Beating the Brexit cyber-bullies

First published on Progressonline

Demos, in their recent work in association with Creative Commons looking at voter engagement across Europe, has some important recommendations for anyone worried about the health of our democracy. The report, debated under the hashtag #LikeShareVote, took a particular interest in social media and how it shapes and influences the debate.

The report found that ‘anti-EU populists dominated conversations on Twitter’, which only confirms what most will already know or assume. In addition it was found that ‘policies are discussed, but primarily through the lens of individual personalities.’ These two phenomena are worrying and sound remarkably like the situation in Scotland back in the run up to September.

If Britain gets itself into a referendum on EU membership, the Brexit cyberbullies might be to the next parliament, what the cybernats have been to this.

Jim Murphy saw up close and personal the vile actions of supporters of the yes campaign on his ‘100 towns in 100 days’ tour. Following the first referendum debate, which put Alex Salmon on the back foot, the tone changed. In his blog announcing a 72 hour halt to the campaign to assess the safety risks with the police, Murphy writes, there was ‘no longer undecided voters going about their shopping … but instead … Yes crowds occupying the street corners’ of his coming appearances. They ‘allowed the taps of a mob mentality to be turned on’ he concluded. While the now contender for Scottish Labour leader resumed his tour and took back the streets, no one worked out how to do the same online. The actions of what might be a few zealots had a big impact of the campaign and its tone; even Alex Salmon finds this hard to deny.

In the report, its authors Jamie Bartlett, Jonathan Birdwell and Louis Reynolds found in the European parliament elections that in comment referring to Nigel Farage’s party ‘only 22 per cent of tweets [that] mentioned ‘Europe’ or were explicitly related to Europe, a low percentage given that United Kingdom Independence party’s sole focus has historically been the EU. Instead, the majority of tweets (78 per cent) were related to immigration, the economy and personalities in Ukip.’

What could this mean for a 2017 campaign? There is a hostility and an opportunity.

Without careful planning those advocating staying in Europe through social media are likely to face a barrage of abuse. This must not have the intimidating effects seen in Scotland. So bad was the feeling that offline people felt intimidated to put up posters outside their own homes. This cannot be replicated. Campaign strategists must factor this in early.

The opportunity comes from who will be in favour of Brexit. Most prominently Farage and the far right of the Tory party. While Ukip has given those who do not vote – or who historically reluctantly voted for a mainstream party – somewhere to go, the rest of the country do not want anything to do with these people. These fears will be exacerbated by the Brexit cyberbullies. The ‘in’ camp must make clear that Nigel Farage is the acceptable wing of the ‘out’ movement. It only gets worst than him. Michael Fabricant knows this is what could hamper the Brexit camp. He argues that ‘angry-looking grey men who have been arguing the toss on Europe for years’ will ‘fail to impress’. We should not allow him to divorce the two the way he would seek to divorce Britain from its nearest neighbours and best trading partners.

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