Prof Patrick McGhee

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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…

‘Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes.’

In Politics on September 13, 2014 at 5:22 pm

Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes.

– Frodo, Lord of the Rings

By Patrick McGhee

With the Scottish Referendum only a few days away every poll that is published is now eagerly awaited and treated like a mechanical instrument delivering a precise reading of voter intention. Each rise and fall in the reported level of support for the Yes and No camps is interpreted as an indication that opinion is shifting, that some intervention by a politician or company has nudged popular preference this way or that, that a ‘message’ is getting through, or not.  The obsession with each poll has exacerbated since the Sunday Times survey on 7 September which put the Yes camp ahead for the first time in the campaign.  As the real polling day draws near, the voracious needs of rolling news will increasingly treat each new poll as yet another reading of an increasingly feverish patient’s temperature.

But polls are not thermometers and stated intentions are not mercury, even if they are sometimes mercurial. We can see this when different polling organisations tell different stories about levels of support even with polls taken on the same day.  This variation can be statistical smoothed out through indexes of Polls of Polls where rolling averages dilute one-off statistical aberrations. But such rolling polls are less sensitive to sudden and small changes in opinions and can underestimate last-minute shifts in views.

This is not the place to look in detail at the fragility of self-reports per se and the subtle ways surveys can be influenced by the biases of pollsters, methods, timing, location, question sequences and much else. On this there is a vast if sometimes complex academic literature but fortunately several good reviews.

I want instead to look here, briefly, at a feature of recent Scottish referendum polls which does not appear to have received much coverage: the very wide range of reported levels of ‘Don’t Knows’ (DKs) in polls.  Unlike elves many Scots are saying neither ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. Traditionally, the levels of DKs are set aside as uninformative or merely distracting from the main message of the shout above the fold, with most newspaper poll headlines, particularly for local, parliamentary and European elections more or less ignoring them completely.  In the Referendum debate there has been, until perhaps the last few weeks, some increased attention paid to what has been seen as high levels of DKs, particularly in the context of astonishingly high voter registration such that apathy cannot be appealed to as an explanation.

If we look at the polls for September 2014 we can see that, whatever the level of the lead reported by a given poll for either side, the level of DKs various hugely. This is particularly strange given all pollsters use the same clear question, specifically the same clear question which will be put in front of voters on Thursday: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’

The issues of ‘Don’t Knows’ is an important area because there are at least two discourses running through the cultural commentary of the Referendum. One of these is of a slow and deliberative ‘Big Conversation’ where a new form of popular political engagement is driving a renaissance in public debate and reflection; a discourse that could be reinforced by the idea of a large number of high commitment, low certainty voters. The other discourse is of a structural inevitability reflecting, depending on your point of view, years of neglect and complacency by political parties, one in which gender, geography, class and religion and a sense of economic survival, risk and identity have already driven people to make their minds up, be it either for ‘Yes’ or  ‘No’. A good understanding of the level of ‘Don’t knows’ along the timeline is arguably important because whatever Scotland decides it will be important to know how we got there and how people engaged with the debate.

So what levels of DK have different pollsters been reporting?

Survation report 10-11% DKs while ICM report  around 17% DKs. This is quite a range of variation in the percentage of voters who report being unsure, and higher than traditional party voting intentions.  But it gets even stranger when we look at the recent TNS-BMRB figures which found an astonishing 23% of DKs in their sample. How do we explain this? Perhaps the more established polling organisations such as ICM and TNS-BRMB have more sophisticated methods than the relatively new Survation? Maybe these more experienced groups use more subtle methods to give respondents the chance to say “I don’t know”.  This ‘expertise’ hypothesis does not remain compelling however when we look at the very well established YouGov polls where we find their level of DKs stands at strikingly low 6%.

What can explain this variation in DKs? What is it about these different polls or different pollsters that provide these widely different estimates of the percentage of the Scottish people who have not yet made up their minds? Are opinions fixed as YouGov would seem to suggest, or is the conversation still stimulating reflection, as TNS-BMRB imply?

