Brexit: How social media impacted the referendum

Just as social media has become ingrained in our everyday lives, we can only assume that it now has become ingrained in not only advertising but news and political marketing too. With social media becoming the most popular type of online news, used by 44% of adults (Ofcom 2017-2018:2) it is only expected that information on the 2016 Brexit referendum was easily available and accessible online.

The turnout for the referendum was at a high, with 72.2 percent of the population voting, which eclipsed the turnout for the 2015 general election which was at 66 percent. The young vote (18-24-year olds) was also at a twenty-five-year high. Although strictly there is no correlation it has been commented that “the press on both sides of the argument did an effective job of stimulating public interest and action” (Hänska; Bauchowitz, 2017) and this includes the use of social media.

Made by Emma Adkins

Research showed that many Twitter users who were supporting the ‘LEAVE’ campaign were more active and prevalent online in expressing their views than ‘REMAIN’ users, who were less visible and less engaged online. Similar patterns were found on Instagram and Facebook, they found “similar patterns of Eurosceptic views being communicated with a greater number of users on those platforms” (Herman; Polonski, 2016:33)

Not only did the ‘LEAVE’ campaign have more support social media, but this was also similarly seen in newspaper content. The right-leaning press came out with nearly 4.8 million sales for the Leave campaign. However, the more liberal and left-of-center newspapers who backed the remain campaign sold 1.8 million. (Brexit, Trump and the media)

In regard to social media, it is important to mention the Cambridge Analytica scandal that was key in influencing votes. The company managed to get access to personal Facebook data of 87 million people via a personality quiz on Facebook. In turn, this was sold to advertisers to sway key potential votes. Cambridge Analytica sold data to political parties and businesses who wanted to change the audience’s behaviour (Osbourne 2018). This could be viewed as psychological manipulation in order to achieve the outcome the businesses or political parties favored. The only goal was capital gains and not the best interest of the public.

But this was not the only type of media that could be argued did not serve the public good, for example ‘Vote Leave built a campaign around one big resounding number: Britain was sending the EU £350m a week, which could be spent on the NHS instead’ (Worrall 2017: 230) this was reported in newspapers and on social media. In this instance the media did not serve the public good, false information was presented as facts which people used to make an informed decision about their position.


Herman; Polonski, Hänska; Bauchowitz; Worrall (2016-2017) Brexit, Trump and the media, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk : Arima Publishin

Ofcom (2017-2018) News Consumption in the UK: 2018: Jigsaw Research

Osbourne, H (2018) The Guardian, What is Cambridge Analytica? The format the centre of Facebook’s data breach accessed 04/12/2018

Brexit: How social media impacted the referendum

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