Twitter users scream 'leave' in Brexit vote, but 'remain' gains ground

Polls leading up to the Brexit vote show the two sides are running neck and neck, but the movement for the U.K. to remain in the European Union seems to be gaining steam on Twitter.

British voters head to the polls today with about 35 percent of the related traffic on the social network in favor of votes to remain, according to ongoing research at the Neuropolitics Research Lab at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, which has been tracking the sentiment of tweets based on the hashtags they include.

That may not seem great for the remain movement, as leave votes are still winning on Twitter with 65 percent of the hashtag sentiments. But according to the researchers, the Twitter data is more useful for tracking changes over time than the absolute percentage of people who support one side or the other.

So the recent surge in hashtags like #Remain and #StrongerIn versus tags like #VoteLeave and #LeaveEU is in line with polling that also shows some gains for the remain camp. Remain hashtags are up about 14 points since only a month ago, and more than 30 points since last summer.

Overall, the 20 million tweets gathered by the researchers since August 2015 show that about 80 percent of hashtags support leaving the EU and 20 percent support remaining.

Roughly 46 percent of the hashtags used to gather twitter sentiment included the popular hashtag #Brexit. Surprisingly, while the researchers expected Brexit to be a more neutral term to describe the debate, it turns out that the hashtag is very rarely used to express pro-remain sentiment and tends to be popular among leave supporters, said Laura Cram, professor of European politics at the University of Edinburgh.

"The trend in the opinion polls, until the last few days, has been for pro-leave support to grow, although overall the balance is 50/50," Cram said. "There has, however, been a very clear and growing trend of increasing remain support in the Twitter debate on the EU referendum, although support for remain is still much lower than leave."

Cram and her associates maintain the Neuropolitics Research Lab, which monitors ongoing shifts in the public's sentiment using social media and other multidisciplinary research.

Brandwatch, a social media monitoring tool that tracks insights on various topics online, said the EU referendum has been mentioned online over 6.2 million times in the past 31 days.

In fact, between the two specific hashtags they tracked — #Remain and #VoteLeave — they found #VoteLeave mentioned more than 1.4 million times, compared to #Remain's 800,000 mentions over the same period. The biggest issues tied to Brexit-related tweets are the economy and immigration, each of which make up more than 30 percent of tweets, according to Brandwatch.

To be sure, there are limitations to extracting sentiment from Twitter tags. People tend to tweet against issues more often than they tweet for things, which can skew attempts to study opinions on social networks. Brandwatch, too, warns against using the volume or frequency of tweets to gauge the sentiment as people can use either hashtag in an attempt to attack opposing views.

Underdogs in the debate?

A recent Financial Times Brexit Poll Tracker showed that British voters are split on the Brexit issue; at the same time, reactions on social media have been strongly one-sided.

Some experts say the divergence is due to the demographic profile of Twitter users: specifically, highly motivated individuals, young people and men, who are more likely to engage in political debate.

"Tweeters are typically highly motivated and perhaps those who see themselves as the underdogs in the debate [and] are not representative of the wider public," Cram said. "They are self-selected users, not those chosen on the basis of careful sampling by opinion pollsters."

Of note, in the Scottish independence referendum of 2014, the pro-independence tweets dominated the Twitter debate while the vote's result was against Scotland becoming an independent country.

A Trump overlap

For Americans, the Brexit vote might seem like a distant, foreign referendum, but it has ramifications in the U.S. Pundits have debated the connection between the pro-leave movement and Donald Trump's presidential campaign. Some point to an anti-immigrant, pro-nationalist sentiment in both countries and politicians with blond hair.

In fact, the pro-Brexit camp on Twitter has a small but vocal overlap with Trump supporters, according to Gilad Lotan at Betaworks. Lotan studies how topics and phrases are shared among different groups on the social media platform.

"There's a group of Trump supporters who are actively campaigning in support of Brexit online," Lotan said. Trump himself voiced support for the Leave camp just days before a trip to reopen a golf course in Turnberry, Scotland.