2007 - 2021

#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.


Comments (15)

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  1. Edwin says:

    Social media can help inform but it doesn’t organize or mobilize, it can help, but people actually meeting and planning is where real social change can occur.

    1. Sean McNulty says:

      We’re aiming to change that, Edwin.

      I posted the following on another Bella thread before reading this one, which is where it really belongs:

      I wanted to let your readers know about plans to link up as many of the indy websites, Facebook groups, Twitterers, Instagrams, Tumblrs, blogs, news sites, and offline groups as possible into the Yes Social Network, which we hope to present to the media as hundreds of thousands strong.

      As you’ll see below, the aims are very much in line with those of Bella and Common Weal. In particular we want to maximise media coverage, practical cooperation, and to provide a strong, unified voice for Scotland’s greatest ever grassroots movement. We also want to appeal to soft Noes and waverers wherever possible, so the Network would only be for groups that require reasonable behaviour from their members.

      The wording below has been put together by #YesAlliance with a view to further discussion, tweaking and addition from as many others as possible. If interested, please join our group below and contribute to your heart’s content. Individuals, groups and organisations are all welcome.




      The Yes Social Network

      How we want to govern ourselves has been transformed. We’ve gone from apathy to engagement, from fear to hope, from No Society to A Yes Society. We’re evolving away from a twentieth-century, corrupt, infantile Old Boys’ Club towards a twenty-first-century, mature, fully-inclusive *social network*.

      The Yes Social Network exists to preserve and further this evolution, in the following ways:

      1. FAIRNESS. We will keep working for a fairer and more sustainable society both before and after independence is achieved.

      2. COOPERATION. We will encourage cross-party cooperation wherever possible, with a view to shedding last century’s political tribalism and careerism. In the same spirit, we welcome cooperation with No voters wherever possible, in accordance with the Network’s principles.

      3. VOICE. We will pool the Network’s resources to provide a strong, cohesive voice for the Scottish people at the heart of national affairs.

      4. ENGAGEMENT. We will bring together people with ideas, projects and events and those with the skills, time and enthusiasm to make them a success. We welcome the arrival of the most socially knowledgeable and engaged younger generation in our country’s history, and ask their help in maintaining such engagement in generations to come.

      5. RESPECT. We will encourage greater civility and transparency at all levels of discussion, online and offline, as it affects Scottish politics, society and culture.

      6. BALANCE. We will correct twentieth-century-style media bias and propaganda wherever we find it, and employ the full power of new technology to expose how such propaganda operates and to provide alternative news and perspectives.

      7. INTERNATIONALISM. We will pool resources with other movements of self-determination that fit with the Network’s principles.

      8. ENJOYMENT. We will have fun.

    2. brobof says:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bulletin_board_system and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_Relay_Chat used extensively for global solidarity.
      Add free coffee at the CommonWeal Cafe and we’ll remake the world!
      There are also e-Democracy tools that can be used to reach concensual decisions.
      FaceBook and Twitter are just the tip of the iceberg…

      1. brobof says:

        Additional and a duplicate of a tweet to you y’day
        Article on Podemos’ use of Reddit as an electronic forum for policy debate and the other tools they use to effect e-Democracy in Spain.

  2. Onwards says:

    There is a relevant article on the BBC regarding the rise of ‘Britain First’, which has almost half a million followers on facebook:

    Wonder if it would get so many followers if people knew it was set up by ex-BNP members..

    I think we definitely need the YES facebook page to continue, under a new name.
    Facebook has a far wider reach than twitter, and more older folks are on it.
    I don’t know the figures, but I suspect it is FAR higher than the 1.5% of Scotland on Twitter.
    Almost everyone I know has a Facebook account.

    For political groups, I reckon it has the potential to be far more influential than regular websites, which tend to preach to the converted, and lose readers between political campaigns.
    Articles are easily shared around with a single click.

    The guy in the video in that BBC article makes a good point.
    He can easily get a message out to 500,000 people.
    Previously that would have taken weeks of leafleting.

    1. Yes indeed, 1.5% on Twitter is too low. Many topics were trending on Twitter during the indy ref and 1.5% couldn’t have achieved that feat 🙂

    2. Sean McNulty says:

      Yessers are currently too scattered on Facebook, among twenty or thirty different groups all with membership in the hundreds or low thousands.


