Brexit, the 2016 decision by the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, came as shock or at least a surprise to many politicians and citizens alike, in the UK and outside of the country. The decision has been attributed to the polarized tabloid and online coverage surrounding the Referendum, or the general demise of quality journalism.
The situation is likely to be more complex than that, involving socio-economic and political factors; yet the role of the media seem undeniably central to the process and outcome. Hence, it is no wonder that the topic has elicited plenty of academic analysis. The topic is also intriguing and important at the moment, the so called Brexit deal being negotiated between the UK and the EU.
This collaborative essay by the undergraduate online course team of International Communication – Europe (COM3101) condenses the work of over 80 political scientists and media and communication researchers, on the EU Referendum of the UK. It focuses on the interplay of politics and political communication, journalism, news, and social media.
By: Adam Varela, Alexandra DiMauro, Allison Sisto, Alyssa DeFillippo, Alyssa Lombardi, Amanda DeMeo, Angelique Stathopoulos, Christin Corradi, Christopher Crocitto, Claudia Fajardo, Heather Chaya, James Hart, Joshua Lyev, Justine Jacobs, Kyle Braun, Mark Echevarrieta, Matthew Johansen, Matthew Maldonado, Minna Horowitz, Nataly Lado, Shaina Gilstein, Taylor Block, Tyler Vozza, Wenyu Gao
1.Introduction: What do the Media Have to Do With Brexit?
Brexit, the 2016 decision by the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, came as shock or at least a surprise to many politicians and citizens alike, in the UK and outside of the country. The decision has been attributed to the polarized tabloid and online coverage surrounding the Referendum, or the general demise of quality journalism. The situation is likely to be more complex than that, involving socio-economic and political factors; yet the role of the media seem undeniably central to the process and outcome. Hence, it is no wonder that the topic has elicited plenty of academic analysis.
This collaborative essay condenses the work of over 80 political scientists and media and communication researchers, on the EU Referendum of the UK. It focuses on the interplay of politics and political communication, journalism, news, and social media.
2. Politics, Political Communication and Brexit
There is a large amount of analysis to determine why exactly the Brexit vote happened the way it did. To simplify: There were two sides of the issue, the Leave side and the Remain side. The lead of the Leave campaign was to promote the foundation on transforming the existing state of affairs. The Remain campaign was to supply voters with doubt against the charge of the Leave campaign. According to the research by Kristy Hughes, the economic arguments of the Remain side were not as strong as the arguments of the Leave side. The latter relied on anti-immigration sentiment and their “take back control” slogan. The problem, however, is that the claim made by the Leave side regarding the expense to remain in the EU was based on an inflated false number that should have been corrected.
Some attribute the Referendum outcome, the decision of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, to the poorly managed and disregarded attention to claims brought forth both by the Leave and Remain camps.It should be note that only 16 percent of British people consider themselves strongly European, but 61 percent say they are strongly British. Voters also may have not been motivated by fear or by “projected fear.”
Immigration as a Key Issue
Political discourse had toxicity as a common descriptor but there were specific issues that influenced the decision. A major question was that of immigration. The research by Kerry Moore suggests that the tipping point for Wales’ vote to leave the EU was the issue of immigration as part of the Leave campaign. There had already been deep political divides between nationalists and liberals over the issue of immigration, and that the system of politics surrounding the issue had long been broken. Many of the nationalists were called out as “closet racists” and some analyses point out that nationalist politicians made mistakes by not explicitly ruling out that characterization as untrue.
Scholar Irini Katsirea, then, brings up the country of origin (COO) principle of the EU. The COO is the mechanism on how persons, goods, and services to move freely across the EU. Katsirea states that “the COO has been so undeniably beneficial, and if similar mechanisms govern what was the referendum’s bone of contention, the free movement of persons, then perhaps it would have been worth revisiting the contribution all the allegedly hand to mouth living, benefit seeking migrants make to the UK economy.” Scholars Tamara Hervey, Simon Hix and Lisa McKenzie argue that rather than demonizing immigrants, the EU should focus on redistributive policies that bring in local services, including those of public health.