At this stage with the data available it is almost impossible to give a definitive answer. But there is one hypothesis that might be worth considering.   YouGove and Survation with low levels of DKs both used online polling for these recent Referendum polls, whereas TNS-BMRB with their huge 23% DK level used face-to-face interviewing. In the middle with their 17% DK level is ICM. How did they poll? That’s right – by telephone.  Could it be the case that face-to-face interviewees are reluctant to give voice to their uncertain views whereas online there are fewer interpersonal anxieties to assess and navigate? Is it that over the telephone the interpersonal impact is somewhere in between? As trained as pollsters are in consistency and detachment in face-to-face interviews, it remains they are social interactions in a way that online polling is not. And yet it remains impossible to determine as there may well be other factors associated here with face-to-face interviews compared to online or telephone polls other than the level of interpersonal directness affecting the results. Face-to-face is usually in the street, unsolicited and people have other things to do. Saying “I Don’t Know” maybe helps bring the interview to an end more quickly. Or maybe it avoids the possibility of others nearby hearing. Or maybe people in face-to-face settings are sometimes uneasy with the prospect of having to give a reason for their preference. Or maybe it’s something else entirely, who knows?. Because in the end, like elves, we are not passive in the face of questions, but active agents in constructing complex exchanges, and do not give of our views in a vacuum.

“And it is also said,” answered Frodo: “Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes.”

“Is it indeed?” laughed Gildor. “Elves seldom give unguarded advice, for advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise, and all courses may run ill.”

How to Study on the Last Day of the Premiership

In Uncategorized on May 13, 2012 at 12:25 pm

BBC Football in the lead up to its online text based coverage of the last day of the English Premier League Football season has encouraged students and pupils torn between study and spectatorship to choose football over revision.

#BBCFootball  “if you don’t know your stuff now, then it’s not going to happen anyway”

Generally speaking I’m not sure BBC football should be giving advice on matters educational in any context, but advising GCSE students not to study seems surprising.

There’s no need to go into the fact that BBC Bitsize is one of the best study and revision websites in the country. The national broadcaster’s commitment and expertise in supporting study is beyond doubt.

But the basic question remains – what should you do the day before exams when there is some major distraction like football on television? A communal event for many and a highly emotional consummation of a season for some?

Here are my Top Ten Tips for football fans with exams – these are just suggestions and things to think about. No Golden Rules:

1 Do whatever your tutor told you

Your tutor knows you, your work, the syllabus, the assessment better than anyone. If they have given you advice on what to do in the final furlong, follow it.

2 Do do some revision if at all possible

It’s frankly nonsense to say that if you don’t understand it now you never will. There are depths of understanding and it’s highly possible that you’ll have a aha! moment as you review your notes.

3 At this stage focus on self assessment and how you are organising material for the topics rather than new material or details

Ask yourself which areas are you weakest on. Concentrate on those.  Also double check you know the structure of the exam paper. That can help you focus on what to prioritize at this stage.

4 Do make time for a break if you want to watch football

Studying non-stop is counter productive. After 30 minutes attention and comprehension can start to tail off. Organise your day so that you can watch all of the match. Treat yourself to two hours with no studying.

5 Do not drink alcohol the day before the exam

Obviously you don’t want a hangover during your exam but it’s more than that. If you start drinking around a sporting event, emotions and peer pressure lead you to drink more than you should; and you’ll finish up doing no more study after the match. Have a mocktail.

6 Don’t Panic

You’ll probably do better than you think, and likely to remember more if you have a sensible last day of study. Remind yourself that your revision now is a positive.

7 Treat Triumph and Disaster Just The Same

If your team lose today (or get relegated, fail to qualify for European football of whatever) don’t let it get you down. There’ll be other seasons and you are more important than your team.

Equally if your team triumph, don’t get carried away and go drinking (See above) Celebration can happen later.

8 Be inventive

There is a French exam tomorrow and someone has said online that they have amused themselves by translating BBC Football Preview website into French.  That’s a good idea and a bit of fun. But to be honest it can’t replace solid revision in areas where you might have already identified yourself as needing an extra refresher.

9 Think carefully about contacts with friends who are also studying for the exam tomorrow

Contacting friends can be helpful as it will provide you with that little bit of extra reassurance that you are not the only one struggling in some areas. And contact with others can always provide moral support. But be careful of those who say they have been studying ‘literally 24/7 for weeks’  (they won’t) or those who say ‘haven’t really done much revision it’s only 15% anyway’ (they are also fibbing).  There is also the risk of them persuading you to leave your studying when your really don’t want to be doing that.

10 Get a good night’s sleep

It really isn’t a good idea to be up until 3am trying to cram it all in. You’ll perform better if you had a decent kip.

Good luck. Both on the field, and off it.