05 Jan

Natalie-Anne Hall 

Loughborough University 

Although much has happened since the 2016 EU referendum that resulted in Britain’s exit from the EU (“Brexit”), this event has frequently been hailed as a harbinger of a contemporary “disinformation order” (Bennett and Livingston, 2018) that continues today. The disgraced Cambridge Analytica is alleged to have been involved in influencing the result of the referendum through deceit and microtargeting (Cadwalladr and Graham-Harrison 2018). Some have accused Russia’s disinformation apparatus of meddling too, citing the comparatively longer airtime given to the Leave campaign by Russian state-funded international broadcaster RT (Elswah and Howard, 2020), and pointing out what Russia may have to gain from causing disruption in the EU (Rosenburg, 2016).

However, as the (Mis)Translating Deceit project’s aims rightly reflect, the majority of research in this area has focused on observational and monitoring work that severs online content from the contexts in which it is encountered. This means we still know relatively little about people’s experiences of engaging with misleading content, how it relates to their existing worldviews and comes to affect them. Such approaches also do little to shed light on how mis/disinformation fits into and interacts with other types of ideological and political content. Indeed, phenomena like support for Brexit should not be assumed to be the products of deception alone, but rather are born of a complex system of socio-political and ideological factors within which misleading and manipulative media also play a part. 

In the recently published book Brexit, Facebook, and Transnational Right-Wing Populism (2023, Lexington Books), I draw on an innovative multi-method study with avidly engaged pro-Brexit Facebook users in the tumultuous post-referendum period to explore the relationship between Facebook, Brexit, and the broader ideological sphere within which Euroscepticism was situated online. The findings have important implications for how we understand the role of social media platforms like Facebook in engagement with right-wing populist politics globally, and in the propagation of the exclusionary, illiberal, and racist ideas with which this politics is inextricably bound up. 

This study is set within the divisive context of post-2016 Britain. At that time, Brexit was a prominent topic in the news daily. Theresa May was struggling to negotiate an exit deal in the face of parliamentary, EU, and public opposition. Meanwhile, Remain supporters, representing 48 percent of the vote, decried the result of the referendum as invalid, as a potential economic and diplomatic disaster. Many also saw it as a social disaster in the form of a triumph of racist attitudes. 

These political and social conditions were ripe for right-wing populist politicians, media, and other actors to exploit Brexiteers’ discontent by claiming that the democratic mandate or “will of the people” was under threat, that metropolitan elites and those with political power did not have the interests of “the people” at heart and were thus the enemy. On Facebook, dozens of pages and groups emerged around support for Leave, some boasting followings in the hundreds of thousands, calling for something to be done about the “traitors” allegedly derailing Brexit. 

These populist discursive appeals were key to the motivations of the sizeable pro-Brexit milieu on Facebook. They enabled online support for Brexit to be about more than Euroscepticism or even Britain. As I demonstrate in the book, the pro-Brexit milieu on Facebook integrated a vast array of right-wing causes, populist and far-right voices and ideologies, from around the world. 

In this milieu, insidious links were constantly being drawn between things like gender rights and multiculturalism; political correctness and “open borders”; or European integration and media bias. For the users engaged in this milieu, Brexit was merely a starting point, a launch pad for the development and articulation of an array of concerns that at many times bore no obvious relation to the issue of Britain’s membership in the EU. 

These connections were facilitated by the discursive devices of White victimhood and Right victimhood. These misplaced, transnationally-shared victimhood sensibilities are mutually reinforcing, working in tandem to legitimate illiberal and exclusionary ideologies. They connected the pro-Brexit Facebook milieu to the conspiracy theories of the Great Replacement and Cultural Marxism that were popular with the Alt-Right during this period and that continue to be influential within the transnational far-right sphere today (de Bruin, 2022). In this way, the “mainstream” political issue of Brexit acted as a catalyst for engagement with more extreme and international forms of right-wing politics. For the users studied in this book, the algorithmic affordances of Facebook played a key role in facilitating these ideological connections. 