Politics at Play
Some analysts posit that the Brexit movement was born out of miscalculation on the part of David Cameron, the former British Prime Minister. They note that David Cameron’s EU renegotiation was a great miscalculation that helped pave the way for voters to reject EU membership. The idea behind the EU renegotiation was to have the UK reside in a “reformed” EU while in reality that did not happen. This led many, including some of Cameron’s own cabinet, to turn against him.
Scholar Sophie Quirk takes a creative approach: She has compared the actual formal debates held and a stand up comedy act that focused on the debates. According to her, the stand up act was much more informative and honest than what the politicians offered in the official debates: Politicians and moderators of the debates were more interested in getting sound bites than they are of informing the public on their stands on the issues.
Was the Referendum Undemocratic?
Some researchers argue the referendum conducted in Britain was undemocratic. Research by Susan Banducci and Dan Stevens assessed the set of criteria which, when met, allows for referenda to function as a legitimate tool of democracy. They note that a referendum functions as a legitimate of democracy 1) if voters are informed about the issues at stake in their vote, 2) if they vote on the basis of these issues once informed, and 3) if they turn out to vote in sufficient numbers. Banducci and Stevens argue that the first two points are questionable as to whether or not they were properly met. They bring up the fact that there was a lot of misleading information circulating during the time leading up to the vote. While a lot of this information was addressed and corrected by “fact checkers”, many people chose to believe the disinformation anyway.
Banducci and Stevens further state that, “Psychologically, there are many heuristics or biases that lead to selective engagement with information and outright resistance of facts that may run counter to one’s beliefs.” The “motivated reasoning” paradigm and a confirmation bias suggests that citizens will tend to resist information that is inconsistent with prior beliefs and values and seek out information that confirms them.
Catherine Goetze goes even as far as to argue that Germany holds views the Referendum process to be undemocratic because it followed a pattern used by the Nazi party to make fast changes to the government. In her opinion, the decision should have been sent to Parliament and achieved a majority vote of at least two thirds before being acted upon. She notes that the biggest constitutional work that is awaiting Great Britain in the wake of this Referendum is to think about the form of the Union as well as how to get political decision-making close to the local and county level, in order to better respond to the diversity and concrete needs of the British population in a globalized world. What she means by this is making sure that there is much more equitable regional distribution of the country’s wealth.
What is the Role of the Media?
It is believed by some thinkers that voters did not care so much about accuracy of information when it came to voting for staying or leaving. They partially blame the media for this since the media provided misleading or fake facts regarding voting and its effects. Voters vote based on information that feeds into their confirmation bias is a smart one since people are stubborn to change.
It is also important to distinguish between the short-term role of the media in the campaign and the long-term cumulative influence of the media. The mass media did play a large role in both sides during this campaign, feeding into each in order to gain the support of one side more. The importance of the “Take Back Control” initiative was clear: This was an effective message because both sides were affected. It gave hope to groups of people that normally would not have that hope. It also focused on certain politicians and issues and allowed for powerful long- and short-term effects. The Leave campaign could draw from that positive appeal, which meant long-term success.
While the main issues being discussed with the topic of Brexit were whether to leave or stay, the news outlets (more specifically the main UK news broadcasting networks of BBC, ITN, and Sky) were mainly concerned with the future of the Conservative Party. Research points out how media should play a role in election campaigns and referenda: Media speculation in recent years lead to misleading polls, much like how in the Referendum the polls pointed towards the UK remaining in the union, while this was not true.
The Referendum campaign brought more young people to vote than normal. A research on voter involvement showed that at first, seven percent of people under 30 said they had no interest in politics at all with 40 percent being highly interested. When the Referendum day drew close, percentage of no interest slightly dropped to five percent, low interest dropped by four percent, and high interest rose to 45 percent. Earlier, 48 percent of people under 30 said that they were definitely voting in the Referendum and this rose to 71 percent by voting day.
One view is that referenda should possess an educational function; their appropriateness in solving complex issues relies on an informed public. If there are people who want the United Kingdom to have a manageable relationship with the EU there needs to be more focus on educating the public about what the EU is and how it runs.
