Mixed feelings: how citizens expressed their attitudes towards the EU – EU Referendum Analysis 2016

Mixed feelings: how citizens expressed their attitudes towards the EU

The referendum frequently saw UK politicians and citizens expressing combinations of fact and feelings. The way one feels about an entity like the EU is important as, theoretically, feelings are expressions of the underlying attitudes likely to drive voting behaviour. In this article I offer a qualitative analysis of the dominant tone, based on a systematic reading and coding of the subject and discourse expressed in responses to posts to Facebook to the profile pages of Vote Leave (a community of 517,326 members) and Britain Stronger In Europe (with 505,064 community members), the official Leave and Remain campaigns within the final week of the contest.

Hope-filled messages tended to be more prevalent within the Vote Leave community, reflecting a dimension of the official campaign. For Stronger In it appeared  a minority were inventing their own positive communications

that often countered the official, threat-filled messages and suggested there were better reasons to vote to Remain than those offered by Cameron.

Interestingly the tone of Vote Leave was dominated by negativity towards the Remain campaigners with supporters frequently posting vitriol directed at the ‘assholes’ whose arguments are described as hypocritical and their performances ‘slippery’. This, however, was interspersed by messages of hope demonstrating that, for some, the idea of Brexit has strongly positive connotations. The campaign posted numerous videos featuring leading pro-Remain figures making their case and each of these were met with a combination of derision and personal attacks. Hence the Leave community stoked the negativity constantly and, in doing so, were particularly focused on a group they referred to as the ‘Remainiacs’. This amorphous ‘other’ was described as ‘stupid’, easily-manipulated, cowardly and even ‘traitorous’.

There was a counterbalance, however, with many active supporters promoting pro-Leave messages to justify Brexit such as the economic costs of EU membership, the numbers of migrants entering the UK from the EU, and figures for benefit payments to migrants. But the reasons why the Leave supporters appeared most passionate reflected a sense that they had long wanted the UK out of the EU. They had previously been frustrated that not everyone had agreed and because of this their Brexit dream had gone unrealised- until now. Thus underlining the negativity and scare stories were hopeful messages from citizens who expressed their desire to create what they believed would be a freer country able to better determine its own destiny.

Many people posting in the Remain Facebook community expressed negativity towards the Vote Leave case as well as a dispassionate reiteration of the economic arguments for leaving the EU. Some citizens promoted more positive arguments for Britain to not ‘pull up the drawbridge’ and thereby be isolated. While the majority of content posted repackaged official arguments, some did make personal attacks on key pro-Brexit protagonists such as Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson as well as the credibility of their key arguments. Predominantly the feelings expressed were ones of uncertainty with citizens voicing their mistrust over the Conservative government’s ability to negotiate a post-Brexit settlement. Where supportive comments were made in response to Facebook posts they tended to be reactions to messages from business leaders, such as Richard Branson. By contrast a general mistrust was shown towards statements by Cameron and Osborne. Few Labour figures featured at all, with the exception of the late Jo Cox, the Labour MP whose murder in the penultimate week of the campaign led to its brief suspension. Ms Cox’s pro-Remain article for the PoliticsHome site was widely re-published and circulated following her death. The support for her argument may have resulted from the tragedy of her murder, however it seems consistent with the general mood within a community that seemed to have only tacit support for the political leaders of the campaign. Hence, in contrast to the passionate belligerence of Vote Leave, Remainers seemed largely to be more driven by the emotion of fear than desire.

The feelings within the respective communities were reflected in the content posted and here there were similarities in how both campaigns used their Facebook profiles for posting videos, pictures or text to disseminate their own messages or portray opponents in a negative light. While Vote Leave supporters reserved their attacks for opponents, Stronger In members also demonstrated distrust for Cameron and Osborne, thereby reinforcing a general anti-establishment mood. Members also tended to reflect the general mood of each side with the Remain camp focused on the message of economic uncertainty and Leavers with figures showing the costs of immigration. Hope-filled messages tended to be more prevalent within the Vote Leave community, reflecting a dimension of the official campaign. For Stronger In it appeared a minority were inventing their own positive communications that often countered the official, threat-filled messages and suggested there were better reasons to vote to Remain than those offered by Cameron.

The Remain and Leave Facebook communities represent a microcosm of the UK population, and indeed many of the comments made on these platforms no doubt reflected many of those expressed on buses and in pubs and cafes. They may therefore have been the dominant feelings of the electorates on each side. Here, the economic argument offered by a majority of politicians, business leaders and economists appeared to have been ignored in favour of a more nebulous but hopeful future. Whether this reflects the longstanding Euroscepticism consistently seen in the media and reflected by opinion polls since the late 1980s is a moot point. The result may also be a reflection of a public disaffection for elites and the impression that the Remain campaign was hectoring citizens. What citizen interactions with the campaign suggests is that an anti-politics mood is an undercurrent among those who express their political views on social media. This mood is likely to remain a feature of political discourse and so might have considerable ramifications for UK politics at a time of great uncertainty.