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Can social media save UK politics from Brexit?

This is a guest post by Helen Margetts, John W. Kluge Center Chair in Technology and Society at the Library of Congress. Margetts is a Professor of Internet and Society at the University of Oxford, and served as Director of the Oxford Internet Institute from 2011 to 2018. Her most recent book, “Political Turbulence: How Social Media Shape Collective Action,” was about the ways in which social media have brought volatility, instability, and unpredictability to political life. Now she is researching how the use of technology might begin to stabilize this democratic turbulence.

The stimulating yet peaceful environment of the Library has prompted me to consider anew this often troubled relationship between social media and politics from a UK perspective, with respect to the crisis of our time – Brexit. As the artist Giacometti said, there is a sense in which you see things more clearly from a distance.

Participants in the march for a People’s Vote hold a banner hold a sign from Led by Donkeys’ campaign. (Credit: Led by Donkeys)

The UK has been in a state of internal political strife for nearly three years, since the referendum on whether to leave the European Union in June 2016. The result indicated a country that was deeply divided on this issue at many levels. The national result of 52% for Leave, 48% for Remain masked more extreme disparities between the young and the elderly, those who live in cities and countryside, in the north and south, and in prosperous and poverty stricken areas.

Every twist and turn since then – the Conservative Leadership election of 2016, the inconclusive general election of 2017 and the high drama of 2018 and the last few weeks – has served to reinforce divisions. The two largest parties are split into (at least) two parts that hate each other. The Parliament is in disarray, as its key organizing principle – party discipline – has broken down, with cabinet ministers and even whips (who oversee that discipline) themselves defying the whip. The government is now described as Government In Name Only. The uncertainty over when and how the UK will leave the bloc has driven business to despair, from Amazon to BMW, and £1 trillion of assets have moved to European countries. The country is now poised on a cliff edge, between the devil of a no-deal Brexit and the deep blue sea of calling the whole thing off and revoking Article 50 in what some believe would be a massive betrayal of the 52% who voted to leave the European Union.

At many points along the rocky path that led to this precipice, social media have been blamed for the disarray. In the UK, the traditional media are quick to blame social media for every wrong, and the referendum was no exception. Their role was mired in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the spending of the Leave campaign (spent on Facebook ads), and accusations of Russian interference through bots and click farms. Social media have been accused of driving a wedge between leavers and remainers, facilitating the development of factions within parties via WhatsApp groups, and creating echo chambers in the electorate where social media users are prey to misinformation and targeted ads that drive them to become more extreme in their views of the European Union. Social media platforms are also implicated in the post-Brexit rise in hate speech, with internet trolls and computational propaganda targeting hate at EU migrants and pro-EU campaigners in particular.

Social media are also associated with the surprise election of Jeremy Corbyn as the Labour party leader in 2015, and his relative (to expectations) success in the 2017 election, with his armies of digital warriors and homemade video clips disseminated on Instagram and Snapchat. The Corbynite revolution acted in a way typical of the social movements analysed in our book Political Turbulence: with a wave of support generated by social media propelling a leader to a position that then lacks the mechanisms to become a sustainable political or parliamentary force. Having voted against his own whip over 425 times as a backbench MP, he was unlikely to inspire party loyalty or be well placed to hold the parliamentary party together.

But if we take a step back, can we find some more seeds of hope being sprinkled by social media? Are they fueling the development of new associations and alignments that could be eventually constructive rather than destructive for the UK political system and institutions? While many institutions are split along the same lines as the country – the political parties, the Parliament, the mainstream media – strange alliances are forming. The Confederation of British Industry and the Trade Unions Congress (not known for working together) issued a joint statement last week declaring a state of national crisis with the aim of forcing the government into action. The elderly Tory statesman Lord Michael Heseltine was a keynote speaker at what was probably his first mass demonstration, for a People’s Vote. And a small group of MPs splintered off from both Conservative and Labour parties for the first time in British political history, calling themselves the Independent Group. They were polling at 18 per cent (only five points behind Labour) even before the 12 disparate MPs had formed a political party).

These are all indications of how British politics is now defined not by affiliation to one or other political party, but by people’s view of one issue – whether we should leave the EU, or remain part of it, or at least maintain a close relationship. The two largest parties are completely split on the issue, and an apparent return to two party politics in the 2017 general election reflected merely a determination on the behalf of the electorate to identify which of the parties most likely to acquire power could be relied on to advocate for a ‘leave’ or ‘remain’ preference.

These new ‘sides’ in British politics differ in their institutional patterning and level of organization. On the Leave side, there are a number of organizational forces both within and outside Parliament.

First, there is the 1922 committee in Parliament – the association of Conservative backbench MPs which has its own leader, executive committee meetings, and is predominantly pro-Brexit amongst its active members.