3. News, Journalism and Brexit
To some extent, journalism about the Referendum echoed the two sides: The Remain focused heavily on economics and they were alluding that they were representing the elite. The Leave had more of an emotional effect. It gave both a feeling of hope and of fear – and both were favored in the press. One can find three different ways the media influenced the Referendum: headlines designed to reinforce campaign slogans, the consistency news, and the agenda setting role for broadcasters.
Fair and Balanced: Are News Organizations to Blame?
Some thinkers, such as Steven Barnett, believe strongly that the mainstream media “failed democracy” by being anti-EU: “Led, inevitably, by the viscerally anti-EU Mail, Sun, Express and Telegraph papers, most of our national press indulged in little more than a catalogue of distortions, half-truths and outright lies: a ferocious propaganda campaign in which facts and sober analysis were sacrificed to the ideologically driven objectives of editors and their proprietors.”
Scholar-activist Des Freedman echoes this sentiment and notes that neither the press, which is largely dominated by billionaire proprietors, nor broadcasters that are all too often enmeshed with the elites themselves, are able to make sense of and to articulate the divisions that exist in our society. National media outlets are mostly not interested in highlighting and analyzing the divisions that are truly meaningful and that would require them to acknowledge the structural inequalities that infiltrate the UK.
Indeed, David Levy, Billur Aslan, and Diego Bironzo found in their research that during the first three months of the campaign, the majority of the press were heavily in favor of Brexit. Out of over 1500 articles on the referendum, 41 percent were in favor of leaving, 27 percent were favored staying, 23 percent were categorized as undecided, and nine percent were categorized as having no position. The researchers note how, “given the way the referendum debate cut across traditional party lines, broadcasters may have relied more than usual on the press in deciding how best to balance their campaign coverage.”
To be fair, the newspapers’ opinions during the referendum campaign varied. Although all the papers decided to declare a position, not all the papers chose to promote their stance to the same extent or degree. As an example: The Guardian was the most vocal newspaper on the Remain side, while the other newspapers sharing the same side were a lot less vocal on their stance.
Some scholars argue that the pro-Leave coverage was not only opinionated, but inflammatory. That camp characterized the immigration issue in inflammatory language, and, as has been argued, normalized and legitimated xenophobic and racist sentiments which could have real and lasting consequences. At the same time, in an effort to appear impartial, the radio stations confused undecided voters failing to point out that the Remain side had the support of most economic experts.
Even the British Broadcasting Company, BBC, that is funded publicly and should represent truly independent journalism, did not fare well. BBC journalists were supposed to give “fair coverage” of Brexit but unfortunately their reporting came off as misleading. All of the “balanced” news coverage was predictable. This coverage left people confused.
According to research, both press and broadcasters should be questioned for the narrow range of voices, issues and opinions that were given prominence in this most crucial political debate. For instance, there was a lack of women during the Brexit coverage. After there was an intervention about this, women campaigners were subsequently deployed to take part in prominent televised debates, but had little impact on subsequent news coverage. Male presence is an issue in terms of news coverage due to the fact that the two main policy areas are economy and immigration. There was rhetoric about politicians wanting the “women vote”. This may have been true, yet no one bothered to find out what it is that British women are wanting. In general, the tone, content, quality, voices and opinions presented in the referendum were not equal across the board, which leads to the favoring of one set of opinions over another.
Are Journalists to Blame?
As noted above, there were clear discrepancies when it came to the statistical data that either side presented. It is remarkable that the journalists seldom challenged these statistics. At the same time, in the UK, as elsewhere, journalism organizations are facing harsh economic realities. There are very few journalists due to limited staffing, but there are also very strict time restraints that journalists must work under. The EU is a complicated topic that the journalists need to deal with only few resources. From the perspective of the EU, they do reach out to provide journalists with adequate information and resources but that information still ends up being altered and twisted, the EU officials even deem it as possibly deliberate.
Another aspect is the challenges faced by journalists in the UK when dealing with EU officials. The UK journalists are known to be adversarial in their style, which is a British tradition in journalism. The EU officials believe in a more consensual EU system, designed to put out more human-interest type stories. There is definitely a distinct cultural difference between the UK journalists and their style, with the EU agenda for putting out news.
