: the intangible economy and the social divides behind Brexitnesta.org.uk/blog/u-cant-touch-intangible-economy-and-social-divides-behind-brexit