Tuesday, 5 March 2019

Brexit--The Regional Divide

Although the UK voted by a narrow margin in the UK EU membership referendum in 2016 to leave the EU, that outcome failed to capture the diverse feelings held in various regions. It's a curious observation that the UK regions with the most economic dependence on the EU were the regions more likely to vote to leave it. The image below on the right is taken from this article from the Centre for European Reform, and makes the point in a few different ways. This and similar research inspired a current project the GATE team are undertaking with colleagues in the Geography and Journalism departments at Sheffield University, under the leadership of Miguel Kanai and with funding from the British Academy, aiming to understand whether lack of awareness of individual local situation played a role in the referendum outcome.
Our Brexit tweet corpus contains tweets collected during the run-up to the Brexit referendum, and we've annotated almost half a million accounts for Brexit vote intent with a high accuracy. You can read about that here. So we thought we'd be well positioned to bring some insights. We also annotated user accounts with location: many Twitter users volunteer that information, though there can be a lot of variation on how people describe their location, so that was harder to do accurately. We also used local and national news media corpora from the time of the referendum, in order to contrast national coverage with local issues are around the country.
"People's resistance to propaganda and media‐promoted ideas derives from their close ties in real communities"
Jean Seaton
Using topic modelling and named entity recognition, we were able to look for similarities and differences in the focus of local and national media and Twitter users. The bar chart on the left gets us started, illustrating that foci differ between media. Twitter users give more air time than news media to trade and immigration, whereas local press takes the lead on employment, local politics and agriculture. National press gives more space to terrorism than either Twitter or local news.
On the right is just one of many graphs in which we unpack this on a region-by-region basis (you can find more on the project website). In this choropleth, red indicates that the topic was significantly more discussed in national press than in local press in that area, and green indicates that the topic was significantly more discussed in local press there than in national press. Terrorism and immigration have perhaps been subject to a certain degree of media and propaganda inflation--we talk about this in our Social Informatics paper. Where media focus on locally relevant issues, foci are more grounded, for example in practical topics such as agriculture and employment. We found that across the regions, Twitter remainers showed a closer congruence with local press than Twitter leavers.
The graph on the right shows the number of times a newspaper was linked on Twitter, contrasted against the percentage of people that said they read that newspaper in the British Election Study. It shows that the dynamics of popularity on Twitter are very different to traditional readership. This highlights a need to understand how the online environment is affecting the news reportage we are exposed to, creating a market for a different kind of material, and a potentially more hostile climate for quality journalism, as discussed by project advisor Prof. Jackie Harrison here. Furthermore, local press are increasingly struggling to survive, so it feels important to highlight their value through this work.
You can see more choropleths on the project website. There's also an extended version here of an article currently under review.

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