In just over a month, the people of Scotland will decide whether
their future lies within the UK or outside of it. As the two
campaigns — Yes Scotland and Better Together — kick into
overdrive, the borderless terrain of social media has become a key
battleground. Both sides have spent considerable resources in
online campaigning, both seeking to use it to find and coordinate
willing volunteers, raise money, and dominate especially Twitter
and Facebook with their messages, brand and presence.
So, when a few days ago, Salmond and Darling met to slug it out
in a televised debate, both campaigns urged their foot soldiers
onto social media to fight on this new front. The Yes Campaign went
as far as to issue a guide to supporters on what they should say. It was no
surprise, then, that as the debate got under way, people thronged
to #ScotDecides — the official hashtag — on Twitter to trade
facts, insults, shout encouragement and criticism in reaction to
what they saw on the screen.
We knew the debate on Twitter was going to be noisy and
important, so we decided to listen in and figure out who, if
anyone, appeared to be winning and why. Using technology we’ve
built at the Centre
for the Analysis of Social Media, we teamed up with pollsters
Ipsos MORI to listen to how Twitter responded to this landmark
Over 104,000 Tweets were posted during the debate that used this
official hashtag. Other data showed that even more Tweets were appearing on other
hashtags. Despite the online broadcast crashing, England took a
fairly keen interest in the debate — almost 40% of the Tweets we
could locate came from south of the border. Of the Tweets that came
from Scotland, which was more or less all the rest, most (no
surprises) were from the Glasgow-Edinburgh corridor.
Looking a little closer — what were all these Tweets saying?
Twitter is a difficult medium to understand — messy, chaotic,
constantly changing, and doubly so during the tumult of a major
debate. Not only that but Twitter is, as I’m sure you’ve all
figured out, not a representative reflection of the Scottish
With that in mind, the loudest sound we heard was what can best
be described as hearty booing for both candidates. Although we
looked for a winner, it turns out that’s the wrong approach.
Twitter tends to be used by people to complain, moan, carp and
vent, and that is exactly what they did. And on that score, Salmond
lost least badly — just. Over 15,000 Tweets booed Salmond, over
18,000 booed Darling. To contrast those numbers, Darling received a
paltry 309 cheers, Salmond did a little better with 2730. This was
a surprisingly narrow result given Yes Scotland’s much larger social media presence.
The reason for the cacophony of boos was, naturally enough, down
to several reasons. General anti-politics certainly played a part.
Both Mr Salmond and Mr Darling are members of a profession that is
the least trusted of all — less trusted than estate agents or
bankers. Twitter is also a pretty hostile space that tends to lean many of
us towards acting more aggressively and abusively than we would
ever dream of doing offline.
But there also seemed to be something in particular about the
Scotland debate that irked the members of this new political space,
and it was one of the oldest political turn-offs of all: neither
politician was seen to answer the question.
It turns out the single worst moment for either of the
candidates was suffered by Salmond, when he refused to answer a
straightforward question: if an independent Scotland couldn’t use
the pound, what was his Plan B? The graph below shows that crucial
moment. Darling asked the question again and again. As Salmond
refused to answer the boos kept increasing. Salmond had started
strongly, but he never really recovered from being skewered on a
question so obviously important, and one he was so obviously
unwilling to answer.
It wasn’t just that moment, however, and it wasn’t just Salmond.
Of the most re-tweeted comments, one complained that Darling wasn’t
providing enough detail, another debunked a claim made by Salmond,
and a third urged everyone watching to ignore both politicians and
to do the research themselves.
The next debate is now set for August 25 — and we can be certain that Twitter
will once again be a key battleground. However, if both the
campaigns listen to what Twitter says, rather than just trying to
get Twitter to listen to them, the second debate will look rather
different. Both candidates will have realized a crucial fact about
the people watching. The audience know they have their own answer
to give on September 18, and it can only be either yes or no. They
will be wishing that the politicians on the stage will answer their
own questions as clearly and bluntly as that.