#IndyRef – Can Social Media Fuel Political Change?
In modern social political movements, social media is a valuable tool for raising awareness, influencing public opinion, and mobilising activists.
It was crucial in spreading information, encouraging participation, and organising mass protests during the Arab Spring – the revolution of the “Facebook Generation” – as well as the Spanish Indignados movement and the global Occupy Movement.
The latest example comes from the protesters of Hong Kong‘s Occupy Central, who are using social media to mobilise and counter a domestic media blackout:
“Thousands rallied thousands more to the protest site by deluging social media with images of police assaulting unarmed students, and forcibly arresting their leader, Joshua Wong” freelance writer Zarina Banu wrote in Al Jazeera.
It’s not just activists that know their way around social media, political parties have found success in it too, and some even attribute such use to winning elections.
Obama’s social media-friendly website was used by 35,000 groups to create 200,000 events during his presidential campaign, actions which “played a critical role” in his election according to staffer Chris Hughes.
This did not go unnoticed by the SNP who also made effective use of the same platform before their landslide 2011 win. Built by members of Obama’s 2008 campaign, the Nationbuilder.com campaign site interlinks with user’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, encouraging and tracking engagement. All of this translated into crucial offline action such as volunteering, donations, and, ultimately, voting.
Make no mistake, the term ‘social media’ does not simply refer to social networks such as Facebook and Twitter – it encompasses all of the online tools we use to communicate, including online videos, podcasts, blogs, and other websites. Quite simply, it is how people engage with one another online – instantly, continuously, collaboratively, and in the connected world, irrespective of location.
Having such an ability to freely engage with the global society on a universal platform has enhanced and even enabled some elements of Scotland’s current mass growth in political activism. These include:
Grassroots Organisation – Activists can form groups based on proximity or shared interest, collaboratively plan events, and get the word out.
Raising Awareness and Mobilising – People have used social media outlets to make their voices heard, whilst keeping others inside and outside of Scotland engaged in the biggest political decision in their country’s modern history. They planted the seeds of conversation, outlining why such a political change would affect everyone, and encouraged one another to play their role.
Facilitating Debate – Many people, not solely activists, have used social channels to express arguments for and against independence, often citing points by linking to a vast library of news articles, quantitative figures, and reports throughout the internet. They challenged assumptions during live debates and broadcasts and debunked or backed-up claims from news organisations, politicians and other figures, dissecting every single point in a national and international conversation.
Culture and Creativity – Social media encourages artistic contribution. Music, poetry, literature, graphic design and other art has been inspired by the debate. Such elements kept the debate fresh, while injecting humour and satire animated many of the dry political issues. All of this has been facilitated and encouraged online (and offline) by the likes of National Collective and Bella Caledonia.
New Media and Citizen Journalism – Such organisations produced their own content, including writing, videos, podcasts, and infographics, and shared them with the world. They continue to offer a space for alternative viewpoints, and along with other pro-indy news sites such as Newsnet, Referendum TV and The Scottish Independence Podcast, were crucial given that only one weekly newspaper – The Sunday Herald – backed independence.
Crowdfunding – The grassroots nature of the movement brought out the generosity of many; thousands gave up their time, expertise and hard-earned cash to keep different projects thriving. More effective than carting around a collection bucket, crowdfunding tools have allowed independent organisations to reach out to supporters in order to survive.
Bella Caledonia is, of course, a great example and, what’s more, the reader-funded model could be the key to the survival of truly independent media.
In its diverse, innovative and universal fashion, social media has in many ways been an asset and a force for good in helping political movements such as our own to evolve.
However, not all social media activity surrounding political debate has been constructive.
Consider that just a tiny minority of Scots use the social networks that absorb so much our time – “only 1.5 per cent of the population of Scotland has an active Twitter account”, Joyce McMillan highlighted. The risk lies of focusing too much on social networks in terms of online activism, as messages can often reach and resonate only with the converted, even within this small proportion of connected Scotland.
So, social media is not the critical factor in political change, but it is, nonetheless, an indispensible toolbox for widespread discussion, citizen journalism, decision-making and fuelling action within our communities. Compared to traditional formats, its role in allowing people to educate and politicise one another through social networks such as Facebook and Twitter is astounding.
Despite the typical rhetoric of politicians being splashed across newspapers, filling television screens, and being reiterated as radio soundbites during the indyref debate, people used social media in conjunction with local town hall debates to form their own national and local narratives. The top-down political structure was flipped on its head, mass grassroots campaigning was in many ways reborn and galvanised by social media.
McMillan recalled a friend’s tweet following the final televised Salmond v Darling rammy:
“Now let’s get on with the grassroots debate,” she said. “Men in suits go home. Let the people decide.”
After all, that’s exactly what the people were doing, and they haven’t stopped yet.
While the Yes movement lost the referendum, it spawned politically engaged ground troops and armchair warriors in their tens of thousands. These activists that filled the streets and dominated social media during the campaign are its true lasting legacy.
So, in Scotland’s new political climate, both new and revitalised activists have huge roles to play into pioneering their country’s future direction. There is work to do, work that cannot be done as disparate groups. Progress will require the same collaboration, mobilisation and organisation that we witnessed in the run-up to the referendum, and adaption to the constantly evolving technology in order to do so effectively.
Social media, of course, cannot change the world, but it can certainly help the people to do so.