Twitter was always going to be a major battleground in the EU referendum but the sheer number of hashtags being used in the debate has been surprising.
Both sides are linguistically inventive: for every pro-Leave hashtag, there’s a pro-Remain equivalent. Virtually all synonyms of “Remain” and “Leave” – from #britin and #britexit to #votin and #voteout – have been used. There’s even the somewhat clunky #brout and #brin, as well as whimsical phrases like #brexitandchill and #remainandgain.
Not all hashtags trend, of course. In fact, the vast majority don’t. To measure resonance, the content of tweets must be taken into consideration; it is not just a numbers game. Hashtags aren’t always used as a supportive device – a tweet that includes #GrassrootsOut, for example, might not necessarily endorse the movement.
To untangle the question of success, I have been gathering tweets containing 250 referendum-relevant hashtags since March 10. I’ve analysed the first three months of data from what has already become a collection of 10m tweets.
While Brexiters appear to be winning on Instagram, it’s the Remainers who seem to be running Twitter. The Brexiters are making a lot of noise – but that doesn’t necessarily amount to winning the war.
Hashtags and hijacks
From a pure numbers perspective, the Leave campaigners are in the lead. The most popular hashtag in my dataset is #Brexit, which is present in more than 2.5m tweets (roughly 33% of the data up until June 10).
Although this hashtag is arguably neutral – since it doesn’t express any particular sentiment about leaving the EU – it is being used far more actively by the Leave camp, who did, after all, coin the term. Almost two-thirds of tweets that contain it support a British exit from the EU.
The second most popular hashtag is #VoteLeave (1.2m). The more obviously neutral #EURef comes in third (873,000), followed by #StrongerIn (531,000).
Use of #EURef is roughly evenly split among Leave, Remain, and neutral (with Leave and neutral being slightly more dominant).
Pro-Leave groups are also more actively subverting pro-Remain hashtags than the other way round – almost 20% of tweets containing #StrongerIn express pro-Leave sentiment, whereas only 4% of tweets containing #VoteLeave support remaining in the EU.
Although #VoteLeave is more than twice as frequently used as #StrongerIn, half of the top 20 hashtags are pro-Remain. This indicates that a number of pro-Remain groups are quite active in the Twittersphere. Moreover, #Remain is two-and-a-half times more popular than #Leave.
Users or bots?
A closer scrutiny of the profiles of the top 20 users reveals that 85% are pro-Leave. All have tweeted at least 5,500 times and most of these tweets are retweets. According to the Truthy project’s Bot or Not, almost all are at least 40% likely to be a robot. They may be loud, but they don’t seem to be producing much original content.
Prominent individuals and brands on Twitter (those who have verified accounts) strongly favour #Brexit and #EURef over other hashtags. This might indicate that they prefer to take a more overtly neutral stance. Although, as noted above, #Brexit is being used far more actively by the Leave camp.
Most popular content
Remain campaigners are winning the Twitter war on one very important front. They are responsible for 60-70% of the ten most shared and liked tweets in my dataset (eight tweets appear on both lists). None of the top ten liked tweets and only one of the top ten shared tweets is pro-Leave.
The most shared and liked EU referendum tweet features a gif of a man trying to set fire to an EU flag, only to find that it won’t catch light – because it has been produced according to European safety rules.
Another of the most popular tweets comes from pro-Remain actor Stephen Mangan, who imagines a meeting of eurosceptic minds. His tweet is a good example of how a hashtag (in this case #Brexit) can be subverted by people who support the opposite of what it implies.
So who is winning the Twitter hashtag war? Although Leave campaigners are more vocal, Remain campaigners are crafting more compelling content. In the Twittersphere, humour and wit prevail and are more persuasive than anger or statistics.
Cat pictures, of course, are the epitome of this – so it’s no surprise that #CatsAgainstBrexit has become an instant viral success in the final days of the campaign.
Since June 18, thousands of people like Vix Leyton have shared pictures of their cats, explaining the implications of leaving the EU for the feline community. There is of course an emerging counter-movement of pro-Brexit pets (#PetsforBrexit, #PetsforBritain).
The bottom line with Twitter is that as political as it can be, ultimately people just want to be entertained. And where cats are involved, Remain is the clear winner.