Modern political campaigning has evolved from its humble roots on doorsteps to the all-encompassing power of online activism. Social media, much like the Athenian Pnyx, hosts terrific and terrible politics in parallel.
Belonging to this civic “catalogue” are cliques and communities who are in perpetual spinning orbit around their political campaigns. Brexit has unleashed a hyperactive and dangerous online experience, especially to the Remain side.
Over the past year, the Remain movement’s presence has exploded on social media. The users are passionate, proud, and almost puritanical in their loyalty. The people's vote campaign forms a core identifying allegiance, though other constructions are just as influential. The commonly seen “FBPE" tag (Follow Back Pro Europe) has deviated from its initial origins as a badge of European solidarity into a claustrophobic and often alarming clique.
It’s incorrect to tar and feather the entirety of Twitter’s Remain community, however bulbous its arch-Remainer splinter group is. Much of the user base is honest and constructive, adding its weight to the apparently continuous online quarrels between pro and anti-Brexit forces.
But sadly, it’s true what they say about rotten apples. Remain accounts have repeatedly harassed other users, racially abused Europeans and non-Europeans alike, and in some cases issued threats and diatribes towards any voices of criticism.
In one recent case, prominent Remain campaigner Jason Hunter tweeted a series of untrue takes on EU trade and elections, and received a clamour of supportive retweets and comments.
Many, including legal experts, called these falsehoods out. This resulted in accusations of treachery from Hunter’s followers, using slogans such as “fake Remainer” in abundance. Following this, a tweet reacting to the Notre Dame fire was hastily deleted, after his reference to wishing parliament the same fate garnered a scorching backlash.
In March, many online activists took to attacking other Remain supporters for not attending the Put it to the People March. This dialogue gained traction, leading to a toxic atmosphere of conspiracy.
One user, an EU citizen living in the UK, chose to delete their account from the pile-on of attacking voices. I was also called “troll” and “closet Brexiteer” in a February thread on FBPE activism. While these insults are minor compared to the continual abuse many MPs and journalists receive, the fact that its origin is within your own “side” leaves a bitter afterburn.
Yesterday, one user woke to find that an anonymous person had emailed screenshots to their boss of a previous Twitter argument with FBPE accounts. The user was also subjected to Islamophobic comments and a pile-on through the course of the spat. It is shocking to see the ferocity of Twitter pile-ons. One critical comment can easily turn into an eruption of anger; a flashpoint leaving people powerless to defend themselves.
This community has become more like a self-sustaining ecosystem than a political movement. It feeds off criticism and breathes its own fetid oxygen. Its “hive-mind” attitude to critique is far from the positive open-minded ethos that people’s vote promotes. Where certain tactics are criticised, such as the novelty music or spurious crowdfunding, a concerted effort is spent on defending the campaign, however they see it.
It’s tiring. Having spoken to users on the issue, many agree that the online activism is tiring, frustrating, but above all else disappointing. This is the side I voted for in 2016, and would proudly do again if put to a vote. Though supporting activism which is confrontational and asinine is an act I wish to have no part of.
Official voices of the campaign, such as people’s vote or affiliated political party groups, have a responsibility to moderate their activists. This includes official voices, the prominent grassroots idols, right down to the anonymous users on Twitter who name people like me “traitor”.
The “Remain celebrity” needs to show authority, and call out this offensive attitude where they see it. Brexit has created fraught political emotions, where energy and passion is spent, wasted, and targeted.
The unfortunate truth is that many will be fully aware of this activity. It must be stressed that Remain is a diverse and broad movement, and most Twitter activists are passive in this tumultuous auto-cannibalism.
But with an extension to Brexit’s deadline now officially in place, it’s time to take stock of where Remain is as a community. And if a referendum is to come about, this activism wouldn’t just weaken the movement – but the country as well.
Daniel Reast is a deputy political editor and columnist for PMP Magazine