Twitter’s reaction to the Benefits Britain live debate

Benefits Street was a series of television programmes broadcast by the Channel 4 outlet between 6th January and 10th February 2014 which, as Channel 4 have claimed, “sparked a national conversation about Britain’s welfare system”. The programme focussed on a community of people living in the economically deprived area of Winson Green, Birmingham and specifically documented the families and individuals that inhabit James Turner Street.

Following the series of pre-recorded, documentary-style programmes (the last episode of which was aired on 16th February 2014), Channel 4 hosted a live debate entitled Benefits Britain which featured a range of public figures and those who were documented in Benefits Street. This report looks at a set of data collected on the date on which the Benefits Britain debate aired (17th February 2014).


The data selected to analyse reaction to this series were Tweets, or short ‘micro-blogs’ that offer users the opportunity to voice their opinions and network with other viewers (e.g. using @ replies or # topics) in real-time. Tweets were collected from 00:00am on Sunday 16th February 2014 (the date of the final airing of Benefits Street) until 23:59pm on Saturday 22nd February 2014 (totalling one calendar week worth of Twitter data).

To do this, we used the Twitter API to collect any tweets which contained in their content any of the following terms (note: the terms are not case sensitive, so terms can contain upper or lower case words without affecting data collection):

  • Benefits Britain
  • #BenefitsBritain
  • James Turner
  • Benefits Street
  • #BenefitsStreet

This query returned 81,100 tweets which came in at a total of 1,501,938 words (tokens).



The #benefitsbritain hashtag was the most frequent token in the corpus featuring in 45,400 (3.02%) of all tweets. Channel 4 adopted the #BenefitsBritain hashtag immediately following the end of the Benefits Street programme which used the #BenefitsStreet hashtag, although this hashtag was used less (0.86%) of the time during the time in which the corpus was collected.

Several concerns are frequently expressed by users of the #BenefitsStreet hashtag. It was found that the word people is the most frequent ‘content word’ in tweets containing the #BenefitsBritain hashtag occurring in 15.2% of those tweets and occurs most frequently in the word cluster people on benefits. This cluster is associated with a number verbs including are, should, and have, which appears to be involved in ways of evaluating who people on benefits are as well as their (perceived) behaviours.

Who people on benefits are

Some appear to be challenging the stereotype that benefits claimants are workshy or lazy:

  • #benefitsbritain Some people on benefits are good people who’ve gone through a bad time not everyone on benefits are scumbags.
  • don’t think people should comment on things until they have been in that situation. Not all people on benefits are lazy etc!#BenefitsBritain
  • #BenefitsBritain am so annoyed that that show has stigmatised all people on benefits are scum when we all aren’t IT’S SO ANNOYING!!!!!

Some argue the absolute opposite:

  • #BenefitsBritain kiss my ass i think most people on benefits are lazy and need to get a damn job!!!! Cut all benefits for able bodies people

Or assume that claiming benefits is a result of a lack of skills or underlying criminality:

  • Half the people on benefits are unemployable stop there benefit and they commit crime and it costs more to imprison them #BenefitsBritain

And some are somewhat more ambivalent:

  • #BenefitsBritain Not all people on benefits are lazy, but if it becomes a lifestyle its dangerous territory, idle minds are the devils work.

What people on benefits do

In terms of evaluating what people on benefits do, a number users question the (perceived) behaviours of those claiming benefits:

  • Fail to see why some people on benefits are allowed to spend their money on drink, cigarettes and drugs #BenefitsBritain
  • watching the debate #BenefitsBritain most people on benefits have a criminal record now who wants to give them people a chance no one

Others propose possible restrictions on (perceived) social and spending behaviours:

  • Why don’t people on benefits have vouchers instead of money? Then they wouldn’t spend it on drink and drugs #BenefitsBritain
  • I stand by the fact that people on benefits should not have children when they cant afford to feed themselves. #BenefitsBritain
  • Agree with the guy who said people on benefits should be given food stamps #BenefitsBritain

Or suggest certain behavioural conditions be fulfilled in order to claim benefits:

  • People on benefits should be made to go out&do something before they get money volunteering or something!! #BenefitsBritain #BenefitsStreet
  • Active people on benefits should earn their benefits through voluntary work to assist the community #BenefitsBritain
  • People on benefits should only get paid if they do voluntary/training work. Then there is some progress in their lives. #BenefitsBritain

Some argue that people are workshy:

  • People on benefits have lacked the ability to work hard in education there for getting a low paid job or none at all #BenefitsBritain
  • #BenefitsBritain all people on benefits should get of their arse and work like the rest of us do everyday

Or have a grudge against those who work:

  • What is it that some people on benefits have against working class people who’ve been successful? #benefitsdebate #BenefitsBritain


Two specific names were also frequent in tweets using the #BenefitsBritain hashtag.

