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Platypus Innovation Blog

23 September 2014

How Social Media Failed Scotland

We've just seen (and been part of) a great democratic event in Scotland -- the whole country engaged in politics culminating in 85% of the population voting at the referendum.

As we all know it was a close race with 55% voting No (pro-Union), 45% Yes (pro-independence). But that's not the picture you'd get from Twitter, where 90% of tweets were pro-independence.[1]

That's a failure for social media -- a great debate took place, but not on Twitter where nearly half of the people were absent. Unwilling to take part in an unwelcoming space?

Age of voters does not explain this. An opinion poll taken on the day shows the No vote was strongest amongst older voters[2], less of whom will be on social media. However the other age groups showed closer to an even 50/50 Yes/No voting -- nowhere near the 90%+ observed on Twitter. Even taking age into account, social media was one-sided in an unrepresentative way.

Social media worked fantastically for the Yes campaign. The stream of Yes posts helped to build and maintain energy, spread pro-Yes knowledge through the network, shore up support, challenge No voters' thinking, and create a peer group effect in favour of Yes. Undoubtedly, it helped Yes to close the gap towards almost winning. However that very success had a downside: The No voters were absent -- until polling. They largely stayed out of the online debates, and you can't influence people if they aren't engaged.

Cybernats and subtler

Much was made in the mainstream press of Cybernats, abusive Scottish nationalists active on social media. Having examined a lot of tweets, I conclude: Cybernats do exist, and in greater numbers than the equivalent unpleasant No-supporters (Unitrolls), but they were still a very small minority. There were also people who, though not abusive, were aggressive -- again relatively small in number and effect. Mostly people did, as Gordon Brown put it, "disagree without being disagreeable".

A larger effect was (I think) the self-reinforcing momentum that Yes built up, which closed down the space for No voters to speak. Although the Yes and No camps were roughly the same size, the Yes were more passionate. A spiral emerged, whereby Yes supporters received considerable community reinforcement online, hence building that community, whereas No posts received more disagreement and critical questioning, acting to deter them.

So it wasn't really the Cybernats or any form of foul play. Social media became welcoming to one set of people and off-putting to the other. The No voice was self-silenced by the dominance of the Yes voice.

What makes for better debates?

This brings out an inherent weakness in forum debates -- that if a position should become too dominant, that very fact acts to shut down debate, as the other parties quietly leave.

So how do we create spaces where debate can flourish? Comparing Facebook and Twitter, we see that privacy and community encourage people to speak their mind. Unsurprising, but worth learning from.

The problem with Facebook debates is that they easily become closed "bubbles", rather than open debates. Each bubble acts as it's own echo-chamber, with the illusion that everyone agrees. In this case, the debate cut across networks, so most people knew Yes & No voters. Even so Facebook's filtering algorithms quickly act to create bubbles-within-bubbles. Facebook tries to select things-you-will-like and filter out things-you-won't-like, which is great for seeing/avoiding cat photos, but it's not a formula for real debate. In other debates, you might never hear the other side's point of view.3

Is there a third way -- something which can combine the open knowledge sharing of Wikipedia with the community aspect of Facebook?

I have some vague thoughts on how this might work (drawing on ideas from Lucas Dixon, Colin Fraser& Ben Young's old KenYersel project,, but nothing concrete. Any suggestions?

[1]: Counting #voteno / #voteyes from 1st August, 89.2% of vote-x tweets were for Yes. Even this is actually an under-estimate of the Yes dominance. The #voteno tweets were disproportionately from outside Scotland, and there were also considerable Yes supporters jumping on the #voteno hashtag to reach-out-to / mess-with the No audience. Anecdotally, the picture was more balanced on Facebook, where greater privacy and friendship groupings created a more open debating space.

[2]: Summary results from Lord Ashcroft's poll of 2,000 people

[3]: See Gilad Lotan's fascinating analysis of social media activity around the recent Israel/Gaza conflict. Data analysis of how news around the Israel-Gaza war was handled in social networks. TL:DR; People talks to like-minded folk who reinforce each other's viewpoint. Few people hear what the other side is saying.

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