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Social Media and Brexit

DanielMiller27 June 2016

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One of the common claims made about social media is that it has facilitated a new form of political intervention aligned with the practices and inclinations of the young. Last week I attended the launch of an extremely good book by Henry Jenkins and his colleagues called By Any Media Necessary which documents how young people use social and other media to become politically involved, demonstrating that this is real politics not merely ‘slacktivism’, a mere substitute for such political involvement.

And yet, currently I am seeing social media buzzing with young people advocating a petition to revoke the Brexit vote, which only highlights the absence of a similar ‘buzz’ prior to the vote. I await more scholarly studies in confirmation, but my impression is that we did not see the kind of massive activist campaign by young people to prevent Brexit that we saw with campaigns behind Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK.

The failure to create an attractive activist-led mass social media campaign to get young people to vote for Remain is reflected in the figures; although 18-24 year-olds were the most favourable segment towards Remain, only 36% of this group actually voted at all. As such, Brexit represents a catastrophic failure in young people’s social media, from which we need to learn. Being based in ethnography, our Why We Post project argued that we need to study the absence of politics in ordinary people’s social media as much as focusing on when it does appear. But the key lesson is surely that just because social media can facilitate young people’s involvement in politics doesn’t mean it will, even when that politics impacts upon the young.

One possibility is that social media favours a more radical idealistic agenda. By contrast, even though the impact of Brexit might be greater and more tangible, the remain campaign was led by a conservative prime minister, backing a Europe associate with bureaucracy and corporate interest, and was a messy grouping of people with different ideological perspectives, that made it perhaps less susceptible to the social media mechanisms of aggregated sharing.

At the same time I would claim that our work can help us to understand the result. My own book Social Media in an English Village is centred on the way English people re-purposed social media as a mechanism for keeping ‘others’, and above all one’s neighbours, at a distance. I cannot demonstrate this but I would argue that by supporting Brexit the English were doing in politics at a much larger scale exactly what my book claims they were doing to their neighbours at a local level: expressing a sense that ‘others’ were getting too close and too intrusive and needed to be pushed back to some more appropriate distance. And it is this rationale which may now have devastated the prospects for young people in England.

Hear Daniel Miller talk about social media and politics in this Why We Post podcast.

Social media Goldilocks: Keeping friendship at a distance

DanielMiller9 December 2014

Many people seem to think that social media such as Facebook are principally a means to find and to develop relationships such as friendship. Clearly those people don’t try to study the English. I have just finished a chapter of my book on Social Media in an English Village and it has become increasingly clear that the primary purpose of some social media, such as Facebook, is rather more to keep people at a distance. But that needs to be the correct distance. Goldilocks is the ideal middle-class English story. Whether it comes to porridge or beds we, the English, don’t want the things that are too hot or too cold or too short or too long. We want the things in the middle that feel just right. So it is with many relationships.

Yes, after Friends Reunited the early social media were often used to re-connect with people one had lost contact with. But as I heard many times this was also something one could regret, since often enough one was reminded of the reasons one hadn’t kept in touch in the first place. But that’s ok. If they become friends on Facebook you don’t actually have to see them. On the other hand you can satisfy your curiosity about what has subsequently happened in their lives as an entirely passive Facebook friend. Or if that feels a bit too cold you can add a little warm water to your bath with the occasional `like’.

When it first developed academics and journalists used to claim that the trouble with Facebook was that users couldn’t tell a real friend from a Facebook friend. Actually long before Facebook came into existence people would sit in pubs with one friend endlessly dissecting the last three encounters with a third party to decide whether that third party was or was not a `real’ friend. In fact the beauty of social media is that there are so many ways of adjusting the temperature of friendship. You can like or comment, you can have them in a WhatsApp group, you can private message them, you can send them a Snapchat, you can follow them on Twitter, you can acknowledge them in their professional capacity on LinkedIn, all on top of whether or not you phone, email and visit them.

Some of the best insights into the nuances of positioning come from discussions about the use of social media after a divorce, which might be your parents or relatives or again friends. Suddenly everyone is aware of what shouldn’t be shared with whom, and who might take offence if you are warmer to this side than you are with that side. Even in England we do sometimes actually make friends, but we then spend decades calibrating the right distance, judging exactly how much of a friend we want them to be and social media is just a wonderful way of getting things just right.