To be sure, traditional news journalism had an impact, and to a specific audience segment. When people read print newspapers, a majority of them read a headline that was in favor of withdrawal from the European Union. A large number of newspaper readers are of older age, which meant that a lot of older people were exposed to pro-Brexit material and headlines. Overall, pro-Brexit material in the press may have caused broadcast media and older aged people to sway in that same direction.
4. Social Media and Brexit
Referendum: A Social Media Battle
Online campaigning has become a very important way to reaching supporters, without having to deal with the filter that is placed on mass media. The role of social media was enormous in the battle between the Remain and Leave campaigns. Each side had strategists with vast experience in data mining, analytics and micro-targeting. Each side even received a government grant of £600,000 to fund their activities, along with substantial corporate and private donations. But in the end, the Leave campaign was much more successful in their targeting methods:
As an example, in his study Andrew Mullen analyzed how both the Leave and Remain campaigns used social media in what he calls the “first digital referendum” in Britain. “Both the official Leave (“Vote Leave”) and Remain (“Britain Stronger in Europe”) campaigns utilized key aspects of the successful Obama Model developed during the 2008 and 2012 US Presidential Elections – more specifically big data mining, data analytics, micro-targeting and social media – in an attempt to identify and then mobilize their respective supporters.” Mullen concludes due to the result it is evident that the leave campaign was more successful in this medium than the remain one was.
In other words, Brexit supporters created a more powerful and emotional message which lead them to becoming more effective on the Internet. As for the Remain campaign, it was said that they lost the battle online long before they lost the political battle on the ground. This happened due to the fact that the people who supported the Leave campaign were more consistent on the social networking platforms, while the Remain campaign supporters decided to ignore the internet as a whole because they did not connect it with the real world. With the right connections and large amounts of money given to convince and advertise, social media became a huge role in this battle between the Remain and Leave campaign. With that being, the Leave campaign was the more productive side in which they had more of the popular vote and were more accessible to the people.
Brexit users largely outnumbered Remain activists on Twitter and Instagram: The Leave camp had 1.5 times the amount of Twitter followers that the Remain group had. The campaigns became less positive over time, due to the increase of negative claims about their opponents rather than making positive claims about themselves. The Leave camp had 1.5 times the amount of Twitter followers that the Remain group had. The Remain campaign also had a presence but it was much slower and less apparent. Despite the greatly improved presence of the official @StrongerIn campaign on Twitter, it never gained the degree of impact on Twitter achieved the Leave campaign. However, some research shows that there was a spike in engagement only in the days leading up to the vote. All in all, Twitter did seem to indicate through the process that this would be a Leave win – but it should be remembered that Twitter is not a representation of the wider public and should not be treated as such.
One research effort focused on the way that three parties (Labor, Liberal Democrats, and Greens) supporting the Remain campaign worked to influence individuals by using one specific channel: e-newsletters. Throughout the course of the six-week campaign, the parties collectively sent out 27 emails to anyone publicly reachable on e-newsletter lists. The main messages promoted by these letters was to raise money as well as putting emphasis on the importance of voting.
Hashtags and Memes
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but in the age of social media memes are doing all the talking. Mary Mitchell tracked the #usepens meme, which originally surfaced surrounding claims of voter tampering in 2014. The meme resurfaced before the EU referendum. She discusses three methods of how the meme was used: To support the belief of the voting conspiracy, to encourage others to join in believing the conspiracy, and to deride supporters of the conspiracy. The use of #usepens was used to describe the nationalism of the people who were voting to leave the union. Along with this was the idea that the polls were rigged and that the MI5 were working with the UK government to block Britain from leaving the EU.
The meme demonstrates the challenges existing today, when engagement in social platforms doesn’t necessarily mean listening is also having a part in them. Some seriously believed a conspiracy was in action, while others used the hashtags satirically. However, the very party who suspected that there would be conspiracy and rigging in the election was the party who ended up victorious in the end.
Social media also played a big role in the EU Referendum and the political activist movement, 38 Degrees. They made a poll asking their members if the United Kingdom should leave the EU or stay in the EU. 230,000 voted and 59 percent wanted to stay and 28 percent would want to leave. 38 Degrees will go on and help to understand what the people think about leaving the EU or staying.
