A lesson from Scotland's referendum: You can't rely on social media to gauge public opinion

Andy Oakes is head of content and managing director at The Drum. He tweets @andyoakes

There’s an old saying in football that is applied when there is an unexpected victory. ‘On paper, Team X should have won. The thing is, football is played on grass.’

The Yes social campaign was popular, but not decisive

This phrase popped into my head the morning after the Scottish independence referendum. The No vote had won a pretty comprehensive 55-45 per cent victory, a much wider margin than most analysts and pretty much all of the Yes campaign had predicted. The majority of the polls had predicted a much closer margin; indeed two weeks before the vote, some were predicting a Yes victory.

As the scale of the defeat emerged there was widespread disbelief from many sections of the Yes vote spreading across the social media channels. Understandably they were upset at the defeat but this seemed exacerbated by the fact they hadn’t seen it coming. And I wonder what role social media played in that.

Traditional media was one of the guilty parties here. Analysis of Twibbon counts and heat maps of what was trending were used as serious political prediction tools. You only have to look at the hard numbers as well. On Twitter, Yes had an impressive 103,000 followers compared to 42,000 for Better Together. Alex Salmond had 95,000 followers whilst poor old Alistair Darling had only 21,000. The story was the same on Facebook. The Yes campaign picked up over 320,000 likes compared to 218,000 for the ‘No’ side.

The Yes campaign was by far the more positive and was much better at deploying the right images and the right video at the right time. Across the board, it was generally agreed that the No campaign was lacklustre and at times downright patronising.

All these numbers were being bandied around as proof that Yes was the coming force. "Look at the 2008 US Presidential election," I was told. "Barack Obama won the social battle and he won the election."

Well, as ever, we do things slightly differently over here. Even though Yes won the social media battle, it lost the important one at the ballot box.

It’s worth remembering that this was the first election in the UK where 16 and 17-year-olds were given the vote. This is a generation that has grown up with social media, trusts social media and takes great store by what they see there. They would have seen way more positivity about Yes.

The trouble is that what seems to be the deciding factor for the No vote victory was the 65+ age group who were pretty fixed in their opposition to independence.

I’m not suggesting that potential Yes voters saw the campaign overly positively on social media and decided that if they didn’t vote it wouldn’t matter. Far from it, the turnout of 84.6 per cent was higher than any general election in the last century.

What I am saying is that whilst social media plays a huge part in our lives, it’s not an accurate way to define the views of a nation. We tend to follow the people who have similar views to our own. We filter out those who we find ourselves in opposition to. Social media tends to work as a message reinforcement tool rather than a way of converting those who do not share your views. It confirms what people were already thinking.

Of course if you really wanted an accurate view of what was going to happen, you need to ignore the polls, ignore the pundits, ignore twitter. The only group who constantly predicted a ‘No’ vote were the bookies. T’was ever thus..

Andy Oakes is head of content at The Drum

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