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Should we stay or should we go: EU input legitimacy under threat? Social media and Brexit

Dina Sebastião (University of Coimbra, Centre of 20th Century Interdisciplinary Studies, Faculty of Arts and Humanities, Coimbra, Portugal)
Susana Borges (Polytechnic Institute of Coimbra, Higher School of Education, University of Coimbra, Centre of 20th Century Interdisciplinary Studies, Coimbra, Portugal)

Transforming Government: People, Process and Policy

ISSN: 1750-6166

Article publication date: 18 May 2021

Issue publication date: 14 July 2021




The purpose of the paper is to reflect on the conditions of referenda as an EU input legitimacy, on the era of social media microtargeting campaigns. Taking the case of Brexit as an example, it takes conclusions for the democracy as an inherent value of the EU multilevel polity and opens prospects for possible solutions.


The paper is interdisciplinary based, complementing political science approaches on EU democratic legitimacy and communication studies on social media and political communication. These are the theoretical frameworks for analysing the case of Brexit referendum campaign, which is based on an empirical tracing of strategies and contents used. This empirical assessment is supported by official reports of the House of Commons and of the UK Information Commissioner’s Office and media news on the case. Analysis and discussion of it allows to come to conclusions.


Primary finding is that manipulation and disinformation occurred in Brexit campaign, creating a biased, fake and unbalanced information. Second main finding is that microtargeting and suppression of public debate enhances the typical polarisation of binary options on a referendum, and in the case of Brexit deepened the social cleavage that already shaped voter’s preferences, once information consumed by citizens functioned as “eco-chambers”, strengthening preconceptions. The ultimate conclusion in this case is a sign that social media can deepen the historical gap between elites and voters in the EU, with negative consequences for democracy and social legitimacy of the EU political system.

Research limitations/implications

The almost impossible access to the digital microtargeted adverts used in campaigns, to allow a more detailed analysis of the EU content issued.

Practical implications

Conclusions of this research are useful for politicians and advisers of policy-making to reflect on the future of the political system of the EU in terms of democracy, and the Europe as a whole and think about measures to be taken either on the level of improving legitimacy processes or regulation of digital media.

Social implications

If practical implications are taken from conclusions of this study, enhancing democratic processes, avoiding privacy data manipulation and providing accurate, impartial and trustworthy information to citizens public can be a social benefit achieved mainly through regulation.


Despite some studies have been released on Brexit referendum, they have mainly been single-disciplinary. This study innovates because it conciliates political science theoretical views with communications studies’ ones, to produce strengthened reasoning ground on the purposed of this research: to search evidence that new political communication strategies within the social media landscape can be of special negative influence in EU referenda and for the future of the multilevel polity.



Sebastião, D. and Borges, S. (2021), "Should we stay or should we go: EU input legitimacy under threat? Social media and Brexit", Transforming Government: People, Process and Policy, Vol. 15 No. 3, pp. 335-346.



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Copyright © 2021, Emerald Publishing Limited

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