Second, there is the European Research Group, a grouping of MPs focused on the single issue of Britain’s exit from the EU. Its membership is secret, but it is estimated to be around 140 MPs, with their own leader, policies, and whipping system. In the emergency meeting convened at Chequers on Sunday night, its leader, Jacob Rees Mogg, was in attendance, while several cabinet ministers such as the Foreign Secretary, were not.

Third, the Conservative party membership is, in general, pro-Brexit and therefore reasonably homogenous and predictable.

Fourth, for those to the right of the Conservative party there was the option of the UK Independence Party, extremely pro-Brexit and in a relatively stable state throughout the referendum period, although it has started to fall apart since.

Finally, there are both of the Leave campaigns in the referendum – the official Vote Leave campaign with several cabinet ministers among its leadership, and the unofficial Leave EU campaign largely led by UKIP and funded by the billionaire Arron Banks.They were organized separately, appealed to different constituencies, and put forward simple and coherent messages, much as their veracity has been questioned in some quarters. So those leave voters looking for an organizational embodiment of their preferences have some choices.

In contrast, there has been little holding the Remain camp together over the past three years – apart from social media. The Remain campaign in the referendum, although well financed (the largest campaigns spent around £16 million) and backed by both the ruling Conservative party and the Labour party, was a lacklustre affair, with confusion as to direction and advertising strategy. It was hampered by the apparent lassitude of Cameron and the lack of conviction of Corbyn, who many believe favours leaving the EU.

Two recent events have highlighted signs of a shift in favour of the pro-EU side. First, a petition to Revoke Article 50 set up by Margaret Georgidou on 20th March accelerated in signature growth faster than any other known petition to an official petitions platform, and by Sunday 24th March had attained over 5 million signatures, in spite of multiple crashes (because the Parliament website could not cope with the huge volume of users), inspections and interrogation for bots,, attempts to discredit the petition by leave campaigners and journalists, and at least one 4Chan hack.

The second sign of social media-fueled organization within the Remain camp was a march of between one and two million people in London on March 23rd. The march was organized by the People’s Vote, an online movement that launched in April 2018 to campaign for a second referendum on the final negotiated deal. They are a largely virtual organization, drawing together a number of other pro-EU groups, organized on social media and involving several MPs from across the parties. The march was reportedly a good humoured and incident-free event in spite of the huge numbers, drew people from all over the country, and appears to represent the largest ever protest in Britain.

As the Labour press secretary from the time of the second largest demonstration (against the Iraq war that ended the Blair Administration) put it, for every marcher there are another 10 who thought about going but could not afford the transaction costs, meaning that marches are important signifiers of public opinion. In this case, activity on social media fed into, reinforced, and magnified these connections with the wider population.

For example, a new anonymous group, made up of just four friends, called Led by Donkeys, crowdfunded huge billboards of tweets contrasting what leading Brexiters said before and after the referendum (‘tweets you can’t delete’). They provided a helicopter to take aerial photographs of their banners held up by the marchers, which were then pushed out across social media platforms by those unable to attend the march, who also posted photographs of their feet under the hashtag #countmetoo.

Both these developments have involved significant numbers – from celebrities to hundreds of thousands of ordinary people. They have acted as focal points for a complex cross-hatch of groups and clusters, and they seem to have developed some kind of common purpose, even though the vast majority of the activity is online. As one commentator (Alex Andreou) observed, ‘I feel more part of the Remain tribe than I have any other; more positive about the EU and energised to reclaim and reform it, than before; more hopeful about the next generation’s political engagement.’ The petition and the march suggest that the number of people who might put themselves in this ‘tribe’ outstrips the number of members of any UK political party.

This is far from a coherent mobilization as yet. Were there to be a general election, there would be enormous challenges for this loose tribe to organize. In contrast, re-constituted Vote Leave and Leave.EU campaigns would have their previous successful experience to draw on and are already pumping out advertisements on Facebook and other platforms. There are already rifts between the People’s Vote and New Labour ‘elder statesmen’ such as Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson. The initiator of the Revoke Article 50 petition has reportedly received plausible death threats by telephone. Jeremy Corbyn didn’t attend the march and Theresa May dismissed it in Parliament on the following Monday. But the People’s Vote and other pro-EU groups are now using the petition as a campaigning tool, and it continues to rise steadily. There seems to be at least a working possibility that were there to be another referendum, this nascent political movement might do better than the first Remain campaign.

Could this grow into a sustainable political movement? That is too early to tell. It is still the case that the UK may leave with no deal, even as early as 12th April. As the saying currently goes in the UK, anyone who tells you that they know what is going to happen is lying. But there are green shoots of some kind of sustainable institutional development that is built on something positive. If it is there on the Remain side, it seems possible that it is there on the Leave side also. And the fact that this should be so illustrates how profoundly our political system – like that of so many countries – has changed with social media in the last ten years.

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