Brexit And Social Media Virality
A petition launched by Anti-Brexit campaigners calling for the UK to withdraw from the process of exiting the European Union gained more than one million signatures in just a few hours last week. The rush by remainers to vent their frustration with the Brexit process caused the parliament.uk website to temporarily crash as it struggled to cope with more than 180,000 an hour signing up.
Politics aside, this case makes an interesting study about the mechanics of how things go viral and the role the different platforms play in the process. So let’s take a closer look at the timeline and numbers involved.
The petition was initiated more than a month ago by former college lecturer Margaret Anne Georgiadou on February 20th. In the following four weeks, it only received a handful of signatures. It wasn’t until March 20th when Prime Minister Theresa May announced she was only going to ask the EU for a short extension to the Brexit process that the petition started to gain serious traction.
According to the audience intelligence platform Pulsar, the viral nature of the petition started around 7:50am on March 21st on Twitter. By 9:00 am it was the top trending topic receiving more than 567 tweets and retweets a minute. It was at this point that the parliament.uk website crashed under the weight of signatories.
But this is where it starts to get interesting. Virality often starts on Twitter which makes it super easy to retweet. The real traction only comes when Facebook users start to get involved in the action. Despite having many more users than Twitter, things typically go viral at a much slower pace on Facebook due to the social media giant’s use of algorithms to filter news feeds.
For a super high-trending subject such as this, that didn’t happen for a few hours. But on less popular topics it can sometimes take days for people to start seeing it trending. But there is no doubt that if the initial virality is to be maintained, Facebook users need to be involved.
To highlight the power of Facebook, by 12:00 noon on March 21st the petition had been shared 212,000 times on Twitter and 603,000 times on Facebook. A quick look at the numbers on March 26th shows that close to 6 million people have signed up. Almost six times more the number who signed up on the first day the petition went viral with most of the extra traction coming via Facebook.
This pattern is borne out by other petitions which have gone viral, albeit with smaller numbers. A petition launched to prevent Zimbabwean schoolboy Brian White from being deported went viral back in 2017 after more than 110,000 people signed up in just a few days. In this case, the petition was successful and Brian was allowed to stay in the UK to take up his place at Oxford.
These two cases and many others highlight the mechanics of how and why posts go viral. Firstly, the subject matter must appeal to a large percentage of the population. Secondly, virality starts on Twitter where it is easy for people to spread the word. Thirdly, it must gain traction on Facebook if the trend is to continue. And finally, influencers with a large following must get in on the action. The Brexit petition was referred by Prof Brian Cox, Hugh Grant and Heidi Allen, for example.
While you can never guarantee that a post will go viral, these examples show how with a little persistence and a dose of luck you can stack the deck in your favour. Bear them in mind for your next post and who knows, you may have a viral hit on your hands.