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Tweeting Brexit: Narrative building and sentiment analysis

This article was co-authored with  and originally published by Bruegel

Public discourse on social media was already in favour of Brexit by early summer 2015, and stayed that way until the referendum. An analysis of more than 890 000 tweets posted since 2012 reveals clear trends in the mood of online discussion. Our new methodology captures something that betting odds and opinion polls were not able to reveal – but will it be useful in future elections?

On 7 May 2015 David Cameron was re-elected on a platform that included a promise to hold a referendum on the UK’s EU membership. A few weeks later, at the European Summit of 25-26 June, Cameron set out his EU renegotiation aims at a meeting dominated by the Greek debt and refugee crises.

Within this short time-span the amount of tweets on Brexit-related subjects jumped from around 1000 per week to 5000, which reached 10 000 if we consider retweets.

The number of related hashtags continued to rise during the following month, reaching more than 15 000 during the hot month of the refugee crisis (figure 1).

Figure 1 – Counts over time: 2015


That peak was not just a momentary event, but set the tone for the rest of the time leading up to the referendum. The flow of Brexit-related Twitter activity remained strong until the vote, with clear jumps at the announcement of the referendum on 20 February 2016 and the launch of the official campaigns on 15 April 2016.

Activity then increased steadily in the final two months of the campaign, with over 100 000 Tweets per week by the end of May 2016 (figure 2).

Figure 2 – Counts over time: 2016 without June


Sentiment analysis and mood switches

Using the extracted tweets, we performed a sentiment analysis in cooperation with the Dortmund Center for data-based Media Analysis (DoCMA).

Sentiment analysis applies natural language processing, text analysis and computational linguistics to identify and extract subjective information in a corpus of source material. Generally speaking, sentiment analysis aims to determine the attitude of a speaker or a writer with respect to some topic, or the overall stance of a document.

This attitude may be the speaker’s/writer’s judgment or evaluation, affective state, or the intended emotional communication. Assessing a statement as positive or negative requires analysis of the words and phrases used, as well as their grammatical and discursive context. This measurement is known as contextual polarity.

In this case, we applied a novel three-stage approach developed at DoCMA. First, two human coders carried out a traditional sentiment analysis coding a sample of 1500 Tweets. In a second step, a list of sentiment words was extracted from this sample to calibrate a sentiment-metering algorithm which was consequently applied to the vast majority of the Tweets.

This semiautomatic approach is an innovative work-in-progress, whose reliability needs further clarification. Therefore, the sentiment analysis of these Brexit tweets needs to be treated with a certain degree of caution. In-depth results are due to be published in the coming months. However, initial results are promising and our findings concerning the Brexit debate appear convincing.

Figure 3 – Mean sentiment scores by week


Figure 3 depicts the results by showing the overall mood in the “Twittersphere” over time. Values of zero represent a balanced view where tweets containing a predominantly pro-Brexit (positive values) and a pro-Remain stance (negative values) offset each other.

Most of the first half of 2015 was characterized by a slight bias towards the Remain position (negative values). The results change drastically in the summer of 2015, when the trend shifts considerably towards exiting the EU (positive territory in the graph). This is then where the values stay throughout the period until the referendum in June 2016.

Let’s consider two key-findings briefly.

First, the swing is associated with the refugee crisis that started grabbing the public’s attention in the summer of 2015. This was one of the most important issue driving the Brexit debate. Immigration had been a hotly debated issue in the UK before, with conservative politicians pushing for the imposition of a limit to the influx of foreigners, even from EU countries. The severity of the refugee crisis, which set in motion more than a million refugees from war-torn countries such as Syria and Afghanistan, aggravated an already sceptical public opinion. The Twitter analysis supports the hypothesis that the immigration issue fired up the debate on whether or not to leave the EU.

Second, once the overall mood has moved into pro-Brexit territory, it stays there for the remaining period. Even though values decline from an initial peak in July 2015, the high level of persistence of overall sentiment is remarkable. A predominately Brexit-favouring mood seems to be reinforced by the dynamics of social media. In particular, key Brexit activists who were highly visible on Twitter gathered ever-higher levels of attention. Sentiment in the Twittersphere proves to be enduring, a result we have encountered in other debates as well. Therefore, social media seems to reproduce (rather than disrupt) a hierarchical public discourse sphere.

