The social media vote

Credit: National Collective

Are Twitter and Facebook tearing the UK apart?

They’re doing their bit.

Two new studies offer some insight into how much signal there is among the noise around Scottish independence on social media.

First, Facebook has quantified the noise.

There’s a lot of it. From August to September 8, there were more than 10 million interactions on Facebook around the referendum, 85 per cent of them from users in Scotland.

Facebook’s data “suggests that the referendum could still go either way” (hedging!), but gives the Yes campaign a slight lead, with 2.05 million interactions compared to 1.96 million interactions from the No campaign.

“The data also shows that this lead materialised in the final week of the five week period, suggesting that momentum in the campaign is starting to shift”, the press release says.

“If Facebook “likes” were an indicator of votes, the Yes campaign will win on September 18th,” the release continues.

That’s the question, though. Are they?

Carl Miller, a researcher at the Centre for Social Media Analysis (more on his work in this area later) told me:

“There is no direct relationship… There’s no denying that it’s influential, however. A lot of the literature looking at elections and why we vote, point to a person’s immediate social network as being the most influential factor. If your friends and family vote in one direction, you’re likely to as well. Campaigns concentrate a lot of effort to try to push their messages through these influential social networks — that’s one of the reasons they try so hard to recruit as many volunteers as usual, and often get the volunteers to concentrate on the people that they actually know.”

Second, Mark Shephard, from the School of Government and Public Policy, University of Strathclyde and Stephen Quinlan, at the Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences, also have a research paper out. They’ve taken the long view, tracking social media data since August 2013, and have produced useful charts, reproduced here for your pleasure.

Their brute metric (and it is a brute) is the number of followers and followers each campaign has won on Facebook and Twitter.

They put Yes ahead on social media, too:

“The Yes campaign continues to enjoy the advantage in generating enthusiasm on social media and have widened the advantage they built up before the beginning of the formal campaign period on 30 May.”

Credit: Shephard and Quinlan

Here’s how real life events have influenced online chatter:

Here at Sky News we’ve also created our own little tool for monitoring Twitter — have a play with it, it’s fun. We too found that the campaign had picked up in the last month, with 2.7 million tweets about the referendum in the past 30 days, peaking with the TV debates.

What does that all mean for polling day? Shephard and Quinan write:

“ What is interesting is that at some of the junctures where we have observed the Yes side extending its online advantage also coincided with small incremental increases in the Yes vote among the general public (for example the launch of the Scottish Government White Paper in November 2013; the start of the official campaign in late May 2014 and the TV debates between the two leaders).
Whilst it is impossible to infer any form of causation without taking into account a multitude of other factors, it is at least noteworthy to observe the online and offline patterns of behaviour coming more into line with one another as the campaign has developed. Therefore, it is clear that the Yes campaign has succeeded in translating what could be considered a winning social media campaign, to support on the doorsteps of Scotland.”

Should we really be surprised that online and offline tally? Maybe five years ago, but given the ubiquity of Facebook, perhaps the distinction now matters less. Even Twitter has become mainstream: from 30 million active users in 2010, to 270 million today.

Speaking over the phone, Shephard said that, looking at a year’s worth of data, he had been surprised at the general civility of the debate. There was abuse online (and sometimes from people cold calling on the telephone, as Shephard found out), but not just from the yes campaign. Both sides have got stuck in, but the vast majority of posts have been measured.

Twitter heatmap of second TV debate Credit: Centre for Analysis of Social Media

Carl Miller wrote this interesting post, looking at the fine grain of how Twitter worked with the TV debates. He’s been doing fascinating work all campaign long.

Miller picked out a few points over emails with me.

First, that Yes had been doing better online, for two reasons. It’s been around longer, with more time to prepare. And, more interestingly, “because the kind of message that they have — positive, optimistic, a ‘yes we can’ moment — spreads better on social media generally.” Upworthy-esque life affirmation is more viral than an economist’s gloomy predictions.

Second, some interesting types of behaviour — in particular the “Twibbon”, which we can expect to be the bane of all our social media lives come next year’s General Election.

Some people still can’t make their minds up Credit: Twibbon

(Extremely fickle twibboning from that woman right there.)

Another development is “the rise of the political hashtag,” according to Miller. “They’ve become a vital way for marking out territory on SM — for bringing your home base to a single place, as a target to attack (campaigners constantly try to hijack each other’s hashtags), and neutral battlegrounds that both campaigns have sought to dominate.”

Credit: Ross Colquhoun

It’s not all user generated content, though. A very slick digital operation can be found at National Collective.

National Collective is halfway between a campaign and a community, very well packaged and tightly controlled, with a unremittingly positive message (sample article: “I heart England”). Artists, musicians, poets, authors all weigh in behind the yes campaign.

As Miller notes, “Musicians/performers often have the largest social media followings, so likely impactful too.”

Something else to watch out for at the General Election.

Social media has shaped this referendum debate (broadcasters and newspapers have also paid a lot more attention to it than in previous plebiscites).

Online forums, whether Twitter, Facebook or otherwise, have matured. No longer just hot houses of extreme crankery, they reflect public opinion at large.

Which brings them much closer to traditional tools like polling, in terms of what they can tell us about the eventual result: very little.

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