How the language of our new politics is crisscrossing the Atlantic

Twitter users in the UK and US are borrowing and adapting political terms and phrases such as "drain the swamp" from each other. 

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The similarities between US and UK politics are hard to ignore. Both countries are run by blond populists with a penchant for lying, who have risen through tidal waves of disinformation to rule over volatile and divided electorates.

Those similarities are also on display in the language used to discuss politics online, with phrases and terms crisscrossing the Atlantic. Analysis of thousands of tweets has found that phrases and hashtags such as “drain the swamp” and “stop the coup” are being used by Twitter accounts across the US-UK divide, originating in one country’s discourse before being adopted and adapted in the other.

Journalists Carlotta Dotto and Rory Smith from First Draft, a global non-profit which is running a collaborative CrossCheck newsroom network to tackle disinformation, looked at more than 200,000 tweets which used either #draintheswamp or “drain the swamp” over two periods, covering 30 October to the 11 November and 19 November to 28 November. It found more than 4,000 of those tweets also used phrases and hashtags associated with British politics such as “Brexit”, “generalelection19”', “britishindependence”, “backboris”, or “nevercorbyn”. “Drain the swamp” was most recently popularised as a term by Donald Trump to refer to his supposed plans to tackle lobbying in Washington.  

The sharing of language has not just crossed geographical boundaries, but political ones. “Stop the coup” originated as a term used by UK-based opponents of Brexit to protest against plans by Boris Johnson’s government to suspend parliament. However, it has since been taken up by US accounts opposed to the impeachment hearings against Trump, a vocal supporter of both Brexit and Johnson.

First Draft found that tweets using variations on “stop the coup” were most common between July and September this year, when they were mostly associated with anti-Brexit phrases such as “revokea50” and “stopBrexit”. However, during the period between 21 and 29 November, the phrase was used far more by accounts associated with US politics. There were more than 8,000 Twitter accounts with political hashtags in their bios that tweeted the phrase over the period. But just 556 contained phrases associated with the UK, compared to almost 5,000 that used “#maga” – the acronym for Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan – and thousands of others that identified themselves with other US-centric terms.

Though the forces shaping the political ructions in the UK and the US have their own unique characteristics and causes, they are both shaped by broader political and social forces felt across much of the planet. That the language used to talk about politics is cross-pollinating across the Atlantic simply underlines how interconnected our world has become.

Jasper Jackson is a freelance journalist and media columnist for the New Statesman.

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