Helen Margetts, Peter John, Scott Hale and Taha Yasseri
On 23rd June 2016, a majority of the British public voted in a referendum on whether to leave the European Union. The Leave or so-called #Brexit option was victorious, with a margin of 52% to 48% across the country, although Scotland, Northern Ireland, London and some towns voted to remain. The result was a shock to both leave and remain supporters alike. US readers might note that when the polls closed, the odds on futures markets of Brexit (15%) were longer than those of Trump being elected President.
Political scientists are reeling with the sheer volume of politics that has been packed into the month after the result. From the Prime Minister’s morning-after resignation on 24th June the country was mired in political chaos, with almost every political institution challenged and under question in the aftermath of the vote, including both Conservative and Labour parties and the existence of the United Kingdom itself, given Scotland’s resistance to leaving the EU. The eventual formation of a government under a new prime minister, Teresa May, has brought some stability. But she was not elected and her government has a tiny majority of only 12 Members of Parliament. A cartoon by Matt in the Telegraph on July 2nd (which would work for almost any day) showed two students, one of them saying ‘I’m studying politics. The course covers the period from 8am on Thursday to lunchtime on Friday.’
All these events – the campaigns to remain or leave, the post-referendum turmoil, resignations, sackings and appointments – were played out on social media; the speed of change and the unpredictability of events being far too great for conventional media to keep pace. So our book, Political Turbulence: How Social Media Shape Collective Action, can provide a way to think about the past weeks. The book focuses on how social media allow new, ‘tiny acts’ of political participation (liking, tweeting, viewing, following, signing petitions and so on), which turn social movement theory around. Rather than identifying with issues, forming collective identity and then acting to support the interests of that identity – or voting for a political party that supports it – in a social media world, people act first, and think about it, or identify with others later – if at all.
These tiny acts of participation can scale up to large-scale mobilizations, such as demonstrations, protests or petitions for policy change. These mobilizations normally fail – 99.9% of petitions to the UK or US governments fail to get the 100,000 signatures required for a parliamentary debate (UK) or an official response (US). The very few that succeed usually do so very quickly on a massive scale, but without the normal organizational or institutional trappings of a social or political movement, such as leaders or political parties. When Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff asked to speak to the leaders of the mass demonstrations against the government in 2014 organised entirely on social media with an explicit rejection of party politics, she was told ‘there are no leaders’.
This explosive rise, non-normal distribution and lack of organization that characterizes contemporary politics as a chaotic system, can explain why many political mobilizations of our times seem to come from nowhere. In the US and the UK it can help to understand the shock waves of support that brought Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Jeremy Corbyn (elected leader of the Labour party in 2015) and Brexit itself, all of which have challenged so strongly traditional political institutions. In both countries, the two largest political parties are creaking to breaking point in their efforts to accommodate these phenomena.
The unpredicted support for Brexit by over half of voters in the UK referendum illustrates these characteristics of the movements we model in the book, with the resistance to traditional forms of organization. Voters were courted by political institutions from all sides – the government, all the political parties apart from UKIP, the Bank of England, international organizations, foreign governments, the US President himself and the ‘Remain’ or StrongerIn campaign convened by Conservative, Labour and the smaller parties. Virtually every authoritative source of information supported Remain. Yet people were resistant to aligning themselves with any of them. Experts, facts, leaders of any kind were all rejected by the rising swell of support for the Leave side. Famously, Michael Gove, one of the key leave campaigners said ‘we have had enough of experts’. According to YouGov polls, over 2/3 of Conservative voters in 2015 voted to Leave in 2016, as did over one third of Labour and Liberal Democrat voters.
Instead, people turned to a few key claims promulgated by the two Leave campaigns Vote Leave (with key Conservative Brexiteers such as Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Liam Fox) and Leave.EU, dominated by UKIP and its leader Nigel Farage, bankrolled by the aptly named billionaire Arron Banks. This side dominated social media in driving home their simple (if largely untrue) claims and anti-establishment, anti-elitist message (although all were part of the upper echelons of both establishment and elite). Key memes included the claim (painted on the side of a bus) that the UK gave £350m a week to the EU which could instead be spent on the NHS; the likelihood that Turkey would soon join the EU; and an image showing floods of migrants entering the UK via Europe. Banks brought in staff from his own insurance companies and political campaign firms (such as Goddard Gunster) and Leave.EU created a massive database of leave supporters to employ targeted advertising on social media.
While Remain represented the status-quo and a known entity, Leave was flexible to sell itself as anything to anyone. Leave campaigners would often criticize the Government but then not offer specific policy alternatives stating, ‘we are a campaign not a government.’ This ability for people to coalesce around a movement for a variety of different (and sometimes conflicting) reasons is a hallmark of the social-media based campaigns that characterize Political Turbulence. Some voters and campaigners argued that voting Leave would allow the UK to be more global and accept more immigrants from non-EU countries. In contrast, racism and anti-immigration sentiment were key reasons for other voters. Desire for sovereignty and independence, responses to austerity and economic inequality and hostility to the elites in London and the South East have all figured in the torrent of post-Brexit analysis. These alternative faces of Leave were exploited to gain votes for ‘change,’ but the exact change sought by any two voters could be very different.
The movement‘s organization illustrates what we have observed in recent political turbulence – as in Brazil, Hong Kong and Egypt; a complete rejection of mainstream political parties and institutions and an absence of leaders in any conventional sense. There is little evidence that the leading lights of the Leave campaigns were seen as prospective leaders. There was no outcry from the Leave side when they seemed to melt away after the vote, no mourning over Michael Gove’s complete fall from grace when the government was formed – nor even joy at Boris Johnson’s appointment as Foreign Secretary. Rather, the Leave campaigns acted like advertising campaigns, driving their points home to all corners of the online and offline worlds but without a clear public face. After the result, it transpired that there was no plan, no policy proposals, no exit strategy proposed by either campaign. The Vote Leave campaign was seemingly paralyzed by shock after the vote (they tried to delete their whole site, now reluctantly and partially restored with the lie on the side of the bus toned down to £50 million), pickled forever after 23rd June. Meanwhile, Teresa May, a reluctant Remain supporter and an absent figure during the referendum itself, emerged as the only viable leader after the event, in the same way as (in a very different context) the Muslim Brotherhood, as the only viable organization, were able to assume power after the first Egyptian revolution.
In contrast, the Leave.Eu website remains highly active, possibly poised for the rebirth of UKIP as a radical populist far-right party on the European model, as Arron Banks has proposed. UKIP was formed around this single policy – of leaving the EU – and will struggle to find policy purpose, post-Brexit. A new party, with Banks’ huge resources and a massive database of Leave supporters and their social media affiliations, possibly disenchanted by the slow progress of Brexit, disaffected by the traditional parties – might be a political winner on the new landscape.
The act of voting in the referendum will define people’s political identity for the foreseeable future, shaping the way they vote in any forthcoming election. The entire political system is being redrawn around this single issue, and whichever organizational grouping can ride the wave will win. The one thing we can predict for our political future is that it will be unpredictable.
Helen Margetts the Director of Oxford Internet Institute and professor of society and the internet at the University of Oxford. Peter John is professor of political science and public policy at University College London. Scott Hale is a data scientist at the Oxford Internet Institute and a faculty fellow of the Turing Institute. Taha Yasseri is a research fellow in computational social science at the Oxford Internet Institute, a faculty fellow at Turing Institute, and research fellow in Humanities and Social Sciences at Wolfson College, University of Oxford. The four collaborated on the book Political Turbulence: How Social Media Shape Collective Action.