Prof Patrick McGhee

Posts Tagged ‘devolution’

The 2014 Scottish Referendum: Twitter, Contested Ideas and Joining the Dots

In Politics on September 21, 2014 at 4:09 pm



Patrick McGhee

Twitter and the Referendum


So it’s over.  ‘No’ won by 55% to 45%. The campaign was fought on the doorsteps, TV channels, newspapers, pubs, schools, universities, workplaces and street corners all over Scotland. But for many it was conducted with most fervour, most tenacity, and often with the most wit on social media, particularly twitter. There is no question that twitter is now a major medium for electioneering in the UK, not just for mainstream or grassroot participants but for both, and for the relations between them. More than that it is not only a vehicle for campaigning, it is a topic of campaigning. It does not just report developments, it creates developments. It is a powerful force for organising and shaping opinion, as well as for gauging it.  I want to look here at a wide range of actual tweets posted over the last few days and weeks to highlight some aspects of that online campaigning.

There is also little doubt that the pro Independence ‘Yes’ camp were more visible and vocal on social media overall, and not just in terms of the objective number of accounts devoted to ‘Yes’, or the number of tweets supporting the cause of independence. The greater resolve, tenacity and scope of the online campaign under the #YesScotland hashtag was clear. However, for anyone following the campaigns of both camps through social media, the margin of actual victory in the end stood in stark contrast to the degree of dominance enjoyed by the pro-independence camp online in the run up to polling day. While this is in part attributable to the younger demographic of YesScotland it would seem to be also a consequence of the need for ‘Yes’ campaigners to take action to shift, what were in the early part of the campaign, relatively low levels of recorded support in polls.

There were allegations of online abuse made by each side against the other. And certainly some of the posts about individuals in both camps about each other and about 3rd parties, especially journalists, raised concerns that the social media debate was drifting into darker territory.

But here is not the place to review either the objective analytics, the impact of social media on the result, the allegedly intimidating transactions, the effectiveness of tactics or any of the myriad links between activity online and in the streets, or the ballot box.  I want instead to look at some of the very broad range of ideas and references brought into social media during and immediately after the referendum.  Some are potentially revealing about how we make sense of political debate, and of our place in it, as we increasingly move from detached observers to engaged advocates. They all in a sense show how we were, all of us, trying to ‘join the dots’ across a substantial but fragmented landscape, and with everyday life, with history, and with the future, in a political context were previous points of reference, such as traditional party preferences, would not get us very far.

There is no rhyme or reason to the selection that follows. Absolutely no claims whatsoever are made about the representativeness or otherwise of the sample. They don’t try to support one side of the argument or to propose a new one; I’ve tried to give both sides reasonable coverage because both sides had lots of interesting things to say. Think of it less as a curated portfolio and more as found footage.

One concept I find useful in making sense of tweets is what I call ‘somemes’, (Social Media Memes) that is to say, recurrent ideas in the format, vocabulary, metaphors or oppositions used in a series or class of tweets. These are patterns which depend upon the format of social media postings per se (in this case twitter) for their realisation. They are separate from topics or from broader internet ‘memes’; they are forms of tweets, nothing more than that.

In time honoured fashion, let me be clear that reference to a tweet here does not imply endorsement of that tweet or its content or its author. There a few funny tweets here, most intentionally, some perhaps not. There is no intention here of evaluating anyone’s use of twitter or their views.

So here it is: my very idiosyncratic review of some of the many posts on twitter about #Indyref.





One recurrent SoMeme is the locating of the referendum, the debate, and one’s personal decision or one’s observation about the process to a relative.

The link to a relative was presented as a sign of lifetime relationship with the issue, emphasising commitment and resilience, indicating integrity and therefore authenticity.

The SoMeme of families divided on which way to vote was a regular feature.

And of course there was the overarching theme of the UK itself being a family. The idea was one principally promoted by those in the ‘No’ camp.

However, not everyone saw ‘family’ or ‘marriage’ as unequivocally positive or significant and subverted the metaphor:

Equally, others nuanced the idea of family, to characterise independence as a different kind of dynamic within a family,  specifically the idea of maturation rather than simply separation:

Many posters on twitter positioned the debate firmly within a political framework. One interesting example of this type was the use of  neoliberalism as a political reference point. In some cases the debate was framed as Independence versus an Anglocentric neoliberalism from which a Yes vote would liberate Scotland:

Others saw Independence as the better tactical move to challenge neoliberalism:

In some cases the act of disengagement from a neoliberal framework was presented as quite simple and unproblematic, almost defined by a vote for independence:

However, as can often by the case, definitions of  ‘neoliberalism’  were such that not all driven by opposition to it advocated the same course of action. Some saw both Yes and No camps as operating within a broader social ideology in which Yes only appeared to oppose neoliberal ideology:

and another example:

For some none of the Referendum voting options mapped on to a satisfactory rejection of neoliberalism at all, representing the inadequacy of the referendum as a reforming device:

Interestingly, for the more traditional political analyst, Marxism had a cameo role:

But was rather witheringly dismissed – on this occasion at least:

The national sport of Football was seen by others as external to, and a distraction from, the real independence debate.

This was a view expressed by both sides of the issue:

However, both sides were happy to turn to social media to announce endorsements from footballers.

The No camp even managed to find a whole team worth of endorsements, along with two managers.

However, outright football metaphors were seemingly quite rare, though this stadium based registration drive probably pushed the concept as far as it could go:

Even for a footballing country, the real game at stake seemed too important:

Before the result a few tried to predict the outcome. Some with more accuracy than others:

But in the final few days the official polling varied enormously. Up to Sep 13th all overestimated the final ‘Yes’ support.




The Result and the Fallout


In the end the final result showed a bigger winning margin than had been anticipated.

By Sunday morning the SoMeme of ’45’ had taken firm grip of the ‘Yes’ response to the result.

There was skepticism however as to whether or not the 45% had enough in common, other than voting ‘Yes’ to form any kind of effective political group:

Interestingly, some on the ‘Yes’ side pointed to the number of people on twitter who seemed to be regretting their decision to vote ‘No‘.   This was sometimes linked to what was seem as signs that what Alex Salmond called TeamWestminster were starting to look like they were going to renege on the Vow made in the last week of the election to deliver greater devolution for Scotland. Equally, posts using the terms #indyref and ‘relief’ appeared to include a mix of grass roots and mainstream media reporting on institutions’ response to the result.

An emerging theme, building on intense distrust and annoyance with mainstream media was the call to broaden the ambit of the devolution plans to include the BBC:

How can anyone possibly summarise all of this? Who knows, but some were brave enough to try:




Sharped-eyed readers will have spotted that space has not permitted full coverage of all 5.4 million tweets posted about #Indyref. If you have a tweet you think captured the mood of the campaign or of a moment within it, post it in the comments section below. If I can I’ll update this page with suggestions.

So there we have it. In some respects there are 1,001 people to give the final word to. In other respects there really isn’t any other choice at all…