The first is the host of the Benefits Britain debate, Richard Bacon. Mainly, those who spoke about Bacon brought his abilities as a host into question. One of the more creative and less direct insults being:

  • Richard Bacon is a cross between Jeremy Kyle & Kilroy! @Channel4 would have been better off getting @rickedwards1 hosting #BenefitsBritain

The second person featuring frequent was (White) Dee, a prominent personality in the Benefits Street programme. Mainly, the response to her was positive. Although, there were some negative reactions:

  • #BenefitsBritain always the governments fault -what nonsense Dee will never look at herself and see what a lazy scroungers she is
  • My view on #BenefitsBritain Richard Bacon is a cock oh and White Dee is a sweaty lazy cow


Aside from the #BenefitsBritain hashtag, the next most frequent token in the corpus was the determiner ‘the’. The fourth most frequent token was the word ‘to’, which can be interpreted either as a preposition or as part of infinitive verbs. Looking at clusters in which to occurs revealed that in fact to occurred within a number of infinitive verb forms. I look here at the 3 most frequent: to be, to work, and to get, to see how infinitives work within the #BenefitsBritain tweet corpus and what ideas they are used to express.

To be

The infinitive verb to be was frequently found being used in a number of interesting ways.

Users were excited that the Benefits Debate was going to be interesting:

  • #BenefitsBritain this is going to be interesting!

And frequently challenged the stereotype that only poor people are drug addicts, as with this retweet:

  • ‘Billionaire’s Row residents are as likely to be drug addicts as people on Benefits Street’ says MP Chris Bryant

When found in the cluster need to be people and work again became central to debate:

  • Finally people talking about politics. Reality is we need to be paying people a living wage vote labour #benefitsstreet
  • Benefits is like a Government Drug. These people need to be weaned off the drug and get a job! #BenefitsBritain #BenefitStreet

To work

The infinitive to work not only most frequently occurs in the word cluster want to work, but is also closely associated with different ways of referring to people, either through pronouns (they, everyone, I), or the most frequent ‘content word’ in the corpus, people. As such, the formation want to work is found in tweets expressing general opinions about the desirability of work:

  • Some people do want to work but it’s not as simple sick people are getting harassed to work when they are not fit #BenefitsBritain
  • Majority of disabled and unemployed people want to work #BenefitsBritain #BenefitStreet
  • I am so sick of hearing, make work pay, incentivize people to work. People want to work. The jobs don’t pay a living wage #benefitsbritain

Moreover, want to work is strategically used in straw man arguments against the idea that people want to work:

  • These people clearly want to work? Really??? has he watched the same programme? #BenefitStreet #BenefitsBritain

And frequently collocates with the negative forms such as don’t, doesn’t in examples such as the following which express the idea that those people claiming benefits see work as undesirable:

  • Let’s be real most of the people on the programme don’t really want to work anyway #BenefitsBritainIf we’re being fair…there are also A LOT of people on benefits who definitely DON’T want to work… #BenefitsDebate #BenefitsBritain
  • #BenefitsStreet there is an inherent problem with some ppl in this country; they don’t want to work! Send them overseas; no benefits
  • #BenefitsBritain Not all people on benefits want to work just come #skelmersdale for the next series. Wont need no editing or bribes!!

To get

To get is the third most frequent infinitive verb formation and occurs most frequently in the phrase to get a job. Underpinning how this phrase is used is a moralised debate surrounding (un)employment which naturalises and elevates the status of employment and the employed and alienates and derides unemployment and the unemployed; having a job makes you good, having no job makes you bad. This is borne out by the data.

This includes talking about the difficulty of getting a job:

  • “#BenefitsBritain makes a lot of valid points, you need experience to get a job, you need experience to get experience! Can never win!”

Structural/political issues:

  • #benefitsstreet #BenefitsBritain is all the fault of #thatcher who closed everything down then #cameron who makes it difficult to get a job

And corruption:

  • #BenefitsBritain to get a job it’s not all what you know its who you know #thesystemsfucked

As well as reactions against pressure to work within a climate where work is hard to find:

  • These guys on Benefits Britain thinking it’s so easy to get a job. Get back to reality you stuck up twats! #BenefitsBritain #BenefitsStreet

However, most of the uses of the to get a job phrase target jobseekers and construct them in relation to prejudices and assumptions about the (un)employed:

  • Why is everyone too scared to stand up and say ‘work harder to get a job/off drugs/off drink’? #BenefitsBritain
  • #benefitsstreet this show makes me so angry.. Get off your fat ass and try to get a job instead of sponging off the country
  • Fuck this Benefits Street debate is making me angry. Lazy twats need to get a fucking job.
  • #BenefitsBritain kiss my ass i think most people on benefits are lazy and need to get a damn job!!!! Cut all benefits for able bodies people


This data highlights a kind of moralisation of (un)employment, where ideologies underpinning this moralisation are both reinforced and challenged. The data reveals a number of apparently stable linguistic formations used to talk about unemployed benefits claimants, which appear to have revealed aspects of the ideological underpinnings of the debate.