What were the motivations of people who voted for Brexit? Were they motivated primarily by their personal interests and economic well-being? Or were they driven by broader cultural and national identity concerns? Did they make decisions based on a rational assessment of the costs and benefits, or were they influenced by emotions, biases, and social pressures? How do we guard for these nefarious influences as technology leapfrogs the available information that we can process.
As the seventh anniversary of the Brexit vote is less than a month away. A recent paper puts forth an interesting claim that Britons were nudged (swayed) and framed (influenced by the presentation of news) into their decision through a skilful combination of political messaging and psychological tactics. This demonstrates how sticky narratives (stories that persist) about national identity and traditional values can heavily impact voters' decisions. To gain a deeper understanding, it is valuable to explore the history of referendums in the United Kingdom, spanning from 1975 to 2016, as it sheds light on Britain's relationship with the European Union but it tells a better story about our relationship to understanding the complexity of our own stories.In 1973, the UK became a member of the European Economic Community (EEC), which later became the European Union. However, from the beginning, there were disagreements among the public and politicians about the value of EU membership. In 1975, a nationwide referendum was held to decide whether the UK should remain in the European community. The campaign leading up to the referendum had its memorable moments. For instance, the Conservative Party, led by Margaret Thatcher, campaigned vigorously for staying in the EU. Thatcher famously declared, "We must remain a member of the European Community."
Meanwhile, a faction within the Labour Party, including prominent figures like Tony Benn, vehemently opposed remaining in the EU, advocating for withdrawal. Ultimately, about 67 percent of the country voted in favour of remaining, solidifying the UK's position within the European community in 1975.Fast forward to 2013 when then-Prime Minister David Cameron, under pressure from his party and the UK Independence Party (UKIP), made a promise. If his party won the elections, he pledged to hold a referendum on EU membership. This decision set the stage for a momentous event in the country's history. In a shock to the Europhiles, 51.9 percent of the UK voters chose to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum. It is important to note that different regions showed varying preferences, with Northern Ireland and Scotland demonstrating a preference for remaining in the EU. The outcome of the referendum led to significant consequences. Following the results, David Cameron resigned as Prime Minister, and Theresa May took on the challenging task of leading Brexit negotiations with the EU. The media landscape played a very important role, with readers of right leaning tabloids such as the Sun, Express, Mail, and Star more likely to support leaving the EU in 2016.
The Reuters report analysing the role of media in Brexit suggests that the media's portrayal of immigration as a "problem" influenced public opinion and fueled support for Brexit. These newspapers relied heavily on emotions like fear, resentment, and empowerment to create an antagonistic framing of the British versus "other" people, mobilising emotions around Brexit as a means for the UK to regain sovereignty and dignity.
The analysis revealed a dominant Brexit bias in the press coverage, with 41% of articles supporting Leave and 27% supporting Remain. The Daily Express, Daily Mail, and the Sun had the strongest Brexit positions, while the Daily Mirror, Guardian, and Financial Times had a higher proportion of Remain articles. This bias was further emphasized when considering the reach and volume of articles. The coverage focused heavily on issues such as the economy sovereignty, and migration, with a predominantly negative tone. Politicians and campaign representatives have frequently cited sources in the media coverage, with Conservative politicians quoted more often than Labour politicians. Pro-Leave campaigners were cited more frequently than Remain campaigners. Broadsheet newspapers tended to quote experts more frequently, while tabloids rarely cited experts.
Immigration became a central issue, and the press coverage used loss aversion framing and fear-based messaging to increase negative attitudes towards immigrants. As the referendum approached, the number of articles related to migration increased. Slogans such as "Get our country back" were influential in promoting the leave campaign. Social media platforms, particularly Facebook and Twitter, played a significant role, with a large percentage of adults in Britain using these platforms for news consumption. Twitter algorithms tended to reinforce Eurosceptic views, limiting users' exposure to different perspectives. YouTube also emerged as a prominent platform for spreading information.
The evidence did not show significantly higher levels of Brexit support among unskilled workers or the unemployed. Additionally, a noticeable generation gap in voting patterns was observed, with younger generations more inclined to support remaining in the EU. These younger voters were attracted to parties that embraced cosmopolitanism, advocated for social liberalism, and addressed their concerns regarding economic opportunities, multiculturalism, and the freedom to live and work in Europe. Beyond the economic theories, divergence in voter preferences between the 1975 and 2016 referendums on British membership in the European Union was influenced by various factors. analysis examines the role of media bias, divisive language, emotional appeals, and demographic changes in shaping public opinion.
Demographic changes have influenced attitudes towards Brexit. Older voters were more likely to support Leave initially, but over time, the oldest groups of voters became less likely to consider Brexit a mistake. On the other hand, the group born between 1985 and 1994, initially against Brexit, experienced a significant shift in sentiment, with a majority now considering it a bad decision. The study suggests that around 35% of the overall change in sentiment can be attributed to "voter replacement" as older individuals pass away and younger ones enter the electorate.
Recent polls show a slight increase in the number of leave voters who now believe that Britain would be better off in the EU. However, it is important to note that the principal source of change has primarily been leaving voters changing their minds rather than demographic shifts. Approximately 35% of the overall change in sentiment attributed to "voter replacement" as older individuals passed away and younger ones entered the electorate.