In sum: What Brexit and the EU referendum has taught us is that this accelerating technology is open to all and can be used to shape the public agenda and drive social change, for better or for worse. Having this platform is good for them but can also be negative because they can influence those that did not vote and don’t know what opinion to form. Social media has changed the nature of political campaigning and will continue to play a key role in future elections. The driving force that is social media strongly shapes the public’s opinion and can be used both negatively and positively.
Scholars Massimo Poesio and John Bartle discuss how incorrect and inaccurate most commercial pollsters predicted the way the vote would go, with only one of them just barely getting it correct. They compared these commercial pollsters to automatic poll predictions by computers using Computational Linguistics (CL), which ended up being far more accurate and provided a few reasons as to why: wider sample size, larger area of coverage and its ability to figure out opinions based on behavior related to people’s actions on social media. Perhaps these companies should start using CL to help create better and more accurate predictions, or at the very least to pay closer attention to the social media of voters instead of the more traditional method of just asking questions regarding intentions. Social media can be used as an indicator of how political events turn out.
5. Other European Media and Brexit
Press vs. EU
According to the study by Alexandra Borchardt, Felix M. Simon, and Diego Bironzo, at the Reuter’s Institute at Oxford University, the tense relationship with the European union and the European press could be described as toxic. Because of this, the media has not always depicted the EU in the greatest manner. The EU often accuses the media of incorrect information. The role of balanced media coverage is crucial because UK citizens have very little exposure to the EU. There was also a certain toxicity to European culture, following EU referendum. Nationalism can be viewed as a sense of pride, but can also be considered problematic and prejudice when discussing important issues such as fear of immigration.
European media outlets followed the Brexit debate closely but did not seem to be too concerned about the United Kingdom leaving the European Union. The research into the media coverage of Brexit between the period September 1, 2017 to March 31, 2018 revealed that the subject was discussed on average 21.5 times each day across 39 media outlets. This reporting was predominantly based on factual information: 82 percent of this news coverage took no position while 18 percent voiced their opinions. Researchers believed that other European nations would feel threatened by Brexit, but that was not the case. It was seemingly only a British issue.
Highest number of news were covered by Irish media, followed by Germany, Greece, Spain, Italy, France, Poland and Sweden The greatest volume of news in the Irish media was 1,838 items published, compared to the next highest in Germany with 627 items published. It is clear that since Ireland is the only other EU country that shares a border with the UK, the Irish media and government are very concerned about how their ongoing trade, business and immigration relationship will be determined. As the researchers note, “Apart from Ireland, the differences among the countries are nuanced. France is somewhat of an outlier with a rather opinionated and unconcerned view. There is hardly any support for the UK’s move out of the EU. The case of Ireland, the major victim of the break-up, is special and reflected in the volume and diversity of the coverage.”
The research by the Reuters Institute notes that, “Most of the coverage (from the media in other nations) dealt with the challenges the UK itself will be facing, rather than what Brexit means for each respective country” and that “The ratio between fact-based reporting and commentary in the different countries is most likely much more determined by reporting tradition than by different stakes in the subject.” Yet, the research concludes that the way that the media is reported does express a national opinion: “Media that paint the UK picture in particularly dark colours might pursue a different kind of goal: to deter the citizens of their countries from even thinking about an exit from the EU.”
Economy over Immigration
Reporting on immigration from non-EU countries took up a mere ten percent of all related coverage; focus was given to economics, business, and trade. 35 percent of media coverage was considered negotiation-specific, while the remaining 65 percent of media coverage discussed other topics regarding Brexit, such as the economy, politics, migration, and free movement of citizens in the EU. The negotiation-specific media coverage discussed the state of negotiations, negotiation meetings, and the “Brexit-bill”. Through this method, the media and the nation can display their opinion on international politics while also maintaining the appearance of objectivity.
Brexit and the US Media
There is was an interesting disparity between reporting in the UK and the US about the Referendum. America’s interest in the majority of the British voted to leave the European Union on June 23rd, 2016. National newspapers, web portals, and television stations immediately filled their outlets with news of EU referendum results as soon as they became known. The U.S media appeared to focus on an overall negative interpretation of the results, while British media was split between pro-remain and pro-leave outlets.
