In less than three days Scottish voters will head to the polling station to decide on the future of the United Kingdom. With 97% of those eligible to vote registered, and the turn out expected to be 70-80%, our democracy has never seen anything like it.
During the 2010 election, political social media was still in its infancy. The online presence of official Facebook pages and Twitter accounts of the three main parties were eclipsed by fake David Cameron posters and the trending hashtag #nickcleggsfault as a scape goat for everything from global warming to nuclear weapons. Social media was more a hostile environment for politicians and breeding ground for satire than a resource to be capitalised on.
New research looking into the instrumental role of social media in the lead up to the referendum shows how the arena for debate and campaigning has shifted online. The Applied Quantitative Methods Network, AQMeN, and Strathclyde University have been awarded a grant by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) to continue in their analysis of the link between social media traffic and polling results.
Early data from the AQMeN project shows that the Yes Scotland campaign has continued to have an advantage over its Better Together opponent in terms of online engagement over the last four months.
The majority of research won’t be published until after the referendum, but rest assured there are plenty of examples of good social media practice and equal numbers of faux pas for us to draw some of our own conclusions. We will look at some of the challenges, successes and failures of the political campaign managers on both sides of the debate.
1) Use of hashtags
Carl Miller, co-founder and Research Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at the cross-party think tank Demos, cites social media as being an ‘important second front’ running alongside the televised debates. Over the course of the first independence debate 148,000 tweets featured the three main hashtags of the debate: #BBCindyref, #indyref and #scotdecides. Social media was also the only way non-Scottish residents could follow the first debate as online streaming crashed due to unexpectedly high demand. Hashtags create hyperlinks and are used for grouping like-minded discussions into one place in order to draw a reader’s attention to similar tweets.
Blunders such as rogue apostrophes in hashtags can set you back, as an unofficial ‘No’ campaign learned when they tried to get “#let’sstaytogether’ trending.
Another challenge social media managers have had to address are unofficial political channels, full of unmoderated content, which can grab the attention of social media users. One solution to the problem is to use ‘buzz monitoring’, which can track mentions of a name or brand on social media for the purposes of reputation management.
2) Celebrity involvement
David Beckham, Susan Boyle and Vivienne Westwood are some of the latest household names to add their support to either side of the debate.
In the past, political campaigns have used celebrities as a way to win support for their cause. The challenge for managers here is to try and limit the number of potentially damaging declarations of support for either side that get a substantial amount of attention because of the number of followers a celebrity has.
In February, David Bowie was bombarded with online abuse after using his acceptance speech at the Brit Awards to urge voters to “stay with us”, proving that timing is everything.
The Fringe Festival in Edinburgh this August was full of shows using the referendum as material for everything from a stand up gag to an entire play, with twenty four devoting the entire hour to the topic; great for bringing the public’s attention to the issue, a potential public relations nightmare for a campaign manager.
3) Boos overwhelm cheers
We don’t envy the campaign managers who have to keep an eye on their spokespeople who have to react in the heat of the moment. The televised debates had many of these potential pitfalls. In the second debate Alex Salmond attracted 13,000 ‘boo’ tweets, and 8,300 ‘cheer’ tweets. Alistair Darling, in comparison, received 30,000 boos and only 435 cheers.
Negative campaigning has attracted a lot of attention online, and the Better Together side have particularly come under fire, with accusations of ‘scaremongering’ and ‘mudslinging’. One such example was this Daily Telegraph headline "Scottish soldier's lost their lives trying to preserve the United Kingdom. What will their families say now: Well, it no longer matters'?" The challenge for managers, then, is to find a way to promote their cause without resorting to attacking the other side.
4) People like you and me
‘Slice of life’ style pieces have added a powerful element to the campaign, especially with videos on YouTube.
Not so popular was the pro-union video, ‘The woman who made up her mind’, produced by the advertising agency M&C Saatchi, which earned the hashtag #PatronisingBTlady and has sent ripples through the Labour party.
A challenge for future campaigns will be spoof and satirical videos such as the unofficial ‘Yes’ video featuring Groundskeeper Willie from the Simpsons which has been viewed over 2 million times, whereas the official ‘Yes Scotland’ channel has less than 90,000 views.
5) The World Wide Web
The joy of social media is that it is a very accessible communications channel, enabling the world to follow and comment on the Scottish debate. World leaders such as the Australian and Canadian prime ministers and Barack Obama have all commented on the independence debate. The explanation behind this is simple- in countries with multi-cultural populations, globalised economies and security unions with Britain, a potential change to the union affects their interests too.
The main problem for campaign managers here is to make sure those speaking out on social media are comparing like with like when talking about devolved powers, independence and nationalism. Canada, Catalonia in Spain and even Wales are all too frequently lumped together as a point of comparison with Scotland. Generalisations and inaccuracies are more likely to attract criticism than persuade the informed voter.
A bigger headache for ‘Yes’ campaigners were these pro-independence posters that made it onto Twitter in no time at all. The unofficial posters have been called “grossly distasteful” because the tagline echoes Nelson Mandela’s ‘long walk to freedom’ before South Africa’s first democratic elections after apartheid.
6) Reputational Risk
It’s no surprise that Scottish Government staff, its public bodies and agencies have had a restriction placed on their online activity in the month leading up to the referendum. We only need to look at the case of Asda, who announced that if Scotland became independent that their retail costs would rise (provoking #BoycottAsda), to see how taking a stance on a political issue can backfire. Business, banks and brands avoid public condemnation by keeping on the fence with more than 10% of Scottish voters who claim to be ‘undecided’.
We eagerly await both the outcome of the referendum as well as the conclusions that campaign managers will draw about the opportunities to harness social media as a political tool. Competition to stay at the forefront of the social media race is of course fierce and we look forward to seeing more new and innovative tactics applied to the General Election in 2015.
We are fortunate enough to have a number of Scottish clients who are proactive users of social media and wish them the best in their decision-making about the future of Scotland.
CrowdControlHQ is the UK’s leading social media risk management and compliance platform. We support campaign managers to listen, manage and engage with the public to influence opinion and drive awareness.