Nigel Farage and Gavin Esler triggered most abusive Twitter discussions ahead of EU election, study shows

Tweets by Nigel Farage triggered almost six times as many abusive Twitter replies than the next most replied to MEP candidate, Gavin Esler of Change UK, in the build up to May’s European election, according to new research.

The study, led by Professor Kalina Bontcheva from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Computer Science, has revealed that many of the abusive replies to posts by Farage were actually abusive towards other politicians – mainly Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn.

In contrast, abusive replies to Gavin Esler were primarily aimed directly at him – triggered by his use of the phrase “village idiot” in connection with the 2016 Leave campaign.

Abusive messages in replies to Farage and other Brexit Party candidates largely centred on disagreement with the UK leaving the European Union, according to the findings. These abusive messages often agreed with and were triggered by the use of divisive rhetoric by the Brexit Party candidates themselves – for example tweets that contained the phrases “betrayal” or “phoney war”.

In contrast, MEP candidates from the Conservative and Labour parties were not hubs of polarised, abusive discussions on Twitter, according to the research.

Professor Kalina Bontcheva said: “What these findings, unsurprisingly, demonstrate is that politicians and parties who themselves use divisive and abusive language, for example, to brand political opponents as “village idiots”, “traitors”, or as “desperate to betray”, are thus triggering the toxic online responses and deep political antagonism that we have witnessed.”

The study also analysed overall engagement with UK MEP candidates across the different parties on Twitter. The research found that Farage received more interactions than any other candidate on Twitter ahead of the election – receiving more than double the replies of Andrew Adonis of the Labour Party, who received the second highest number.

The research found that the Brexit Party attracted the most engagement on Twitter out of all the political parties in the run-up to the election, with their candidates receiving as many tweets as all the other parties combined. However, the research has found that it has been impossible to establish how much of this engagement is truly organic, as flagged in related studies (study by the University of Sheffield, F-Secure, and Buzzfeed UKanother study by the Institute for Strategic Discourse).  

After the Brexit Party, Labour received the second highest number of replies, according to the study, followed by Change UK.

The research also shows that Change UK was the most active on Twitter in the build up to the election, with candidates sending more tweets than any other party.

MEP candidates for the Liberal Democrats and the Greens were both active on Twitter, with Green candidates second only to Change UK for number of tweets sent, however the study has revealed they didn’t get a lot of engagement in return.

Liberal Democrat candidates in particular received a low number of replies. Both the Greens and Liberal Democrats attracted a particularly civil tone of reply.

Brexit Party candidates engaged with those who tweeted them more than MEP candidates from other parties, rather than authoring original tweets or retweeting others

The research on abusive replies triggered by tweets from MEP candidates was commissioned by ITV’s Tonight programme – Angry Britain: Beyond Repair?


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