Social media as connective action: how young people learnt about the EU referendum campaigns

Bennett and Segerburg write about connective action, personalised content sharing across media networks, which is different from but can be combined with the more traditional collective action or the formation and mobilisation of collective identities (for example marching against government austerity measures). Connective action for political purposes using social media to campaign, lobby and petition is becoming more common as a means to mobilise the masses. The EU referendum campaigns (officially running between April and June 2016) were not a form of counter political collective action, but they did aim to mobilise the British public to act, represent their respective sides and participate in the democratic process. In the case of the EU referendum, a range of techniques and media outlets were used to convey what descended into hostile, defensive and inflammatory campaigns making cross-cutting accusations and criticisms, including through social media, most notably Twitter. With this in mind we use data collected as part of our Young People and the EU Referendum project to look at sources of media through which young people accessed campaign information.

We asked respondents to rank their sources of media from 1 to 3. We hypothesised that because young people are known to use social media more frequently than their elders, and because of the rise of connective action, that this forum would be a key source of information and campaign messages on the UK’s EU membership particularly among the young. However, what we have found is the opposite, with important divisions between those who supported leave and remain.

What we found

As the table below shows, most 18-30 year olds used TV as their first source of information during the campaign period. And while substantially more young people used social media than the over 65 age group (62.5% compared with 19.3%) Facebook, Twitter and Blogs came behind TV (57.3%), news websites (51.3%) and newspapers (47.6%) for the 18-30s. This is a similar result to what we found in March, confirming our findings that while young people use social media proportionally more as a group, it did not play the pivotal role in conveying campaign information between April and June.

Table One: Important Media Sources by Age Group
18-30 31-50 51-65 65+
Blogs 10.4% 7.5% 4.7% 3.8%
Facebook 35.2% 24.3% 16.7% 13.8%
Twitter 16.8% 9.2% 3.4% 1.7%
Newspapers 47.6% 50.0% 61.3% 72.7%
News websites 51.3% 38.1% 28.2% 17.7%
TV 57.3% 70.3% 81.3% 87.1%
Radio 22.5% 43.1% 51.7% 54.4%

Source: Young People and the EU Referendum survey

To investigate this further we looked at voter turnout and voting preference (for remain or leave) in relation to media source among the under 30s. We found that after other influences on vote choice have been controlled for, certain types of media use were associated with a preference for leave or remain among the whole population. Reading newspapers and watching TV for campaign information was associated with higher levels of support for leave, while social media, news sites and radio were all associated with higher levels of support for remain. Furthermore, media use more broadly (particularly the use of news websites, newspapers, social media and blogs) was associated with higher turnout across all age groups, which is consistent with the expectation that engagement with the media can both reflect and boost an individual’s engagement with politics.

While we cannot claim from this that the use of certain forms of media led to higher levels of support for remain or leave, we can speculate that because those who were more likely to vote remain are also more likely to use social media, support for EU membership among receptive supporters could have been boosted by their use of Twitter, Facebook or blogs. Bearing in mind that social media feeds are created by an individual according to existing interests, acquaintances or contacts, they are likely to provide a consistent reaffirmation of existing views, with the option to ‘delete’ those who don’t ‘fit’ resulting in an echo chamber of existing opinions. Remain support could have been increased among young remain supporters through this mechanism.

In addition, thinking back to our findings on Wales where a comparatively low proportion of 18-30 year olds supported remain compared with other regions, and appeared less likely to use social media as a key media source, we decided to look into whether young people across the UK who used social media as a key source of information had any other distinctive traits in the campaign. We found that those young people most likely to trust the remain campaign were also most likely to use Twitter as their first source of information (47.9%). This was followed by news websites (42.3%), then newspapers (40.6%). On the other hand, those most likely to trust the leave campaign were more likely to use Blogs as their first source of information (20.9%), closely followed by TV (19.3), then Facebook (19.2%).


Table Two: Campaign Trust by Media Usage

18-30 Trust Neither Trust Leave most Trust Remain most Trust both equally Don’t Know
Blogs 31.6% 20.9% 36.8% 0.0% 10.8%
Facebook 33.2% 19.2% 35.6% 2.1% 10.0%
Twitter 29.0% 12.9% 47.9% 4.3% 5.9%
Newspapers 32.9% 17.9% 40.6% 2.9% 5.7%
News websites 33.0% 15.4% 42.3% 1.7% 7.6%
TV 35.1% 19.3% 35.3% 2.6% 7.8%
Radio 38.4% 16.7% 31.4% 3.7% 9.9%
65+ Trust Neither Trust Leave most Trust Remain most Trust both equally Don’t Know
Blogs 38.5% 41.5% 16.9% 0.0% 3.2%
Facebook 43.1% 37.5% 14.6% 0.8% 4.1%
Twitter 46.7% 37.8% 6.8% 0.0% 8.8%
Newspapers 38.8% 39.0% 17.3% 2.0% 2.9%
News websites 41.3% 37.2% 17.0% 0.6% 4.0%
TV 40.4% 35.9% 18.3% 2.1% 3.3%
Radio 42.5% 31.7% 20.0% 2.0% 3.8%

Source: Young People and the EU Referendum survey

So while young people used TV as their main source of information about the referendum campaign, there is evidence of a link between the use of social media and supporting EU membership which goes beyond a policy preference and extends to trust in those making the arguments for staying in the EU themselves. In some senses this makes the remain campaign a clearer example of connective action leading to collective action than the leave campaign, perhaps because of the age divide between the two camps, adding another strand to our increasingly nuanced understanding of youth engagement in this historical referendum.

About The Project:

The ‘Should we stay or should we go: Young People and the EU Referendum’ project is a study of young people’s attitudes towards and engagement with the EU referendum campaign. Using data from a dedicated UK-wide survey of under 30s and a wide range of publicly available data and academic research we will address four key themes.

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