      1. bellacaledonia says:

        True, good idea, though Bellas group has 6000 members…

    3. brobof says:

      I would suggest a catch all site similar to this http://www.nasaspaceflight.com/ a mixture of articles and fora where topics can be raised, debated and solutions arrived at. The site also conducts polls.
      For Vacuum Heads like myself it is the goto site for any space related activity.

      With Scotland spread over a multitude of islands an geographically isolated settlements teh InterWebz is IMHO the only solution.

      Personally I have major problems with Facebook re privacy; selling on personal information to corporate clients and their readyness to hand over your private data to Five Eyes with little more than a cursory protest.
      cc Bella

  3. Reblogged this on julie ann thomason and commented:
    Interesting article on the use of social media in politics, engaging and motivating people to participate is healthy.

  4. Absolutely Social Media can fuel political change. However as you pointed out they are being used more frequently by political parties. Those parties have teams of Social Media execs posting messages on their behalf, often the same messages appearing in traditional media channels which further fuels their agendas.

    Social Media amongst the 55+ demographic (fastest growing on Social Media) is where we lost out in the indy ref, and therefore only had an impact on the younger voters. The integration of Social Media with town hall and other forms of meetings is needed to reach a wider audience.

    I would disagree with Edwin’s comments that social change only occurs face to face, as this article highlights planning and mobilization in other countries via Social Media. For example how many hundreds of people attended town hall meetings, protests and the yes celebrations as a direct result of Social Media?

    Great article 🙂

  5. web says:

    Social media is still relatively new, and limited to certain demographics, but already during the indyref campaign, anyone who participated could see the clunking establishment propaganda machine struggling to cope, exposing its biased ugliness and its surprising pervasiveness with almost orwellian coordination effort in churning out blatant propaganda. Its great weakness was clearly the truth which it did its very best to suppress and disrupt through all MSM channels.

    Imagine once we ALL have better collaboration/coordination/decision making tools based on new and emerging technologies such as tamper proof blockchain technology such as for crypto currencies, democratic voting systems etc to provide transparency and trust, and with upcoming private, decentralized, encyrpted, secure, mass surveillance proof systems and platforms such as maidsafe, ethereum and the like, where individuals, journalists and their sources can be protected and censorship completely bypassed.

    People up till now have been mostly ignorant of the bigger picture of whats going on, not just in Scotland or the UK but around the world, unable to join the dots, unaware of whats being suppressed through D notices etc, and easily distracted into forgetting the past or drawing attention away from the important stuff and remaining ignorant. The UK appears to be in a structural/economic crisis with half the population in complete denial or willfully ignorant. Its like they need to be somehow rudely forced to wake up.

  6. In many ways also though, the fact that it gives a platform to people who would otherwise be excluded from the political process is important too. Access to information is key but also the wide variety of sources and forms of expression has been welcome.

    There has been a great desire from normally non-political people to be involved in the movement in whatever way they could fit into their lives. Social media and the fluidity and speed of how events can be organised and amended has been crucial to this.

    In the past if you couldn’t get to your local branch meetings or make a commitment to particular campaigning structures you were left out of the loop and your contribution limited. Patronising BT lady is a key example of how the other side didn’t understand this because yes, as busy mums who can’t exactly leaflet or canvass with one hand and see to a hoard of kids with the other, we are limited – but with social media, even the housebound or slightly demented cereal splattered mother can retweet, educate herself, pass on info and find out what she can do.

    Personally, I always resisted the likes of twitter and blogging but because of #indyref have begun dabbling in both. Even if it is something silly like sticking up a few #indyref Limericks tonight, I think if people feel more involved they will stay involved and that is good for society generally. When people feel marginalised and irrelevant they stop believing politics has any place for them. If we want to break the stranglehold of the ruling elites dominating media and politics, we must make everyone feel their voice can be heard. Social media does that like nothing else and is worth the tedium of occasional nutty tweeters and silly blogs like mine 😉


  7. DrewSword says:
    9 October, 2014 at 11:33 pm
    The MSM and BBC totally against SG and Scotland. WOS, NNS Bella and Online news still not accessed by Scottish Public in great enough numbers to swing NO voters.
    Time to take to the streets all over Scotland. Marches for Freedom.
    Make Saturday morning shoppers take note all of the above by way of flyers, handouts etc

  8. A record company devoted to recording / curating music of musicians, bands and producers favouring “yes” could work well in bridging (online) social media and (face to face) social life. There certainly seems to be enough goodwill amongst the artistic community for that to happen. I’d suggest calling it “The 45”.

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