The other story: Betting odds and opinion polls

Betting odds and opinion polls clearly did not catch the amplitude of the mood switch visible in the sentiment analysis. Until the very last moment, these traditional political predictors were consistently showing a tendency to remain, albeit with some fluctuation. At the most, they envisaged the possibility of a very tight result, but the fairly strong result for leave was a genuine shock.

Figure 4 – Probability of Brexit according to betting odds


This indicator tracks the average implied probability of the event ‘UK Leaving the EU’, based on bookmaker quotes available on the Oddschecker website.

Figure 5 – UK EU Referendum Voter Intention


The Bloomberg Composite Indicator of UK EU Referendum Voter Intention Surveys takes the average of polls data from various surveys including BMG, ComRes, ICM, Ipsos MORI, ORB, Survation and YouGov.

Classic polling has proved rather incorrect in other recent cases as well. Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential elections was not foreseen by the vast majority of polls. However, his huge social media presence, most notably on Twitter, told a different story.

Conclusions – What do we learn?

Twitter can be considered a novel type of elite media that enables agenda setters to communicate directly with other agenda setters and a politically active part of the public (Boynton & Richardson 2016).

Whoever gets sufficient attention in the Twittersphere can count on his or her messages being taken up by traditional media, thereby boosting the senders’ reach and potentially influencing public opinion on a broader scale.

Emotionality, negativity and occasionally breaking taboos help to raise attention in social media environments.Donald Trump and the Brexiteers can serve as paragons for this transmission channel. If their views dominate the public debate, they may have a significant influence on voting behaviour.

They can especially prime those voters who have not come to a definitive decision on who or what to vote for – or even whether to vote at all – until shortly before election day. In elections or referenda where large parts of the electorate remain undecided, or unsure if to vote at all, polls may not suffice to capture the public’s mood.

It is therefore not far-fetched to argue that sentiment analyses of tweets may offer useful new early indicators for public opinion. In particular, this should be the case when debates entail clearly distinct poles. If decisions are to be taken either for or against a certain policy, or if candidates represent the wings of a bipolar political system, Twitter analysis should be of particular value.

In traditional parliamentary elections, however, where parties compete through complex programs on a wide range of policies, social media analysis in this form looks less promising for the prediction of election outcomes.

The authors would like to thank Gerret von Nordheim of TU Dortmund University/Dortmund Center for data-based Media Analysis for his highly valuable support in conducting the Twitter analysis.

Democracy in the age of the Internet of Things

This article was published originally by techcrunch 

With the release of Swipe the Vote in spring 2016, Tinder, the ultimate hook-up app, broke new ground in the United States by claiming to be able to match young voters with their dream-perfect presidential candidate. The matchmaking app tries to make voting sexy by employing to representative politics its same cut-to-the-chase dating method.

Who wants to read up on candidates’ policies, attend rallies or even watch a debate? You just want to jump into the bed of democracy with the one who turns you on politically, right? Who would bother to vote in the future if a set of sophisticated algorithms just identified, by trawling your data mine, your ideal candidate?

Once upon a time there was a www…

In the past two decades, we have observed how the web has evolved from an oddity to a tool used in different phases of electoral strategies.

The first U.S. presidential campaign website, for example, went online in 1995. It was a modest website consisting of a few photos and statements, ordering instructions for campaign merchandise and an email link for interested voters to contact the campaign. The Democratic primary candidate Pat Paulsen made it, running against Bill Clinton. The use of the new technology did not particularly help the underdog candidate to rise up in the competition.

In 2004, another Democratic candidate, Howard Dean, used the internet more effectively. He pioneered internet-based fundraising and grassroots organizing. The strategy was centered on mass appeal to small donors and was more cost-efficient than the more expensive method of contacting fewer potential larger donors. Dean also promoted active participatory democracy among the general public through online outreach.

