The televised referendum debates were an opportunity for the two camps to battle it out in a way not previously experienced during this long independence campaign. It also gave the British people a chance to discuss publicly what they believed to be the most important issues surrounding the question “aye or nay”. The majority of this discussion took place on the social media platform Twitter. Granted, some of this discussion centred on whether Salmond had gained or lost weight or whether each speaker could be more boring, but within all of the abuse and insults flung across the great net, a worthwhile discussion focused upon issues such as currency, devolution and Scotland’s place among the European Union.
Social media is increasingly becoming a battlefront in political campaigns in which each side seeks to establish dominance. The ability to harness the enormous potential of social media as a campaign tool is the ability to potentially influence the outcome of an election, as exemplified by Obama’s Presidential re-election in 2012.
As such, the SNP consider social media a crucial element of their Independence campaign. So much so that they sent out to SNP members prior to the first televised debate a document encouraging them to be especially active on social media during the debate, with pro independence facts and figures to use. It seems that they believe that this referendum can be won through a strong and active presence on the platform of social media, and with their focus on rallying the youth vote in Scotland to the Yes vote, they may have clocked into a form of campaigning that will really make a difference in the referendum.
In the first televised debate on STV, however, neither the Yes nor the No campaign fared very well. Twitter, the modern day debating chamber, was particularly active during the debate, with tens of thousands of people having their say. I was lucky enough to join the leading Centre for the Analysis of Social Media team, at the think tank Demos, for the evening to experience their real time analysis of the Twitter debate. CASM had teamed up with pollsters Ipos MORI to assess the Twitter reaction to the televised debate as it happened.
From the 104,000 tweets analysed with the hashtag #ScotDecides , CASM identified men’s participation in the online discussion outweighed women’s. Darling, not Salmond, was the surprising focus of the majority of tweets by both men and women. 40% of tweets were pinpointed to a geographic location, and of these, 61% were from Scotland, 38% from England. STV’s disastrous online coverage of the debate succeeded in restricting much of the online debate to Scotland, as England was left in the dark.
What became apparent through analysing the ‘boos’ and ‘cheers’ directed at each speaker was that neither Salmond nor Darling appeared to come across particularly well. The ‘boos’ for both speakers outweighed their ‘cheers’, with approval ratings for each comparatively low. Tweeters seemed generally unimpressed or disappointed with the rhetoric and arguments put forth by the speakers.
The largest spike of ‘boos’ of the evening, however, was reserved for Alex Salmond. It occurred during the currency debate when Salmond, pressed by Darling over a ‘Plan B’, dodged question after question on an SNP alternative currency plan. Salmond’s refusal to address Darling’s question was immensely unpopular, a prime example of the ‘question evading politician’ and may also indicate voters’ particular concern over the economy and currency. Darling’s pressing of Salmond on this was well received on Twitter, and the Better Together’s strategy of highlighting the economic uncertainty of the SNP’s message appeared to resonate with tweeters online. The currency question could have been Salmond’s opportunity to set forth a reassuring Plan B. His failure to do so left many on Twitter unimpressed.
Both campaigns will have retreated to attempt to learn from the SNP’s failure to fully capitalise on their social media dominance, and to critically analyse their own approach to future social media campaigns in the anticipation of the next televised debate.
Yet, it seems that only Salmond and the SNP camp were able to learn from the online drubbing both speakers endured on Twitter. In the second televised debate aired on the BBC, 148,000 tweets were analysed on the hashtags #BBCindyref, #indyref and #scotdecides. While the ‘boos’ again outweighed the ‘cheers’ aimed at each speaker, Salmond was the runaway winner.
Darling had managed to keep up with Salmond in the first debate by pinning him back over Plan B, but this time Salmond came out swinging and was able to pin Darling back over the issue of job creation. At this point he was able to, incredibly, register more ‘cheers’ than ‘boos’, a feat that had evaded both politicians in the first debate and not repeated for the rest of the discussion. It seemed that, as highlighted during the first debate, the economy was an issue of great importance to those on Twitter. Most of the criticism was aimed at what tweeters believed to be scaremongering on the part of the speakers.
With the final count of 13,000 boos for Salmond and with 8,300 cheers, he dominated the online discussion with Darling booed an astounding 30,000 times and a paltry 435 cheers to his name. With the airing of the debate in the whole of the UK by the BBC, it might have been expected for Darling to have been able to rely upon a little more support than he did. While there was more Twitter activity and interest in this debate in England than the last, this did not equate into more cheers for Darling over the course of the night.
While the Independence campaign’s online presence hasn’t, up to this point, resulted in any progress in the polls at the expense of the Union, it will be worrying for the No campaign to see that since this second debate the SNP have managed to gather momentum and sit only 6 points behind (YouGov poll). The outcome of the referendum will a closely run result.
While it needs to be stressed that no winners or losers can be called from Twitter analysis, the potential of Twitter as a research tool will only grow in importance. Its presence in politics is here to stay, as political parties seek to tap into current, topical and young discussions, to keep their fingers on the pulse of society, and to attempt to keep one step ahead of their adversaries. Social media campaigns will become more frequent, and it will be interesting to see how the rUK political parties react to the use of social media north of the border. This may, of course, be of little interest to a newly independent Scotland. We shall have to wait to see.
Many thanks to the CASM team at Demos for taking me on for the week, to keep up to date with their work follow them on Twitter @jamiebartlett @carljackmiller
Lewis Watson @lewiswats_on