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The Obama presidential bid in 2008 broke the mould for political campaigning by employing online sources for research, polling and messaging purposes. By failing to get to grips with the technological advances, the Republican Party in the United States surrendered successive elections to the Democrats whilst simultaneously underscoring the importance of an online movement in any public poll.
Scots will vote in September 2014 on whether to dissolve the United Kingdom and gain full independence and social media could prove the difference in this campaign. With the franchise extended to include 16 and 17-year olds, a demographic dominated by online users has become even more crucial in deciding the direction of the vote, adding to the importance of analysing those areas of the web where Scots, every day, convey strong opinions about the way in which they will vote and the issues that will inform these decisions. These thoughts are unstructured and unsolicited, making them distinct from more conventional political research results but no less valuable.
In his publication The Illusion of Freedom: Scotland Under Nationalism, Tom Gallagher claims that “now [the conservative, industrial Scottish working-class] is fast disappearing, being replaced by different social categories and a very large underclass, none of which are as predictable in their political behaviour”. This underscores arguably the most significant requirement of social media for effective campaigning anywhere, but particularly in Scotland. Scottish society has experienced many profound changes in the last few decades, accelerated by global economic turmoil since 2008 and the everyday ramifications on employment and prospects for the young. The political ‘predictability’, or lack of thereby, is thus particularly relevant when considering the youth of Scotland, a generation that will be pivotal in September 2014. In addition to the social change discussed by Gallagher, these voters have never before visited a ballot box and so their electoral behaviour is inherently tough to forecast. It is also the generation that most intently engages with online platforms, both as a means of communication with peers but also to soak up information.
Moreover, the relevance of online platforms is widening rapidly. Discussing a ‘stereotypical’ social media demographic is no longer sufficient as the Internet usage of swathes of voters increases. Brandwatch analysis of the recent Presidential battle in the US proved that social media is no longer the preserve of the young, educated, liberal, tech savvy voter. Nor is it dominated by political extremes, heavy campaigners or lobby groups. Whilst online research by no means conveys the attitudes of a representative share of society, its relevance is being continuously stretched.
Both Yes Scotland and Better Together will continue to develop online campaigns in advance of the 2014 referendum and accurate analysis of how these platforms are used by Scots will ensure effective communication. As noted, voters that are using online platforms can be reached but, in addition, examination of the sentiments of voters, the key issues raised and the means by which Scots form political decisions will also naturally apply to those not active on the web. In recent traditional offline polls, around 20% of all Scots asked of their intent to vote remained undecided. This constituency, whether debating the issue on or offline, is likely to harbour the same hopes and fears, on both sides of the debate. Far from attempting to predict the eventual outcome, this analysis aims to comprehend how Scots have formed opinions up to now on independence, as a means of highlighting effective electioneering methods. Brandwatch Political Analysis will follow the campaign judiciously to understand how the views conveyed on Scottish social media change, and why, over the next 15 months.