What does #FBPE mean and could it stop Brexit? The history of a hashtag

The hashtag was first used on 25 October 2017 by Hendrik Klaassens.

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If you’ve been on Twitter recently, you may have noticed the #FBPE hashtag adorning tweets. More likely you saw it appended to the names of many Twitter rank-and-file pouring fiery anti-Brexit commentary on Brexit-related tweets. What does it all mean? And where did it come from?

FBPE stands for “Follow Back, Pro EU”. So it is a flag of pro-EU support, but also an indication that if you “follow” the bearer, they will follow you back if you also carry the hashtag. Thus, it has rapidly helped build up the accounts of pro-EU frontline troops on Twitter whilst also interconnecting them in powerful ways to transmit information more rapidly and efficiently. It has solidified an online community and made it highly visible. The history of the hashtag’s use has been short, exotic, and is an entertaining tale of Twitter culture.

The hashtag was first used on 25 October 2017 by Hendrik Klaassens, who posted: “#ProEU tweeps organize Follow Back Saturdays! Type #FollowBackProEU or #FBPE if you want to get more #ProEU followers. Let’s do this!” Hendrik is a Dutch member of the pan-European group “Progressive Europe” which wanted to combat right-wing populism on social media.

The British account @Remain_Central replied to Hendrik’s tweet with: “Good way to help #StopBrexit - follow, share and #FollowBackProEU. We’re stronger together.”

Being pestered by a message on Twitter to promote the #FBPE hashtag, I decided to do a video on it. My several Twitter videos on #FBPE have now had over 100,000 views. In the first video, I noted that a few people had appended #FBPE to their names – and that this was great for identifying those to follow. I also made the point of the power of network effect. Rather than everyone re-tweeting pro-EU celebrities and politicians, it’s more effective if there are many interconnected front-line pro-EU troops. That means that when anyone spots new information, they have enough other pro-EU followers that the information spreads very fast. A community can work as a super-organism.

The #FBPE hashtag boomed in visibility during December. There was an immediate sense of cohesive community. At first Brexiteers didn’t know quite how to respond. There were various attempts to try to set up pro-Brexit alternatives, and then to use the #FBPE hashtag itself and try to infiltrate and redefine it. Famous online Brexiteers Julia Hartley-Brewer and David Vance both caught that bug and appended #FBPE to their names, claiming it meant “Full Brexit Prompt Exit.” They were met with welcoming messages, thanking them for spreading awareness of a pro-EU movement. Both have now dropped it from their names.

Brexiteer Lord Ashcroft conducted a Twitter poll asking whether people wanted a second referendum on Brexit. After over 180,000 votes, the results came back 67 per cent for yes and 28 per cent for no. Ashcroft noted the effectiveness of #FBPE grumpily: “Final result. Unscientific of course but notable for how remainers constantly retweeted to help the result they wanted especially those with #FPBE. They succeeded in ‘getting the vote out’...well done...will now do a conventional poll for comparison...”

All was not well within the #FBPE tent, however. Jeremy Corbyn supporters, whether #FBPE themselves or not, started getting angry that many bearing #FBPE were attacking Corbyn’s position on Brexit. The attacks came especially from Liberal Democrats. Odd rumours spread that #FBPE was a Lib Dem or Tory operation against Corbyn. In early January 2018, Mark Winder set up a new hashtag – #PCPEU – for “Pro-Corbyn Pro-EU” so that they could grow their own community in the Corbyn base without having to deal with sniping from others in the #FBPE crowd. That move took a lot of heat out of the within-#FBPE battles. The #PCPEU hashtag grew fast and developed its own flavour.

Other hashtags also blossomed directly from the #FBPE community. One was #NHSlove, started by pro-NHS social media superstar Dr Lauren Gavaghan. Others are #FBSI (Follow Back Scottish Independence), #WATON (We Are The Opposition Now), #ABTV (Anti-Brexit Tactical Vote). However, #FBPE still remains the largest and most prominent. The @16MillionRising Twitter account carries Twitter “lists” of thousands of accounts that bear the hashtag on their names. There is even a growing community of Leave voters converted to Remain that use the specific hashtag #RemainerNow and also proudly bear #FBPE on their names. Something about the community feel of #FBPE means that these converts quickly have a very supportive new home.

So where now for #FBPE? Well, social media is superb for communicating information about real-world action too. As Spring approaches, there will be much more street activity from the nearly 100 anti-Brexit regional groups around the country. Those groups are growing fast and as they put up pictures and videos of their street presence on social media, #FBPE will help spread awareness fast in the Twittersphere. Britain has a new cultural community rising. It’s pro-EU. And #FBPE is part of the glue.

Dr Mike Galsworthy (@mikegalsworthy) is co-founder of the campaigns Scientists for EU & Healthier in the EU.