Did conspiracy theories influence the Brexit vote?

What drove the British electorate to vote for Brexit? One useful way of answering this question comes from looking at psychological research into eurosceptic attitudes across Europe. This research has identified three broad explanations, each identifying a set of core concerns as being the primary motive for euroscepticism.

First, the political approach suggests that, given the low level of knowledge of the integration process, voters resort to proxies when formulating their views about integration. These proxies are strongly influenced by domestic politics, particularly government approval and support for incumbent political parties. Analyses of the Brexit vote certainly suggests that voters may have used the EU referendum as an opportunity to voice their discontent with the main political parties.

Second, the utilitarian approach suggests that voters are influenced by a calculation of the economic costs and benefits of EU membership. This research suggests that support for integration is lower in social groups who are, or feel, more exposed to competition as a result of the single market and free movement of labour.

Commentary of the Brexit vote has relied on this utilitarian perspective, suggesting that Brexit voters were more likely to be those “left behind” – the financially insecure, who have few or no educational qualifications and little social mobility.

Finally, the identity approach suggests that attitudes toward European integration is primarily driven by feelings of national attachment and perceptions of threat to the nation-state and national integrity. In particular, eurosceptic attitudes appear to be strongly driven by perceptions of cultural threat posed by the integration of different peoples and cultures to one’s in-group. Threats can come from any non-national change in society, such as globalisation, but much of the psychological research has focused on the threat posed by immigration.

The focus on immigration is pertinent from a psychological point of view. Social integration theory proposes that individuals achieve positive social identity through comparisons between one’s in-group and relevant out-groups. If the comparison results in a negative evaluation of the in-group, individuals may seek to re-establish positive social identity through derogatory views of the out-group, particularly if the out-group is perceived as a threat.

Studies of European integration consistently show that, when immigrants are perceived as an out-group and a threat to in-group cultural values, respondents are more likely to reject further European integration and provide greater electoral support for Eurosceptic political parties

One particular feature of anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe concerns the perceived threat posed by Muslims and Islam to Western cultural values. These sentiments have been driven in part by terrorist attacks and the refugee crisis, but they are also heavily influenced by Islamophobic conspiracist narratives. These narratives draw on older forms of racism, but also incorporate concepts derived from the notion of a clash of civilisations, to suggest that there is an ongoing attempt to Islamise Europe.

Europe is being Islamised, so the conspiracist claim goes, either by intentional asymmetrical population growth or mass migration, or indirectly via naïve attempts to encourage multi-culturalism by liberal politicians.

Drawing on the identity approach, my colleagues and I sought to understand the extent to which perceptions of threat generally and belief in the Islamophobic conspiracist narrative specifically influenced the Brexit vote. To do this, we asked an online sample of 303 British respondents to complete a questionnaire in April 2016, about two months before the actual EU referendum.

The questionnaire included an item about respondents’ voting intentions in the EU referendum, as well as validated measures of belief in the Islamophobic conspiracy theory, identification with the British in-group, and perceived threat posed by Muslim migrants to the Britons, among other things.

Our results are consistent with the identity perspective. In broad outline, our respondents were more likely to intend to vote for Brexit if they perceived Muslim migrants to pose a threat to the political and economic power of the British in-group. However, the link between perceived threat and voting intentions was also mediated by belief in the Islamophobic conspiracy theory; that is, respondents who perceive a threat to the British in-group were more likely to believe in the conspiracist narrative, which in turn contributed to an intention to vote for Brexit.

This is a somewhat simplified summary of our findings and interested readers are encouraged to consult our full findings, which are reported in the British Journal of Psychology. Nevertheless, one broad conclusion from our work is that conspiracy theories may have influenced the decision to vote to leave the EU.

Of course, there are a number of limitations to our data, not least of which is the fact that our data provides a snapshot of voting intentions April 2016 and events that occurred in the intervening period before the actual vote may have affected voting intentions in ways that are difficult to determine. Our reliance on an online sample also reduces the generalisability of our findings and we also did not include measures that would have been reflective of a political or utilitarian perspective.

Nevertheless, our data provide a useful snapshot of voting intentions for the EU referendum and suggest that the intention to vote to leave the EU was partly motivated by belief in conspiracy theories, which was itself shaped by perceived threat to the British in-group. If nothing else, our findings provide some much-needed context to commentaries about Brexit and emphasise the role of individual cognitions on attitudes toward EU integration.

By Viren Swami, Professor of Social Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University.

The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.

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