…but the www might become a wtf

As was the case with the early rise of the internet, the emergence of the so-called Internet of Things is set to become a game changer. And young people are likely to be the main target audience, as is the case with the Tinder widget for the upcoming U.S. presidential elections.

The basic idea behind the Internet of Things is that any device with an on-and-off switch can be connected to the internet. Forecasts indicate that 6.4 billion connected devices will be in use worldwide by the end of 2016, up 30 percent from 2015, and will reach 20.8 billion by 2020. These figures show how massive this technological change is going to be. Deeper changes will happen, however, for the entire political industry. The availability of a wealth of data will create a new ground for how decisions will be made by democratically accountable politicians.

A set of sophisticated algorithms could automatically calculate, through data coming from our own objects and wearable devices, our supposed political preferences.

Electoral campaigns will look dramatically different in 10 or 20 years. We could, for example, imagine the institutionalization of apps that simplify citizens’ participation. The electorate might officially express opinions on policy issues on their own devices, swiping to register “likes” and “dislikes.” That would be the next level of “Tinderpolitics,” where the swipes would not just have an indicative value, but become binding. It would be interesting to be able to forecast what this would mean for policy making, and whether all policy issues would be reduced to these kinds of binary decisions.

Going further, a set of sophisticated algorithms could automatically calculate, through data coming from our own objects and wearable devices, our supposed political preferences. These data could be sent to decision makers seamlessly, making voting obsolete. Such sets of algorithms could potentially even have unlimited access to the physical activity and the things that any given citizen would own.

To complete this imaginary dystopian scenario, a massive big data processor could then calculate the optimal mix of policies ranked according to the behaviors and choices of people everyday.

What would be governments’ reactions?

Plausibly to dismiss all elected officials. Act via spokespersons with simple job descriptions. To announce daily the results of the calculations of the algorithm. To dispatch them to the director generals of ministries. To smile at cameras. To look good.

Could this be the case of our governance systems in, let’s say, 20 years?

Wait, what?

This makes me think again about the early 1990s. We truly thought then, at some point, that we would have been flooded by MiniDiscs and Digital Compact Cassettes. But we weren’t.

In the same fashion, many political analysts at that time were predicting an end of representative democracy caused by deliberative democracy through the internet. But we never really saw that happen. And it would be hard to predict or prove that this new wave of technological progress will lead to a dramatic change in political organization.

We have seen dystopian societies run by men and not by machines many times in history.

The reasons for this go beyond technical matters. There are broader risks in having the general electorate involved in every political decision, as opposed to delegation, as well costs for the public related to obtaining enough information to constructively contribute to every decision — not to mention the risk of having ill-founded and populist decisions.

However, some political formations have grown around this concept. The Five Stars Movement became the second largest group in Parliament in Italy after the national elections in 2013. The Pirate Party in Germany is promoting the concept of “liquid democracy,” with some success, as a hybrid system whereby an electorate vests voting power in delegates rather than in representatives.

And that’s when youth should get up

Young activists involved in these matters will have to keep these changes in mind in order to retain their influence over the way policies will be drafted, decided, implemented and evaluated in the future. They will have to cope with the tension between the risk of a technocratic and dystopian future, the promise of a dream-like utopia or tech-enhanced business as usual. Often reality has proven to lie in between.

Dystopian futures could become real, even if humans keep control of policy making. We have seen dystopian societies run by men and not by machines many times in history. It is a reminder that politics is a human responsibility, without stigmatizing industrial and technological development. The society imagined by Samuel Butler in 1872 in “Erewhon” was no worse, in some aspects, even if it totally banned the machines for fear that they would take over following Darwinian evolution.

In the case of the Industrial Internet, the political discourse and narratives will shape its further development and goals. Young activists play a pivotal role in shaping such discourse. The most important mission they have is to transmit such goals and discourses in an understandable way, in order to keep their fellow peers and all the citizens aware of the consequences of the changes that are happening so we can ultimately keep a transparent and democratic oversight over the future of society.

