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Murder of Jo Cox used by “digital prophets” to widen divides before EU vote, research finds

17 June 2019

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MP Jo Cox’s murder sparked a wave of inaccurate speculation on social media which may have influenced voters before the EU Referendum, research concludes.

Cardiff University’s Crime and Security Research Institute analysed nearly 44,000 tweets mentioning key terms “Jo Cox” and “Brexit”, which were posted in the run up to the crucial vote.

Jo Cox, who had supported the Remain side during the EU campaign, was killed outside her constituency surgery in Birstall, near Leeds, on 16 June 2016. The EU Referendum was held seven days later. Her death, researchers say, amplified political divisions and triggered a surge in soft facts – rumours, conspiracy theories and unverified claims – on social media.

Researchers found a small number of twitter accounts – supportive of both the Leave and Remain campaigns - were responsible for sending out tweets about the reasons for the attack and what it could mean for the forthcoming vote. For example, the data shows how two posts sent from a single account with more than 550,000 followers influenced 7,000 other tweets.

Professor Martin Innes, Director of the Crime and Security Research Institute, said: “The idea that social media is problematic for democratic politics because it induces ‘echo chamber’ effects is now well known. Our detailed analysis of public reactions to the murder of Jo Cox MP in the context of the Brexit referendum campaign, identifies how specific types of social media message triggered these echo chambers, polarising public sense-making. These ‘digital prophecies’ worked by connecting the current crisis event, to an established narrative of grievance, to predict future harmful consequences for the result of the impending Brexit referendum.

More than two thirds (28,170) of the posts we analysed were in fact, retweets, which demonstrates the way in which politically motivated rumours and predictions quickly gained momentum among a significant number of social media users. In turn, embedding increasingly polarised opinions.

Professor Martin Innes Co-Director (Lead) of the Security, Crime and Intelligence Innovation Institute

The research also reveals linkages between the #Usepens conspiracy theory, which accused the Remain side of a plot to erase Leave votes made in pencil, and the soft facts circulated about the murder of Jo Cox. The paper shows that on the 22-23 June 1,114 tweets were made in support of the #Usepens theory. Amongst those posting, 76 individuals promoting the #Usepens theory had also been found to be disseminating soft facts about Jo Cox’s murder.

Academics conclude a better understanding is needed of the role of social media in the wake of such crimes, in order to prevent wider harm.

Prof Innes said: “Our analysis clearly shows how a small number of ‘influencers’ on social media can have a disproportionate impact in steering aspects of the public conversation around major crime and democratic events.”

Prophets and Loss: How “Soft Facts” on social media influenced the Brexit campaign and social reactions to the murder of Jo Cox MP, is published in the journal Policy and Internet and is available to view here.

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