Op-Ed: How Brexit tribalism has influenced attitudes toward COVID-19 in Britain

Research shows entrenched partisanship between Leavers

Op-Ed: How Brexit tribalism has influenced attitudes toward COVID-19 in Britain

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Research shows entrenched partisanship between Leavers and Remainers in response to the British government’s efforts to control the pandemic

A shopper is seen walking past social distancing signs following the outbreak of COVID-19 in London, July 1, 2020. (Source: REUTERS/Toby Melville/File Photo)

In a post-Brexit Britain, some thought the shared experience of a pandemic would increase social cohesion. But instead, an already polarized public has clung to existing ideological divides, jeopardizing the health of the nation. Adversarial disinformation aimed at exploiting these divides has also played a key role.

Disinformation and coordinated inauthentic behavior played a significant role in Britain’s 2016 referendum on European Union (EU) membership. Researchers found large numbers of bot accounts “furiously sharing” content promoting both the Leave and the Remain sides. Bot activity skewed heavily on the Leave side, with pro-Leave messages found in 54 percent of tweets, while only 20 percent were pro-Remain.

Inauthentic online behavior also took place during subsequent political events in Britain, including the general election of 2019 — along with numerous flashpoint events along the way (such as terrorist attacks).

Much of this activity was geared toward stoking divisions between the Leave and Remain camps, for example by framing Remainers as “traitors” or the EU as “tyrannical.” Furthermore, the Brexit case illustrates the two-way relationship between tribalism and disinformation. On one hand, tribalism makes populations more susceptible to divisive disinformation, especially that which targets the opposing side. On the other hand, disinformation drives tribalism, in which the groups are purposefully turned against each other with adversarial narratives. Both dynamics are at work in the British context, particularly noticeable in the midst of the pandemic.

Britain’s fractured politics

The pursuit of Brexit redefined Britain’s traditional political landscape. The Leave and Remain identities do not translate neatly along party political lines of Labour or Conservative, as both identity groups contain adherents from both major parties.

The two opposing groups that emerged from the referendum, Leavers and Remainers, have become increasingly hostile to one another since the vote took place. This “Brexit tribalism” now colors people’s views on a broad swathe of political and social issues, including how best to curb the spread of the coronavirus. When British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was hospitalized with the coronavirus in mid-April, a conspiracy theory emerged on social media claiming that his illness had been faked. Pro-Remain and opposition commentators, such as senior Labour official Andi Fox, shared the narrative on Twitter.

Amid the pandemic, it is likely that the Leave versus Remain tribal split influenced the British population’s attitudes toward COVID-19 and, in particular, the lockdown measures to contain it.

Partisanship in a pandemic

There has been strong evidence from the United States that partisan divides are fueling people’s response to public health measures, particularly to lockdowns. U.S. President Donald Trump’s dismissive attitude toward the virus has further reinforced this partisanship, with some early polls showing that Republicans are less likely than Democrats to be concerned about the virus. However, months into the pandemic, in the summer of 2020, there is evidence of this dynamic shifting as increasing numbers of Republicans start wearing masks, even to the extent that Trump himself issued a tweet on July 20 referring to masks as “patriotic.”

A similar scenario has unfolded in Britain, where Johnson’s government initially chose to veer away from EU-wide lockdown measures, opting instead for a controversial “herd immunity” approach. As the death toll started to rise, the government eventually implemented a lockdown. But it was too late. By the end of May, Britain had the highest death toll in Europe. Nevertheless, social media still showed signs of deep polarization between Leave and Remain sides.

A number of examples illustrate the links between Brexit tribalism and COVID-19 attitudes, keeping in mind that the current Johnson government was elected on a strongly pro-Brexit platform. The current British leadership embodies the Leave side and for it to propose herd immunity as coronavirus policy naturally plays into partisan divides. Those links are further reinforced by Kremlin-aligned right-wing conspiracy news sites, such as Fort Russ, Global Research, and One World Press, across which the herd immunity narrative is commonly found. Virus skepticism and its associated sub-narratives (including a range of conspiracy theories) are a logical next step after subscribing to herd immunity as a solution.

Prominent members of the Brexit Party, such as Ann Widdecombe, and closely aligned far-right influencers, such as Katie Hopkins, have been vocal on social media in urging the population to defy lockdown rules, claiming that “getting the economy moving” is more important than following public health rules created by “bureaucrats.” This framing is likely to resonate with Brexit supporters, as their desire to break free from the “faceless bureaucrats” of Brussels was a major driving force in the original vote.

Moreover, evidence from the British population itself indicates a link between Brexit tribalism and coronavirus attitudes. A YouGov survey conducted in mid-May found that 47 percent of Leavers supported the government’s easing of the lockdown, compared with 26 percent of Remainers. In general, increased levels of caution about the virus correlate with the Remain side, whereas the belief that locking down is an overreaction and the desire to rapidly return society to normal correlate with the Leave side. Further research from the University of Oxford reinforces the existence of this divide. In June 2020, a study by the London School of Economics found “indications”– such as pro-Brexit Members of Parliament criticizing effects on the economy — that the lockdown divide had become entwined with political divisions, although they noted that this was not to the extent found in the United States.

As is the case for any country, Britain’s successful emergence from the pandemic depends on the population’s willingness to follow public health measures. But disinformation and influence campaigns that trigger existing tribal divides risk weakening the overall effectiveness of these measures, causing wider society to suffer as a result.

Samantha North is a disinformation investigator and a final year PhD candidate at the University of Bath. Her research focuses on the relationship between tribalism and disinformation. Her website is samanthanorth.com.

As part of our effort to broaden expertise and understanding of information ecosystems around the world, the DFRLab is publishing this external contribution. The views and assessments in this analysis do not necessarily represent those of the DFRLab.