Oxford skyline and EU flag
Oxford skyline and EU flag
Credits: Greg Smolonski (Skyline) and Shutterstock (EU flag)

Views from Oxford

On the day the referendum result was announced we shared the views of six Oxford academics.

Impact of social media on the outcome of the EU referendum

Vyacheslav Polonski, DPhil Candidate, Oxford Internet Institute

Vyacheslav PolonskiVyacheslav Polonski
When Prime Minister David Cameron announced his resignation this morning following Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, it was impossible not to notice the irony of his situation. In a 2009 data speech, he described the Internet as an “amazing pollinator” that “turns lonely fights into mass campaigns; transforms moans into movements; excites the attention of hundreds, thousands, millions of people and stirs them to action.” This power has now been turned against him, as millions of people were motivated, persuaded and mobilised through the Internet to vote for Brexit.

For several months, the Leave camp has been building momentum online and has been setting the tone of the debate across all major social networking platforms. As a researcher, I have been collecting large-scale social media data on the EU referendum to better understand the impact of the Internet on this referendum. Our analysis shows that not only did Brexit supporters have a more powerful and emotional message, but they were also more effective in the use of social media. This has led to the activation of a greater number of Leave supporters at grassroots level and enabled them to fully dominate platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, influencing swathes of undecided voters who simply didn’t know what to think. Using the Internet, the Leave camp was able to create the perception of wide-ranging public support for their cause that acted like a self-fulfilling prophecy, attracting many more voters to back Brexit.

This can be explained by a combination of factors. On the one hand, the main Leave camp message was much more intuitive and straightforward, which is particularly important for social media campaigning. On the other hand, their message was also highly emotionally charged, which facilitated the viral spread of Leave ideas. There is evidence to suggest that high arousal emotions such as anger and irritation spread faster than messages focusing on rational or economic arguments, particularly on social media. In this regard, we have observed many instances where people expressed utter confusion about the economic arguments on both sides. Considering that the reasons for Leaving were more emotional, and that the average Internet user was exposed to a deluge of Brexit posts on a daily basis — both from friends and strangers online — we warned that a British exit vote could be a real possibility on June 23rd.

Remain lost the battle online long before it lost the political battle on the ground. The overwhelming Leave sentiment across all social networking platforms was consistent and undeniable, yet many Remain supporters chose to ignore the voice of the Internet as something that has no connection with the real political world. They believed that Britain would never vote to leave the EU and discounted social media as a playground for trolls and teenagers.

Instead of responding with more relatable emotional messages, the official Remain camp continued to rely on calculated rational arguments and a relentless tide of economic forecasts. When #CatsAgainstBrexit started trending, we saw a glimmer of hope for Remain, but sadly the whimsical power of Internet cats was not enough to turn around the debate. In fact, the volume of tweets that urged Britain to #VoteRemain was quickly dwarfed by the enormous turbulence caused by the trending #IVotedLeave hashtag on the day of the referendum.

Social media has changed the nature of political campaigning and will continue to play a key role in future elections around the world. As more and more people spend a significant proportion of their everyday lives online, social media is becoming a more powerful force to assist and influence the spread of political ideas and messages. What 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.

Misinformation and miscommunication in the EU referendum debate

Stephen Fisher, Associate Professor in Political Sociology

Steve FisherSteve Fisher
The UK’s vote to leave the European Union yesterday was an extraordinary decision with major economic and political consequences. Some of these have already happened, many are still to come. A wide range of scenarios that would once have seemed far-fetched now seem plausible. What the vote means for the future is far more important than what it means in itself. But it is still important to learn the lessons from the referendum campaign and the outcome it produced.

It is commonly believed that no matter what they may or may not tell opinion pollsters, people will ultimately back the side that will make them financially safer and better off. Yesterday a majority voted for Leave despite it being widely acknowledged as the more risky option. They did so because not enough of them were convinced that the UK would be worse off if they left. Still less did they think that they would be worse off personally.

Why not? David Cameron and George Osborne are being criticised for issuing hysterical warnings that provoked more ridicule and scorn than they did the fear intended. But given that the dire estimates of the economic consequences were backed up by reasonable macro-economic analysis supported by nearly all other macro-economists, it would perhaps be more appropriate to ask why the politicians did not explain and defend their positions more robustly.

Instead of actually outlining the not so very complicated logic behind the economic estimates, appeals were made to the wisdom and authority of experts. But trading names and numbers of expert backers does not persuade many people if it ever did.

Part of the difficulty with trying to explain things is the lack of time and space in a contemporary media environment. Rarely are politicians quoted at length or given more than a couple of minutes to answer a question. The need to speak in sound bites to reach a large number of people is unavoidable.

It is not guaranteed that more time to speak means better content. The four set-piece speeches in the two-hour debate before the 1975 European Communities referendum were not clearly more informative than this week’s Wembley Arena debate.

Nor should it be assumed that the public would have been persuaded if only they had known more about the issues. The Remain cause were facing a major challenge in trying to persuade a public that did not identify strongly as European to vote for a problematic set of EU institutions they do not like.