This article supports #YouthUp, a Pan-European campaign to crowdsource the best ideas for a more youth-inclusive politics. It draws on reflections made by the author in the chapter “Policy and Politics in the Era of Industrial Internet” included in the volume Out-thinking Organizational Communications: The Impact of Digital Transformation published by Springer.


Claiming the right to the city

This article was published in the YO!Mag //

Paris 1968, Madrid 2011, Los Angeles 1992, Cairo 2012, Istanbul 2013. Different times, different places, but still with a common image: youth protests against the established system in symbolic urban spaces. Cities are icons of power struggles over space, politics and economy.

In his book “Rebel Cities” (2013), the urban geographer David Harvey explores these processes and analyses how to claim a right to the city is to claim some kind of power over shaping the processes of urbanisation and the ways in which our cities are made and remade. The issue of the right to the city is key to understand the current financial and economic system, especially in the light of the current economic crisis.

In the current global landscape, the important and expanding labour of making and sustaining urban life is increasingly carried out by insecure, often part-time and disorganised low-paid labour, mostly composed of young people. The so-called “precariat” has displaced the traditional “proletariat”. The mass of humanity is concentrated in cities with an ever-increasing process of urbanization. It is not the case however, that youth unemployment is mostly concentrated in the city in the same way.

Who can therefore, claim the right to the city? According to Harvey, Financiers and developers can claim it and have every right to do so. By this logic, so can the homeless, the sans-papiers and young people. This has been the case in several confrontations that have happened so far, as evoked earlier in the still-images opening the article.

In the realm of ideas, a key resource and touchstone is “Le droit à la ville” (Right to the City) a book published in 1968 by French intellectual and philosopher Henri Lefebvre. In the sphere of human rights, this powerful idea was adopted by the World Urban Forum and elaborated into the World Charter of the Right to the City in 2004.

The right to the city therefore, becomes not only a theoretical speculation but also a committed movement. Out of desire to have a stronger movement for urban justice, civil society mobilise on the issue. Young activists and youth organisations are often at the forefront.

In the USA, for example, the right to the City alliance ( emerged in 2007 as a unified response to gentrification and a call to halt the displacement of low-income people, marginalised LGBTQ communities, and young people of colour from their historic urban neighborhoods. They seek to create regional and national impacts in the fields of housing, human rights, urban land, community development, civic engagement, criminal justice, environmental justice and more.

In the realm of political action therefore, the right to the city claims a new kind of urban politics that asserts that everyone, particularly the disenfranchised, not only has a right to the city but as inhabitants, have a right to shape it, design it, and operationalise an urban human rights agenda.

The right to the city has to therefore be a claim by all citizens, without distinction. In particular, young people have to claim it. Cities must be built for them and they are the key to adapt cities for future generations. Today, young people have to mobilise for their future, as it is currently happening for example in Spain.

Spain is one of the places where the real-estate bubble has sat at the roots of the current economic crisis. The impact on young people has been dramatic with more than 50% of Spain’s youth unemployed. A report published by the Spanish Youth Council showed that a young person needs more than the 80% of his/her salary to opt to live autonomously, without parental support. In a country where the unemployment rate for people aged less than 25 years was in July 2013 more than 56%, the role of youth organisations’ is more important than ever. Bearing in mind that Spanish Constitution includes the ´right to adequate housing´ and the only way to enjoy it is to be able to be fully autonomous, young people are in danger in Spain.

According to Fernando Encinar, chief of the studies department at the real estate company, “the housing market has been displacing the demand from ownership to rent in the last period with a high rise in rent costs. Many young people are finding the only resort in shared apartments. This option is traditionally linked to the student period but now the average age in shared apartments in Spain is 29 years old, a figure that has been slowly growing in the past 5 years”.

In this situation there is also a general threat to the democratic institutions that allowed youth movements to take part to urban policies. Spain used to be a flagship of youth participation through strong and well-established local youth councils. Nowadays, the current government is systematically shutting down the local youth councils. A policy culminated with a fatal threat to the National Youth Council with the announcement of its winding up in recent months. The Spanish Youth Movements are facing a huge challenge to claim back the right to the city though, as well as, more widely, the right to participate.

