Much of the debate during the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum was taking place on social media. Will this be repeated if Indyref2 was to be held in the near future? As the debate for the proposed referendum is starting to shape up, Graeme Baxter, Simon Burnett, Iain MacLeod, Sarah Pedersen and Elizabeth Tait reflect on some of the characteristics of the social media activities of the 2014 campaign, and consider how these may change the second time round.
Almost immediately after Nicola Sturgeon announced that she was seeking to call a second referendum on Scottish independence, social media feeds started to fill with the now familiar plethora of memes, hashtags and ‘how would you vote’ counters. For a moment it seemed like 2014 all over again. Indeed, the Scottish National Party has already launched a campaign website, which promotes the use of a #ScotRef hashtag and encourages the social media sharing of ‘selfies’ taken with downloadable and printable signs of support.
At the time of writing, it is uncertain whether or not a second referendum will go ahead: the request was formally rejected by Theresa May, but Nicola Sturgeon has since signed a letter formally asking for powers to hold one. Yet it is clear that a second independence campaign would be played out against a very different political backdrop from the 2014 campaign. Not least in that the two main cross-party campaign groups – Yes Scotland and Better Together – are unlikely to be replicated, with Scottish Labour indicating that they will not “get into bed” with their 2014 pro-union ‘allies’, the Conservatives.
The role and impact of social media could also be quite different in this era where awareness of ‘filter bubbles’, ‘post-truth’, ‘fake news’, and ‘alternative facts’ is growing amongst an ever more cynical public.
The key players
The 2014 referendum saw a higher turnout than any UK election in the post-war period. This offline engagement was preceded by an equally impressive level of online activity in advance of the referendum. Social media emerged as a key player, with evidence highlighting its growing salience alongside more traditional sources of information for voters, who engaged to an unprecedented extent online. Unsurprisingly, the official campaigns were key carriers of the online debate: Yes Scotland and Better Together both made use of social media, encouraging individuals to engage with the campaign and adorn their profiles with various ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ signifiers.
The Yes Scotland social media campaign appeared far more active and co-ordinated (perhaps due partly to the recruitment of a social media manager). But beyond the official campaign, social media’s levelling effects also saw the emergence of a range of influential alternative voices, particularly on the pro-independence side: for example, Wings Over Scotland, Bella Caledonia and Women for Independence were all prominent figures in the online debate (alongside many other independence-supporting civic groups).
Analysis shows far less activity and fewer ‘grassroots’ campaign groups on the ‘No’ side, although some – such as Academics Together and Vote No Borders – did exist. So broadly speaking, the Yes side appeared to dominate the social media debate. However, analysis of the role of social media in the referendum reveals that this may have led to a false sense of security amongst some Yes campaigners, with some reflecting later that too many resources were focussed on ‘winning’ the social media battle. Whilst this in no way undermines the importance of social media, it does pose questions about whether the focus will move more towards winning the offline arguments in the event of a second referendum.
It is also worth bearing in mind that there has been a strong continuing online presence of pro-independence activist groups since 2014. A number of these – such as Common Weal and Radical Independence – have maintained a strong presence and some key figures attached to these campaigns have been vocal in their support of the prospect of a second independence referendum.
One of the most entertaining parts of conducting analysis of the 2014 referendum was observing the plethora of memes and use of imagery by the various campaign groups on both sides. The use of such devices is in no way unique to that referendum campaign but was a key characteristic of the debate. Use of linked content, especially images, was found to increase as the campaigns progressed.
These images and memes were produced both by the formal ‘Better Together’ and ‘Yes’ campaigns themselves, as well as by grassroots supporters. The images themselves were used in a number of different ways. They tried to convey key messages from each campaign in relation to issues such as defence and currency, but many also focussed on highlighting perceived changes in policy direction, as well as on more trivial issues such as the appearance of politicians and campaigners.
Bullying and trolls
However, as well as humour, social media also provided an outlet for abuse, misogyny and aggression – from both sides of the argument. Given the number of high-profile women involved in the campaigns, the referendum debate provided fresh evidence – if it was needed – of the sheer amount of misogynistic abuse female politicians are expected to endure on a daily basis.
Both male and female politicians were subjected to comments on their sexuality and appearance, particularly during the televised debates, with tweets directed at speakers mocking what they were saying, their appearance, and their voices and mannerisms. With several key players identifying as gay or bisexual, there was also an element of abuse focused on sexuality, particularly in relation to Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, who was subjected to abuse as a woman, a lesbian, and a Tory.
Will it be 2014 all over again?
If a second referendum on Scottish Independence goes ahead then social media is likely again to be a key battleground. We are already seeing a lot of activity on hashtags including #indyref2 (which trended almost immediately after the Brexit vote), #scotref and, slightly questionably, #sexit.
Both opponents and proponents of independence are using the various platforms including Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to share views. The uncertainty caused by Brexit is now being incorporated into the arguments for both sides and will no doubt feature heavily in any future referendum campaign. The further uncertainty from the nascent Trump administration and a potentially ‘election-fatigued’ public may make it very difficult to capture the same level of political engagement that was seen in 2014 – either on or off-line – and we suspect that there may be more cynicism and negativity in the tone of the debate. We await developments with interest.
About the Authors
Graeme Baxter a Research Fellow specialising in Information Management at Robert Gordon University.
Simon Burnett is a Professor specialising in Information Management at Robert Gordon University.
Iain MacLeod is Lecturer in Strategy and Policy at Robert Gordon University.
Sarah Pedersen is a Professor of Communication and Media at Robert Gordon University.
Elizabeth Tait is a Senior Lecturer in Information Management at Robert Gordon University.