Ultimately the outcome of the vote depended on leaving the EU being seen as the solution to a problem. The perceived problem was unlimited and indefinite EU immigration. A clear majority have long been concerned about these things and they believe that immigration will go down no that we are leaving. On that basis it is easy to see where the majority for Leave came from.

But now the referendum is over, Vote Leave campaigners are already pointing out that they never said they would reduce immigration, only that the British people could if they wanted to.

Immigration and the EU referendum

Madeleine Sumption, Director of the Migration Observatory

Madeleine SumptionMadeleine Sumption
Immigration was a defining issue in the referendum debate, and will be widely regarded as the main reason the UK voted to leave the European Union on June 23rd.

The vote follows just over a decade of elevated migration from EU countries following the 2004 and 2007 enlargements and the Eurozone crisis in Southern Europe. While Europe has traditionally not been the major source of immigration to the UK, EU citizens made up just under half of estimated net migration to the country by 2015.

Perhaps the most immediate question the vote will raise concerns the status of EU citizens already living in the UK and British citizens overseas. Politicians on both sides of the referendum debate have supported the idea that those who have already moved should retain their rights, and lawyers have argued that it would be legally difficult to take free movement rights away from people who were already exercising them. However, the details remain unclear — particularly with regard to very recent arrivals and those who become unemployed for significant periods. This may therefore be one of the first immigration-related questions the UK and the EU will face as the negotiations on EU exit proceed.

The vote to leave also raises fundamental questions about how immigration policy will be designed for prospective migrants in the years to come. At this point, the future of UK migration policies is far from clear. Possible options range from no change at all to a complete upheaval of the immigration system. On one hand, it is possible that the UK could join the European Economic Area and — following the Norwegian model — continue to implement free movement in return for access to the European single market. On the other hand, the decision to leave could usher in significant new restrictions on EU nationals’ right to live and work here.

Assuming that free movement comes to an end, what immigration policies will be introduced for EU citizens? At this point it is very difficult to know. The system that regulates non-EU migration to the UK has become more restrictive over the past five or so years. This system was designed in a very different environment — one in which free movement was the status quo. An end to free movement may well, therefore, prompt a review of the entire immigration system.

The disintegration of the West

Erik Jones, Professor of European Studies and International Political Economy

Erik JonesErik Jones
The British vote to leave the European Union (EU) is the first step toward formal disintegration that the West has experienced. The closest parallel is France’s decision to step outside the integrated military command structure of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1966. But France remained a member of NATO; that decision was more like Britain’s opt-out from the single currency or Schengen, even if the shift of NATO’s headquarters from Paris to Brussels made it seem more dramatic. By contrast, the British have now decided that they do not want to take part in the EU and that they want to renegotiate their relationships with the rest of the world on a case-by-case basis. The West has not gone through anything like this since the end of the Second World War.

This move toward disintegration is going to have a powerful impact on the West as a community and as a concept. Certainly it will have an impact on connections across the Atlantic. NATO will still exist, of course, and so will the special relationship shared between Britain and the United States. But what remains of the EU will have a larger population and greater resources than the UK and so it will also loom larger in US foreign policy. That will change if other countries choose to follow Britain’s example. It is not clear that will happen, but it is possible. As the EU diminishes, US disenchantment with Europe will only increase. Eventually, the West will cease to exist beyond formal security guarantees. That is a bad scenario for both sides of the Atlantic.

Disintegration will have a powerful impact on globalization as well. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) was supposed to be the platform for projecting western norms and values for manufacturing and commerce across the globe. That agenda was already running into trouble before the British referendum. Now it is unlikely to recover. That is an important opportunity that will be missed. Instead we are likely to see a Balkanization of the rules that govern the global economy. Britain may win back some cherished privileges in such an environment, but what is more likely is that many of those rules will be created in emerging market economies where the people have different objectives and priorities.

Identity and solidarity will also be affected. This was a very emotional referendum, steeped in identity politics. That was always expected. The result will have emotional resonance across Europe and it will change European perceptions of the UK. That should be expected as well. Hopefully it will not result in some intemperate reaction. It is hard, however, to see how the UK can avoid becoming an ‘other’ for the rest of Europe. The British have always been different in an idiosyncratic and quirky way, but so have the French, the Germans, the Italians and all the rest. Formally withdrawing from Europe is a different matter. Britain will not long be just different, it will also be ‘not one of us’ for many other Europeans. Britons may be proud of that new-found distinction but it is a sad day for the West.

‘Independence Day’: some worthier candidates

Philippa Byrne, Post-Doctoral Fellow in Medieval History

Philippa ByrnePhilippa Byrne
Went The Day Well is perhaps the most exquisite propaganda film ever produced. Made in 1942, it depicts a quiet English village infiltrated by German fifth-columnists. Those whom the villagers believed were their friends have all the time been Germans in disguise, preparing a silent invasion. The villagers fight back. Many die in the struggle, but the infiltrators die too. ‘This is the only bit of England they ever got’ intones the narrator at the end, the camera panning over a row of German graves in a leafy English churchyard. The country remains free, independent.