Children of the revolution

Valencia Street, San Francisco, August 2012 //

I sit on the terrace of a hipster bar. Bianchi’s bikes parked on the sidewalk, organic food served, the latest artwork from displayed. A typical combination of sustainable awareness, healthy lifestyle, the art scene and political engagement.

While sipping my coffee I read a blog entry of 82-year-old professor Immanuel Wallerstein: ‘We are living in a chaotic world situation. When the world-economy stagnates and real unemployment expands considerably, it means that the overall pie is shrinking. The fluctuations in everything are large and rapid. This applies as well to social protest. The geography of youth-led protests constantly shifts. Tahrir Square in Cairo and Wall Street yesterday, unauthorized massive marches with pots and pans in Montreal today, somewhere else (probably somewhere surprising) tomorrow. The groups in power can repress popular unrest harshly, and many do. Or, if the unrest is too strong for their repressive mechanisms, they can try to co-opt the protestors by seeming to join them and limiting real change’.

In the moment in which we try to create a change in the mainstreamed policy mindset that investing in youth should actually be part of the solution and not a burden for the actual crisis, the words of the professor are particularly interesting. What makes them even more relevant is the fact that Wallerstein was a prominent youth activist himself, a world federalist and Vice President of the World Assembly of Youth (WAY) from 1954 – 1958. He was part of the generation of youth leaders in the decade following World War II. For many months I tried to speak with him but he declined any requests for interviews on the topic. I suspect because of the reputation of WAY, being one of the C.I.A. funded organisations during the cold war.

To dig more in that past, in April I met with David Wirmark, an 86 years old former Secretary General of WAY from 1958 – 1964. Sitting in his apartment in Jakobsberg, Sweden, we had a long chat surrounded by old documents and pictures. The first memory brought me back to his first international meeting in 1951, when he did not only meet a young Wallerstein but also the inspiring Eleanor Roosevelt.

1951: Eleanor Roosevelt discusses with the delegates of the WAY

The story got more and more passionate when he recalled the General Assembly of WAY in New Delhi, India, August 1958. David was elected as Secretary General there, and the organisation positioned itself officially against colonialism in the context of the Algerian war. The WAY president of the time, Antoine Lawrence from Guinea Conakry, loyal to the French Youth Council, protested by leaving the room theatrically hoping to stop the debate, but immediately Wallerstein took over the debate as Vice President, and the Assembly decided to support and encourage youth organisations in the ‘non-self-governing’ countries in their struggle to attain independence.

1958: Immanuel Wallerstein (left) with David Wirmark (right)


Following this episode, a few years later, David built very good relations with the African liberation movements. His first meeting with Oliver Tambo is a good example of how things worked at the time. ‘It was April 1960 in connection with our first Pan-African seminar in Tunis’ – David recalled – ‘Tambo was then the Vice President of the ANC in South Africa and the Sharpeville massacre had just taken place. The situation was very tense. In the Guardian I read Oliver Tambo escaped by car to Bechuanaland (Botswana). I telegraphed immediately Chief Seretse Khama who governed this British protectorate as I knew he was a friend of the ANC. I requested him to ask Oliver whether he would be willing to come to Tunis. At the same time we sent him an air ticket. After a couple of days Khama replied that he gave the ticket to Tambo. The speech he made at the seminar was unforgettable. In the middle of a grim description of the South African repression he underlined that there was only one possible way out: equal rights and opportunities for everybody!’

The actions of those young leaders however, was not limited to Africa. It was truly global and impressive for the time. For example, in January 1964, David met the military junta in Ecuador. He asked for the release of the student activists who were arrested because they demanded an agrarian reform. When David argued that they had only expressed their opinion and said that it was their democratic right to do so, the president of the junta replied: ‘It is the Ecuadorians that govern in Ecuador, not the Swedes! Agrarian reform is not my field, I am an admiral!’

