Youth Twitter And The Brexit: What Went Wrong

While a new study shows that GB's youth are ruling Twitter, the political messages were lost on the youth

Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso
Jul 05, 2016 at 3:10 PM ET

As young residents of Great Britain desperately claw at anything that looks like it might reverse the EU Referendum, vote experts are looking at their hand-wringing freakouts on Twitter and wondering how it could come to pass that millennials helped Brexit happen. Spoiler: if you’re looking at social media for your answer, you’re only looking at affluent youngsters, who live in an online filter bubble and probably didn’t vote.

Social media campaigns hoping to prompt a “remain” vote were extremely vocal, employing top ad agencies, and using every hashtag under the sun to stimulate some movement. Pro-Brexit “Leave” campaigns also had an impressive presence, especially on Instagram. Social scientists have also turned to explore how bots may have played an influential role in the debate, as hundreds of thousands of automated messages from both sides of the debate could be observed in just one week.

Now, a new report from UK-based market research company IPSOS reveals just who within the country was actually listening down the far end of the Twitter-hose as all this noise was being made. Unsurprisingly, Twitter’s biggest users within the country are the young and affluent. A much greater percentage of upper and upper-middle class folk in younger age brackets use Twitter in the UK, which makes them more likely to be reached by ill-conceived messages like the #votin hashtag, derided as condescending in how it tried to mimic the slang of the working-class youth.

Not on Twitter all that much, meanwhile, were the country’s traditional working class and older populations—who were ultimately responsible for locking in Britain’s departure from Europe. They took their nationalist fears surrounding job security, and outright xenophobia, straight past social media and on to the ballot box. Young voters, while overwhelmingly in favor of remaining within the European Union, simply didn’t put pen to paper in the ballot box: Turnout in areas with high youth populations was especially low, and some estimates state that as little as 36 percent of the country’s 18-24 voter base participated (compared to 83 percent of over-65 voters). Which means that while Twitter may have been a noisy box full of political propaganda, it didn’t correlate to an urge to vote.

Essentially, the ways Twitter played a role in the Brexit vote are largely defined by how it failed to mobilize Britain’s young voting bloc. Studies from the platform itself show that millennials largely use Twitter as a “cure for boredom,” where they’re more likely to share “random thoughts” than seek out and immerse themselves in current events. If you’re trying to reach a broad swathe of twentysomethings across the socioeconomic spectrum, and convert that into actual action, Brexit seems to show that Twitter won’t cut it.

If you were within that insular group of young British Twitter you may only have seen messages reinforcing your own Brexit opinion, and been convinced that the entire country felt the same. Without contributions from a substantial cadre of Britain’s older citizens, the pro-Brexit majority voice was less prominent on Twitter, and it could be easy to assume that the “remain” side had things in the bag. In that parallel evidence-free universe, what’s one millennial vote worth? As The Boston Globe notes, “the margin between Leave and Remain was 1.27 million votes, and if all 13 million British millennials voted, they could have changed the outcome.”

Tweeting their opinions may have given young UK citizens a false sense of political accomplishment, if you take into account millennial’s known penchant for slacktivism facilitated by social media. Unfortunately for them, the era where retweets are endorsements of a referendum position has not yet been ushered in.