Will tribal instincts on social media influence the referendum result?

Keira Knightly

As my colleague Euan reflects here, there are few things more likely than social media to divide people into tribes, based around habit and allegiance.  As a result social media can become a setting for intense loyalties and rivalries, where people increasingly showcase their opinions and just as frequently react furiously to things they don’t agree with.

In the context of the EU referendum debate, both of the official campaigns have been pushing their messages hard to followers, through channels like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, where actress Keira Knightly made a late, memorably sweary, intervention. Yet there’s always a risk that the online campaign doesn’t reach out beyond the communities that are its easiest targets. When we choose who we connect with or follow and who we proactively exclude from our platforms, it can become easy to surround ourselves with views that mirror our own.

For Vote Leave’s communications director Paul Stephenson that’s a real risk that the campaigns are aware of and prepared to counter. He has highlighted Facebook as the gold standard for reaching a wider base of voters: “There’s a massive bias towards Facebook; we think Twitter is more of an echo chamber for Westminster and journalists”…”Both campaigns have £7m to spend and we’ll be putting a significant chunk of that in Facebook.”

In other ways though, that “echo chamber” effect can permeate naturally, with interesting effects on voters’ behaviour.  For example, the New Statesman’s Barbara Speed has cited the way in which efforts to boost voter registration before the deadline had significant success on Facebook, with its predominantly younger user base. So, the majority of voters persuaded by Facebook’s automatic prompts to register at the last minute fell into the under-43 demographic most likely to vote to Remain.

At this point however, with the polls exceptionally close, it’s hard to tell precisely the effect that social media, and its effect on online groups, will have on next week’s result.

As the FT has pointed out, ahead of the 2014 independence referendum campaign in Scotland, Yes Scotland registered a far deeper impact across social media than the No campaign, but still lost. According to Brandwatch’s analytics, Vote Leave was mentioned more than 1m times across social media in the past month, compared to just 600,000 times for Remain. Whether that online buzz translates into votes balloted remains to be seen.

The thing about referendums is that they force people to decide between just two options – Leave or Remain in this case – that simply doesn’t even begin adequately to reflect the vast multitude of group options, discussions and accounts that most social media users encounter and interact with online each day.

Whether the referendum campaigns have done enough to get the electorate as excited about putting a cross next to either of these options in a real voting booth therefore isn’t yet clear. Each side will be hoping they have done just enough to encourage their core vote to turn out in large enough numbers and that tools like social media will tip the balance of ‘undecideds’ in their favour: expect the social media campaign to reach a new frenzy in the last remaining days.

Peter Smyth is Head of Public Affairs at Indigo


This month voters in the UK will go to the polls to decide whether we, as a country, prefer to stand alone outside the European or continue to try to lead the international agenda from within it.

In the run-up to the referendum we will be posting a series of blogs, client stories and interviews from across Indigo’s networks, taking a sideways look at whether we can balance the advantages of strong networks against the freedom to stand out from the crowd.

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