Will it be possible to avoid nastiness in social media campaigning?

Will it be possible to avoid nastiness in social media campaigning?

by Euan McColm
article from Thursday 8, August, 2013

THERE’S every likelihood that, if you’re reading this, you arrived here via social media.

And, if that’s the case, and you take an interest in Scottish politics, you’ll know how brutal those public forums can be.

Last week, I wrote on this site about an organisation called Labour for Independence, a sham group supported predominantly by SNP members and Yes Scotland campaigners with no links to the Labour Party.

It was a straightforward enough piece of journalism, exposing the deceit of SNP members calling for a Yes vote in next year’s independence referendum under the Labour brand.

In the world of social media – Twitter and Facebook predominantly – things were less cut and dried.

It was, variously, not a story at all, a tissue of lies based on “doctored” photos, a distraction from the “real story”, part of a unionist conspiracy (I’m a shill, doncha know?), and brilliant advertising for Labour for Independence.

These responses came from a terrifying waiting room full of screeching fury-chimps and tiresome sentimentalists.

Along with the dismissal of the piece were some descriptive tweets about the sort of chap I am. (Not a very decent or honest one, apparently)

Anyway, let me avoid falling into the trap of writing about myself.

Let us, instead, talk about the use and tone of social media in the referendum campaign.

Both the Yes Scotland and Better Together campaigns have substantial presences online. Yes Scotland has tweeted more than 1,600 times to 20,000-plus followers in the last year. Better Together has tweeted almost 3,000 times to 12,500 people. Add to those, numerous local branches and individuals who use twibbons to display their independence referendum sympathies, and there are hundreds of thousands of tweets out there on the subject. Few of them merit reading.

Both campaigns are full of good intentions about social media use, producing guidelines for conduct which – on each side – volunteers can frequently fail to live up to. Most recently, a Yes Scotland ambassador threatened to “mercilessly troll” another user.

So what good does social media actually do?

One former Holyrood spin doctor believes that, in the case of Twitter, it does very little good at all. His view – and I’m inclined to agree – is that most of the debate, in both directions, is so vitriolic as to render the changing of a single mind impossible.

In this spinner’s experience, Twitter could be useful in picking up activists. Interestingly, despite all chat of positivity, this happens regardless of the tone of debate. Supporters will become more active because of righteous indignation just as they will because of some message of hope.

This spinner’s concern was not about the tone on Twitter but about how that bleeds over into the real world, particularly through reporting by journalists who see, and often experience, the most poisonous exchanges online.

Facebook, on the other hand, is a different matter. And it’s on that site that both sides of the campaign might make steady progress.

Unlike Twitter networks, where many participants are anonymous, Facebook networks are made of our friends, our acquaintances, our friends of friends. Bluntly, users are less likely to immediately denounce each other as “lying c****” should they disagree on a political point.

On Facebook, we are more likely to behave as we might while dealing face-to-face with someone. My former spin doctor chum reckons that’s where the smart independence referendum cyber-campaigners should be, chatting, persuading, bringing friends on-board.

Twitter’s where people shout agreement with comrades and shriek hatred at opponents (or perceived opponents). Facebook is where conversations – and thus conversions – are more likely to take place.

None of this means that the relentless abuse doled out by some campaigners on Twitter shouldn’t be challenged by party leaders and campaign managers (though things are hardly helped when some of them lead by trolling-example).

The independence referendum will not be won or lost on Twitter but it increasingly –with its cast of politicians, activists, and volunteers – does set the tone for the campaign.

That tone’s a nasty one already and we’ve still more than a year ago.

Let’s hear campaign leaders – whoever they may be and wherever it is appropriate – ondemn the worst online excesses of their supporters.

Until we do, please direct your adoration or, more likely, deep and detailed loathing of me and all of my thoughts to @euanmccolm.

I’ll be waiting there to say hi. Or to block you.


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