1964: WAY delegation in Quito
1964: WAY delegation in Quito

Just a few months after the mission in Quito, David’s mandate ended. Probably the best way to end his term was for him to listen to the words of Robert Kennedy on 7th August 1964 at the WAY General Assembly in Armherst, Massachusetts: ‘Do we have the capacity to make that wealth meaningful to the poor of the world? these problems are not for the individuals to solve. They are not even for individual Nations to solve unaided. As our problems grow more complex our world grows smaller and our need for solutions becomes common’.

While I finish my coffee, I turn again my eyes at the hipster posters and at the current state of youth movements in the world and what can we learn from the past. Memories from this generation show me clearly how international youth work had a crucial impact in the geopolitical arena back then, particularly on three levels. Firstly, in training political leaders. Especially in the case of liberation struggles, international youth movements were essential in their political development. Secondly, in their intellectual development. For Wallerstein, it was fundamental to later develop the world systems analysis – a multidisciplinary, macro scale approach to world history and social change. World systems analysis stresses that the world system (and not nation states) should be the primary (but not exclusive) unit of social analysis. Thirdly, young people were at the forefront of human rights and emancipatory movements already in the end of the 1950s.

A youth policy that is not sectorial but works for a wider societal, political, intellectual, and economic change: 60 years later we still need it!


The City of the Future, Sustainable and Poetic

This article was published in YO!Mag ad co-written with Richie Bernardo //

Luc Schuiten is a visionary architect who received his training from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels. Passionately concerned with the future of the planet, he is most known for his conceptual illustrations of an imagined vegetal city where invention harmonises with nature. In his studio in Brussels, we met to ask him about his vision of the city’s future and the role young people can play in realising his urban utopia.

What is your vision for the future of the city?

When I imagine the future, it’s a fiction in which I try to make sense that we are not in a dream, but a possible world that has not yet been realised. I only try to show things that are scientifically possible though, and thus are in a near or faraway future.

The world I imagine could be more than the one the political discourse preconises, based on the hypothesis of an exponential and never-ending growth on a planet with limited resources.

The hypothetical city on which I work with others is [one] that could endure through time without destroying the environment. I work primarily with living organic raw materials because they have the faculty of reproducing without stressing the system. On the contrary, they enrich it. The future city should be formed by multiple ecosystems that coexist to create an enjoyable, poetic, aesthetic and generous environment that is capable of offering to everyone what they need.

Is your hypothesis therefore against development?

On the contrary, it is a concept of development of a new practice that calls on new competences, knowledge and technologies. My vision of the future city requires specific technology projected at the future. We need to reflect on all those materials that are indefinitely renewable.

For example, living trees or bamboo — structures that grow quite fast — are solid, absorb COs and develop with water and sun. If we close those structures with some sort of bio-glass that resembles the same material in the wings of a dragonfly or the cocoon of insects, it’s something totally biological and made with resources available in nature.

A spider web is three times more resistant than our steels. Why do we have to search our subsoil relentlessly for raw materials whose exploitation would also have a detrimental impact to us?

So do you think there is a right to the city?

At the moment, citizens have a very reduced right to the city, and such right is much more in the hands of those who have the financial powers [and] the developers, politicians who have stronger decision-making power. Those current systems constitute a spiral, which is to make money with money. This is totally immoral, unsustainable and risks making the system implode. The rich become richer, the poor poorer. We are in a vicious circle. Wouldn’t it be time that virtuous circles were put in place?

The city is an entity that is difficult to imagine being managed by the entire population in a simple manner. It’s easier to start with the neighbourhood where everyone could take over some responsibility and be in charge of some need. This is a very interesting decision-making level that could be part of a nested system that can form a unity of values by getting the various neighbours cooperating together. Each of those different entities should delegate a person who would manage all the different neighbourhoods, i.e. the city.

What is the role of young people in building this future city?

Of course everyone has a role to play, but young people are key players. The fact that nowadays they have so little decision-making power shows clearly the failure of the current system. Young people are more prone to avoid bitter compromises and are more solution-oriented, which could help to advance more quickly towards a more interesting system.

An example of the creativity of young people is witnessed in political movements that are shaking or changing behaviours around the world. The concept of biomimicry has been more rapidly understood by young people because with less prejudice and more open to new ideas such as the biomimicry movement that is behind my concept of the future of the city.