Social Media and Independence: Opportunities and Traps
If ever there was a need for patient debate and dialogue as well as positive campaigning the time is now. The official YES campaign is only a couple of weeks old and hasn’t yet found its feet as a unified campaigning organisation. The Scottish Independence Convention haven’t yet got started. A Radical Independence Conference examines common ground for those on the green-left spectrum in the autumn. The Scottish government’s White Paper hasn’t even been published yet. In other words its still early days.
Individuals and organisations who support Independence will need to work out for themselves how they intend to promote the arguments for Yes. Nobody is being asked to drop their own political agenda. What’s being asked is to create common ground for Yes. There are still organisational issues that need to be discussed and clarified relating to the official Yes campaign but time is on our side.
Naturally the Unionist media will take advantage if they see a chance to spread the idea of “Division”. For instance, far from dropping out of the Independence campaign – as mischieviously reported in last weekend’s media – a Scottish Greens statement explains they are currently trying to work out how they intend to orientate themselves with respect to the official Yes campaign. This is to be welcomed. Better thoughtful volunteers than presumed conscripts.
Social media will dominate aspects of online campaigning. Although it is highly effective for the rapid dissemination of information social media is booby trapped with political explosives. 140 characters is not much use either for discussing the nuances of complex ideas.
Over the last week or two I’ve observed how social media can work for and against either side. BBC Question Time is now debated in real time on Twitter under the #bbcqt hashtag. Other political programmes are discussed likewise. Celebrities and prominent politicians throw in their tuppenceworth along with everyone else. All very entertaining. Twitter gives Joe Public a direct line to communicate with people who previously would have been considered remote in their invisible ivory towers. This is why it proves irresistible to so many.
Last weekend I lurked in the background as a Twitter spat developed between a well-known TV actress and some SNP supporters. The actress seemed to think that the SNP were trying to kill people. Hmmm. Clearly, she wasn’t thinking straight. Then it became a bit nasty. There was Lord George Foulkes throwing grenades into the debate. Not to win hearts and minds but basically just being Lord George Foulkes. These sort of things will become daily occurences between now and the 2014 referendum.
Therein lies a problem. For instance there was a well-publicised in-flight exchange between a 22 year old woman and an actor who she alleges tried to chat her up. A summary can be read here. The woman, bored nae doubt, Tweets (in realtime) his every utterance and move. Its a bit creepy but this is one of the ways our privacy is being eroded by social media. In politics this is even more so. Careers have nose-dived because of off-the-cuff remarks on Twitter.
What was once considered the public arena has changed since the days before social media. Few folk write polite letters to newspapers like in the past. Perhaps the press brought this on themselves with their obsessive censorship. It’s quicker and easier to write an opinion on a website or comment on Twitter. Unlike writing letters the result is instantaneous.
The mass media have had to adapt to this new public space and for the most part it has made them lazy. Nowadays they simply trawl social media feeds to see what they can net. An individual abusing another individual can be transformed into a front page news story and used to frame topical political debate. A sense of perspective seems to have gone out the window.
Unionist think-tanks have already jumped on the social media propaganda bandwagon by coining the term “cybernats”. They use it relentlessly as a catch-all pejorative term to embed it in the public consciousness. I don’t doubt there are a few misguided souls who make it easy for them. Yet I’m perplexed as to how abusing or mobbing prominent unionists will win a single soul over to Independence. Their opinions are as valid as ours. Of course certain Unionists will bait and windup Independistas. We have to accept that. But sourced information is a better counter than opinion, accusations or verbal abuse.
So how do we make social media work for us? What do we prioritise? We’ve got a number of choices and it’s a personal thing when it comes down to it. We can choose to:
A) Engage in political argument or trade abuse with dyed-in-the-wool Unionists?
B) Use social media to endlessly discuss with and even criticise other pro-Independence supporters?
C) Engage in debate primarily with Undecideds in mind ?
D) Use social media to share useful information with both pro Indy and Undecideds.
I’m guessing C) and D) would be the logical choices for most. But as David Hume never tires of reminding us reason is slave to the passions. And it cant be denied that the occasional wind up is entertaining. That said, if we’re serious about winning this campaign we need to get the balance right, patiently explaining our case, whilst avoiding giving easy hostages to Lady Fortune.