The newly significant discourse of “Right victimhood” that this book identifies for the first time is one which claims that progressive cultural and minority rights agendas are in fact malevolent oppression of those with conservative views. This transnational discourse’s popularity within the pro-Brexit Facebook milieu was made possible by the Leave-Remain divide that so prominently structured British identity and social relations in the post-referendum period. Support for Leave and Remain did not wholly correspond to Right and Left identities. But the focus on race and racism that UKIP injected into the Brexit campaign allowed Remainers to be conflated with the anti-racist Left, and “Remoaning” to be understood as the latest form of “snowflake”-led “political correctness”. 

Right victimhood discourses, I argue, are gaining significance in the broader transnational far, populist and reactionary right sphere. These discourses may be yet more dangerous than those of White victimhood, in that they circumvent accusations of racism by framing the issue as one of freedom of political attitudes. Meanwhile, Right victimhood legitimates hostile attitudes towards racialised and minoritised individuals by demonising the movements that seek to protect them. 

The spread and appeal of these logics have had reverberating consequences for recent reactionary right mobilisations, including Covid-19 counter-political disinformation and the UK Conservative Party's "war on woke" (Davies and McRae, 2023). The discourse of Right victimhood is seen in rhetoric about “cancel culture” and the “wokerati” that has permeated everyday politics. The current Home Secretary Suella Braverman is among those in the Conservative Party known to use the term “Cultural Marxism” as floating signifier for unwanted progressive cultural change (Walker, 2019). At the National Conservative conference in 2023, we saw the ease with which this discourse shifts into the realm of dangerous conspiracy theory, when Conservative MP Danny Kruger described progressivism as “a new religion, a mix of Marxism and paganist self-worship” (Walker, 2023). 

The engagement with Brexit on Facebook examined in this book represents a microcosm of online transnational right-wing populism and far-right ideology. The findings are evidence of the strength of the transnational far and populist right’s reach, enabled by the connectivity of social media. They prompt the question of where these ideas originate, and for whose benefit. The findings should also serve as a warning, particularly in the context of increasingly sophisticated online manipulation tactics, and the explicit support of far-right ideology by the owner of one of the world’s most powerful social media platforms, “X”. 


Bennett, W Lance, and Steven Livingston. 2018. ‘The Disinformation Order: Disruptive Communication and the Decline of Democratic Institutions’. European Journal of Communication 33 (2): 122–39. https://doi.org/10.1177/0267323118760317

Cadwalladr, Carole, and Emma Graham-Harrison. 2018. ‘Revealed: 50 Million Facebook Profiles Harvested for Cambridge Analytica in Major Data Breach’. The Guardian, 17 March 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/mar/17/cambridge-analytica-facebook-influence-us-election

Davies, Huw C., and Sheena E. MacRae. 2023. ‘An Anatomy of the British War on Woke’. Race & Class, May, 03063968231164905. https://doi.org/10.1177/03063968231164905

De Bruin, Robin. 2022. ‘European Union as a Road to Serfdom: The Alt-Right’s Inversion of Narratives on European Integration’. Journal of Contemporary European Studies 30 (1): 52–66. https://doi.org/10.1080/14782804.2021.1960489

Elswah, Mona, and Philip N Howard. 2020. ‘“Anything That Causes Chaos”: The Organizational Behavior of Russia Today (RT)’. Journal of Communication 70 (5): 623–45. https://doi.org/10.1093/joc/jqaa027

Rosenberg, Steve. 2016. ‘EU Referendum: What Does Russia Gain from Brexit?’ BBC News, 26 June 2016, sec. Europe. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-36629146

Walker, Peter. 2023. ‘Ten things we learned from the UK NatCon conference.’ The Guardian, 17 May 2023. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2023/may/17/10-things-we-learned-from-the-uk-natcon-conference

Walker, Peter. 2019. ‘Tory MP Criticised for Using Antisemitic Term “Cultural Marxism.”’ The Guardian, 26 March 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/news/2019/mar/26/tory-mp-criticised-for-using-antisemitic-term-cultural-marxism.

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