Scholar Filippo Trevisan notes regarding Brexit in American media: Its inability to gain the traction or attention necessary to make an effect on foreign politics. He claims that people didn’t care that much about it until a few days before the vote, and they were distracted by the upcoming election, which it made it difficult for news outlets to cover. This created a circular problem. Because of the lack of interest in general, the media failed to cover the Referendum properly. That, in turn, fed back into Americans not caring, meaning that there is a larger problem in America: a lack of serious interest and awareness in overseas politics until it starts affecting us.
There is a distinct relationship between the Brexit decision and the media. It seems that the media, including a very organized social media campaign, continues to try and influence the Brexit outcome. Negotiations are still necessary to define the ongoing relationship with the UK and the EU. No matter what position the media takes it is important to remember that much of the Brexit movement was driven by a sense of nationalism that is deeply ingrained in the hearts and minds of UK citizens.
Business and commerce will always find a way to maximize profits, but people are genuinely concerned about migration and who is to become their next door neighbors. No matter how much the media talks about the negative effects of Brexit, they will never overcome the strong feelings of nationalism that supports a Leave feeling throughout the UK.
After assessing the research pertaining to Brexit and the EU, one can make the conclusion that relationships with both the press and the European citizens are tense and problematic to say the least. The media coverage of Brexit demonstrated the power in the molding of messages that can circumscribe the thoughts of the people and push forth a dialogue of viewpoints centered around one’s own beliefs, without taking into account those of others. How this power is managed is a factor of listening to the public and to other members of the media.
Some specific take-aways that were highlighted in the research include:
- The UK media did not ask the hard questions that would have aided British citizens to make a well informed decision. All “balanced” coverage was just vague and confusing.
- The internet, as well as most social networking sites play a big role in influencing the Brexit: The Remain campaign had already lost on social media before it lost the political battle. It is on the part of the media to understand its power.
- The coverage created on Brexit varies from country to country. While some voice a clear opinion on the matter, many European outlets have chosen to rely mainly on facts in order to possess an at least a seemingly unbiased stance.
- Politics were failing to reach the youth, which is a key to survival because the youth is the future.
It is remarkable as to how powerful the media and politics can really be when it comes to a significant event such as the Brexit vote. The lesson: Take everything you read at face value and do a little research yourself before you make a judgement. Among the people of the UK, the election was a topic of heated debate and controversy leading to division among a lot of social groups. As with elections here, people are passionate about their opinions, and apparently immigration is an uncomfortable and hot issue but a strong enough issue to campaign on for some people.
With scattered media coverage, choosing a side to stand on was not always clear to some people. In the same regard, having news outlets pushing opinions that are strictly one way makes it hard for people to form their own opinions. While the tabloids capitalized on the controversy, many media outlets seemed against Brexit, but they sought to maintain an aura of objectivity. They had to either convey their idea more subtly, or not at all, leading to them not being able to communicate with the public as well as they would like, leading to an uninformed public.
Interestingly, two year later there has been a subtle, or not so subtle, change in media coverage on Brexit. As The Guardian reports on 23 October, the tabloid Daily Mail is now playing a different tune than before:
“Instead of firing up the Brexiters for yet another act of anti-European contempt and defiance, as it had done for so long, the Mail this week turned its fire on them instead. It denounced the ‘arch-Brexiteers’ for their ‘self-promotion and peacocking’”.
It remains to be seen how audiences will take such a turn-around. For any politician, that would not fare well.
 Seaton, J. (2016). Brexit and Media. The Political Quarterly Volume 87, Issue 3. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1467-923X.12296 (accessed 10 October 2018).
 Studies examined: EU Referendum Analysis 2016: Media, Voters and the Campaign. Political Studies Association, Loughborough University, and Bournemouth University: http://www.referendumanalysis.eu/ and Borchardt A. (et al. 2018). Interested but not Engaged: How Europe’s Media Cover Brexit. Reuters Institute. https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/our-research/interested-not-engaged-how-europes-media-cover-brexit (accessed 10 October 2018).