Social media and a second referendum

Thought Leadership
Brexit and the surrounding issues are unsurprisingly sparking huge amounts of conversation on social media. Here, our Research & Insight Director, Andre van Loon and Senior Creative Technologist, Sam Cox, examine one aspect of this, in the first of a series of Brexit-focused posts.

It’s been just over a month since the British Government first decided to delay a parliamentary vote on its Brexit deal (10 Dec). Since then, we’ve witnessed PM Theresa May travel to The Hague, Berlin and Brussels for talks (11 Dec); survive a no-confidence vote by her own MPs (12 Dec); attend a two-day EU summit to seek clarifications (13-14 Dec); and speak repeatedly about the dangers of MPs rejecting her deal. That rejection followed, however, when the meaningful vote finally happened (15 Jan).

During this period of high political drama, social media discussion around Brexit has been fierce and often fractious. In this piece, We Are Social’s Research & Insight and Creative Technology teams have looked at one potential outcome to the Brexit story: a second referendum.

We analysed open social media platform conversations about a second referendum (including all variant mentions and spellings) between 1 Dec 2018 and 17 Jan 2019, using a combination of specially developed sentiment and proprietary monitoring tools. In total, 2.6m social conversations were recorded; an explosion in volume compared to a Jan to Nov 2018 monthly average of 763k conversations.

The analysis leads to three main insights:

1) Second referendum perception is tied closely to May’s deal. Discussion around a second referendum was markedly optimistic when the vote was delayed and then finally defeated, rising to an average 60% positive tone during those periods (vs an average 48% positivity during Dec-Jan generally).

Moreover, conversation volume shot up when it became clear May’s deal was in trouble, with an average 111k daily mentions around the (supposed and actual) meaningful vote days, vs 48k per day excluding those days.

In short: second referendum enthusiasm rose sharply when May’s deal first faltered, and then failed. It became a highly discussed and highly regarded alternative outcome.

2) Second referendum backing correlates inversely with support for May’s leadership. The better May is seen to be doing, the less a second referendum is discussed; the worse she performs in public opinion, the more a second referendum comes to the fore.

For example, directly following the spike in mentions and the uplift in sentiment on the delayed vote day (10 Dec), May travelled to the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium for a series of urgent talks, bringing a renewed sense she might carry the day. During these few days, second referendum conversations fell off sharply.

The same happened after May survived a no-confidence vote on 16 Jan: second referendum mentions and sentiment receded immediately.

3) Contrary to what you might expect, social media support and advocacy for a second referendum mostly comes from an older demographic: of all social media authors writing about a second referendum in Dec 2018 to Jan 2019, 92% were aged 35+, 67% were men and 34% posted from London (note, all demographic and location data based on automated sampling, though sample sizes are sufficiently representative).

In terms of location, generally speaking, social media conversations from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland accounted for less than 10% of the total (c. 90% from England).

Looking at the leading demographic of 35+ year old men, we can observe this group’s other cultural affinities, in terms of what they have written about beyond a second referendum. The key topics include the BBC, The Guardian, the Labour Party, charities, science & technology and health.

In other words, second referendum support, at least as it plays out on social media, does not come from young people. It is likely that young people are more active through private messaging apps, or in other more ‘closed’ settings such as friendship groups.

Overall then, We Are Social’s analysis shows how public opinion about Brexit, here measured in terms of social media conversations, continues to be highly volatile. The Government, and Theresa May in particular, still drive the agenda, with their success or failure impacting on how often and well the potential solution of a second referendum is talked of.

There have been few times when social media analysis has had to revert and review its findings so regularly, but at least intelligent social media monitoring can guide us through the changing state of play.

Stay tuned to our blog for further Brexit-focused updates, along with other social media-focused news and insights.