In a campaign dominated by World War Two analogies, I found myself thinking of Went the Day Well. But this morning, I’m not sure what vision of Britain has been saved.

Victorious Leavers are hoping that the 23rd June will become our ‘Independence Day’. I’m normally a sober historian, but faced with the rhetoric of ‘Independence Day’, I can’t hold my tongue. It represents the giddying heights of delusion in a campaign built on delusions. It is almost as meaningless as the phrase ‘Take Control’.

So, Happy Independence Day — on 52% of the vote.

But, in declaring ‘Independence’, the Leave campaign seem to have ignored, or forgotten, the historical context of other independence days. A large number of countries won their freedom by struggling against Britain. At least 49 nations — from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe — celebrate independence days from Britain as a colonial power. Winning a referendum is not equivalent to throwing off the yoke of foreign government. Withdrawing from the single market is not akin to a long struggle for self-determination.

Calling 23rd June ‘Independence Day’ is to adopt the mantle of persecution. Leave has co-opted the language that in the mid-twentieth century was being used to critique British policy. It is often said (rightly) that Britain can’t bring itself to address the legacies of Empire. The Leave ‘Independence Day’ idea goes one step beyond ignorance, into brazen appropriation.

Nor is it surprising. Our political discourse is mired in the language of 1930s and 1940s. We ask whether Cameron was a Churchill or a Chamberlain (although his resignation may have now confirmed him as the latter). The campaign was dogged by endless argument over which way Churchill himself would have voted. Michael Gove complained that Remain-favouring economists were akin to the German scientists of the 1930s who had persecuted Einstein.

So, on our day of liberation, I find myself frantically scrolling through Wikipedia searching for alternative things to celebrate on 23rd June. There are a number of alternatives. As a historian, I’m tempted to opt for the Feast of St Aethelthryth, an inoffensive 7th century saint. I prefer harmless obscurity to the posturing nonsense of an independence day.

Still, other options are available. Let’s celebrate Peter Falk Day (d. 23/06/2011), Selma Blair Day (b. 23/06/1972), or Joss Whedon Day (b. 23/06/1964). Take control — make your own pick.

The Brexit Challenge for UK Universities

Katrin Kohl, Professor of German Literature

 Katrin KohlKatrin Kohl
The EU Referendum result catapults us into uncharted territory with respect to the effects it will have on our internal political landscape and our relationship with other countries within the EU and beyond. It will certainly create a more hostile environment for all those organisations and people in the UK that rely on international cooperation. For universities it will have a negative impact on access to funding and freedom of movement for academics and students. British universities form part of an educational context that has always been European in spirit, and predicated on cultural exchange that flourishes with open borders. Many cooperations, exchanges and funding opportunities will disappear or become more expensive and bureaucratically fraught. And we do not yet know what the impact will be on the huge number of individuals from EU countries who have made their home in the UK.

Most troubling internally is the divisiveness of the vote, the boost it gives to the far right, and the prospect of the long grind of dismantling links in order to forge new structures predicated on insularity. The impact on our international relations will be huge as other countries come to terms with the fact that the UK has voted for separation at a time when Europe needs to respond with a strong and united voice to the political, cultural and financial pressures of globalisation. It has yet to be seen whether the impulse of separation also results in undermining the unity of the British nation.

Given the advice of all major British and international institutions that the impact of Britain’s exit from the EU will be negative rather than positive — an effect we are already seeing on the stock markets — the challenge ahead will lie in accepting the democratic result of a process that was misguided in its conception, the outcome of an ill-judged gamble designed to placate discontented backbenchers. Universities have a vital responsibility to give a real voice to those 48% of British people who — notwithstanding criticisms — expressed their commitment to the project of the European Union, and recognised the advantages of moving forward within current structures. Above all, they have a responsibility to the young people who overwhelmingly voted to remain in the EU.

In the time ahead, it will be necessary to work closely with government, schools, cultural institutions and business to counteract the spirit of disengagement that will be associated with dismantling the UK’s integration in the EU, and inject positive energy, new thinking and cross-cultural engagement into a process that risks being backward-looking and isolationist. More than ever, it will be the job of universities to champion the values of openness, tolerance and mutual cooperation, and ensure that young people can feel part of the changing world rather than being isolated from it.

Successive policy mistakes in recent decades have meant that our young people have been sold short on language skills and the breadth of cultural understanding that comes from learning about other cultures. In the years ahead, it will be more important than ever to nurture an appreciation of diversity and cultural agility. The humanities will be as vital in that process as the social sciences and sciences, since we will collectively need all the historical knowledge, articulacy, language skills and creative imagination that we can muster if our young people are to have the opportunities they need in the world of tomorrow. Universities and academics should do everything in their power in the months ahead to mitigate the negative effects of a referendum outcome that hinged on fewer than 650,000 votes, and advocate integration rather than separation.