- The Digital Divide:#PostRefRacism Versus #Gohome
As more of us live more of our lives online, what happens there matters. Social media now constitute a major public space (although indeed one that is privately owned). This is a new digital commons, where the debate of the day is often thrashed out. All this was very apparent during the EU referendum campaign. Online as well as offline there was a very vibrant - and often quite nasty - political debate.
The past fifteen years had already seen immigration become a concern and an important political issue in the United Kingdom. In 2012, about 60 per cent of people living in the UK viewed the rate of immigrants settling in the UK with disapproval, and a large majority of them wanted immigration levels to be reduced.1 ‘Migration in the News’, a report published in 2013 by the Oxford Migration Observatory, found that ‘illegal’ was the most common word used alongside the word ‘immigrant’ in mainstream print-based media.2 However, many commentators have argued that the EU referendum marks a new departure, and was even more divisive than anyone had expected.
In this article, I take a look at some of the broad contours of the digital debate through looking on Twitter - which, for several reasons, is a good place to conduct such an analysis. Although it is by no means a representative sample of UK citizens, [End Page 70] Twitter does have 313 million users, and during the Brexit campaign it became what Irfan Chaudhry has described as a ‘digital soapbox’, where users could tweet thoughts, values and opinions. Millions of tweets were posted about the EU referendum over the weeks leading up to the vote. In addition, the structure of Twitter is such that it allows researchers to collect very large volumes of data in a reasonably easy and structured way that is amenable to analysis.
Below, I set out some of the results of a Twitter study carried out by the Centre for Analysis of Social Media at Demos. It can be seen from this that Twitter was used as a platform for various sorts of xenophobic, anti-immigration, anti-Polish and anti-Islam language over the period. But negative language was only half the story. Although this is something that is often overlooked by the media, Twitter was also a forum for a very significant amount of solidarity, supportive language, and explicitly anti-xenophobic language.
During the referendum period, the Centre for Analysis of Social Media conducted several data collection efforts aimed at measuring and understanding how the Twittersphere was behaving. Between 19 June and 1 July, 16,151 tweets were collected that had a term or a hashtag related to xenophobia (a full list of terms and hashtags can be found in the annex); and between 22 and 30 June 258,553 tweets were collected containing the words ‘migrant’, ‘migrants’, ‘immigrant’, ‘immigrants’, ‘refugee’ and ‘refugees’ (out of these 40,225 had a keyword in relation to Brexit).3 Out of the 16,151 that included a xenophobic term or hashtag, there was a total of 5,484 derogatory tweets, of which 707 were posted on the day of the referendum itself.
Some examples of hostile Tweets:
Our lives have changed forever! It’s not Irish, Italian or any other immigrant problem it’s a Muslim problem! 99 per cent of terrorist are Muslim!
Europe & Britain will be destroyed if we don’t stop immigrants from 3rd world nations invad EU is a failing political project with a currency that has caused economic misery.
However, a large majority of the activity collected between 19 June to 1 July containing xenophobic and anti-immigrant terms was made up of people using these [End Page 71] terms and hashtags in order to take on the attitudes reflected in these words. There were approximately 10,671 supportive tweets in this dataset, and 3,549 supportive tweets on the referendum day itself, in contrast to the comparatively smaller number of derogatory tweets.
So, while the Twittersphere expressed xenophobic views, at the same time it served as a platform for a significant amount of solidarity and support for immigrants. In the...