Lonely Connect? Brexit and the UK’s changing place in the world

Project team

Simon Gottschalk, Viola Bernacchi, Carlo De Gaetano, Warren Pearce, Mariasilvia Poltronieri, Sabine Niederer

Research question

What can Wikipedia tell us about the UK’s changing place in the world after Brexit?

Research outline

  • Temporal analysis through an annotated timeline of Wikipedia articles

  • Spatial analysis through a network analysis of the articles

  • Contestation analysis annotating the temporal and spatial analyses by zooming in on contested content

Tools used

MultiWiki Tool, developed by Simon Gottschalk - for the images and external links

Wikipedia Edits Scraper, developed by Digital Methods Initiative - for user edits and dates

Wikipedia Cross-lingual Image Analysis tool, developed by Digital Methods Initiative - for image analysis across language versions of an article

Manual work - for a comparison of tables of content (of the articles and of the talk pages) and a close reading of editing history and discussion

Introduction: The ontology of Brexit on Wikipedia

The English wikipedia has two different pages dedicated to Brexit:

  1. United Kingdom European Union membership referendum, 2016

    Date of creation: 24 Nov 2012 ; Page length: 211,627 bytes.

  1. United Kingdom withdrawal from the European Union

    Date of creation: 20 Jan 2014 ; Page length: 65,328 bytes

Brexit currently redirects to this second article, changing it from the event of the referendum to the actual process of withdrawal.


On the left is the TOC of the original 'United Kingdom European Union membership referendum, 2016' article. On the right is the TOC of the withdrawal article ('United Kingdom withdrawal from the European Union'), which was created in 2014 as a 'fork' from the referendum article.

1. Temporal analysis: Brexit Wikipedia Timeline


When were the articles created in different languages? Which were the ‘original’ articles on which others were based? Has the English version been translated? Or have language chapters created their own article from scratch?


  • Take list of all language versions for both Withdrawal and Referendum pages

  • Insert both list in the Wikipedia Edits Scraper tool and extract the edits hitory

  • Extract the date of the first edit in each language

  • Double check the date in each information page on Wikipedia

  • In Wikipedia, check if the page was based on a translation of another page (this information is at the bottom of the page; if you can’t find it, it means that the page is created from scratch)

  • Create a single csv with four columns: Language, Creation Date, Page Type (Withdrawal / Referendum) and Origin (translated from / original)

  • Insert the data in Raw and use the Gantt Chart visual model

  • Set Language as Group, Creation Date as both start date and end date, and colour per Page Type (Withdrawal / Referendum)

  • Export the svg

  • Just for the two English pages (Withdrawal and Referendum), we calculated the amount of edits per day

  • Set the English pages flow as the main timeline

  • We decided to plot on the timeline just the European languages, and the languages directly translated from the English pages



On English wiki, the article for ‘EU Referendum’ predated ‘EU Withdrawal’ by three years, but in Germany ‘EU withdrawal’ came first. Did they anticipate it before the UK did?!

The announcement of the referendum date causes a peak in editing activity, multiple language versions of the article are created (from scratch).


But just before the editing activity occurs, an explosive rise in discussion points 'behind the scenes' of the articles takes place. Overall, we notice that the more discussion takes place, the fewer edits in the article are made.

Another editing peak takes place around the actual referendum of the 23rd of June.


Here, we find much less discussion, and more editing. However, the discussion has widened from more technical and structural formatting questions pertaining to the structure of the article, to include discussions off xenophobia and racism after the referendum.

TOC Comparison

Comparison of the Table of Contents (TOC) or the UK referendum article, 22 -23-24 June 2016

On the 24th, the reactions on the results enter the referendum article:

And in the withdrawal articles, the (economic) effects of the referendum result enter the article:

Inclusion of ‘non-binding’ detail by ‘Tataral’ on June 24th; reflected the notion that Brexit might not become real:

Screen Shot 2016-07-01 at 10.16.48.png

The Brexit redirect changed on June 25th. Brexit was no longer a referendum, it became the process of withdrawal (actually became ‘real’ on Wikipedia before the symbolic event of the dinner on June 28th):


2. Spatial Analysis: Networks of Wikipedia Article Categories


What is the place of the UK after Brexit? How are the referendum and withdrawal categorized in different language versions (program/anti-program/neutral)?

Looking at the self-categorisation of the brexit referendum and withdrawal (process) articles, which countries are most closely aligning with the English language version of the events?

Which are its neighbors, and which EU languages are already distant?
  • Take list of European languages (both official and semi-official languages);

  • For each EU language version of the articles on withdrawal and referendum, collect categories (translated in Chrome);

  • Clean up data and use Table2net to create networks

  • Compare self-categorisation (of the English articles) to the categorisation of the other languages in the network maps of Referendum articles and Withdrawal articles

Referendum map

Which Wikipedias take a neutral position in the discussion? Taking categories such as referendum, political events, etc.

Spanish Wikipedia: being in the middle (due to Gibraltar)

Scottish and English Wikipedias: Being isolated

Withdrawal map


German categories still very neutral (note the 'portmanteau word' category)

Comparing references


Issue Findings
  • Discussions over the word ‘Brexit’ illustrated how it became real in the last few days (the week of the 27th of June 2016);

  • Britain’s place in the EU, looking at the networks and content analysis, has already become isolated…(or even lonely?);

  • Only 9 language versions use the English article as the basis for their language version;

  • The self-categorisation of Brexit in the English article only connects to that of the Scottish Gaelic version

Wikipedia Findings
  • Wikipedia’s conflicted relationship with ‘news’;

  • Wikipedia can anticipate trends;

  • Editing activity and discussion are not necessarily related;

  • The discussion now mainly takes place in the ongoing withdrawal article, but the referendum article remains most active;

  • Different language versions have different takes on the event, and the division seems to be according to historical perspective: some languages classify it as recent, others as historical.

Final presentation

The slides of the project presentations during DMI summer school 2016 can be found here.

-- SabineNiederer - 02 Jul 2016
Topic revision: r5 - 03 Jul 2016, SabineNiederer
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