This post will attempt to look at some of the things that I’ve learned recently about the discussion of politics on various social media, in the context of the Yes/No campaigns on Referendum(s) in Scotland. In what follows, I am not trying to argue even a single point for either one camp or the other. I will try very hard to be perfectly neutral, and, in case you may possibly think I might be alluding to a particular viewpoint in anything that follows, or inferring a particular thing about either side, the allegiances (Yes/No) of those I quote or mention are not necessarily accurately stated, if stated at all. In just about all cases, anything said/posted by one side could equally, with only slightly changed wording, have been said/posted by the other side, and almost certainly has been. In other words, whilst I may not be impartial in my views on Referendum(s) and have posted such views elsewhere on this blog, I have tried my utmost to be completely impartial in this current blog post. Because of this, there are many examples of posts/comments/etc which I can’t include as they might be interpreted as showing preference for either side.
This is not vigorous science, this is not a scholarly paper, some of what follows is amateur psychology, don’t quote me, these are just my thoughts, much of this may have been better articulated and researched in scholarly papers which may well contradict me, so don’t lay into me if you think I’m wrong, instead perhaps just post a civil comment if you want. I may also try to introduce some humour. But remember, being neutral, the humour is not meant to be at the expense of any particular allegiance (either the Yes camp, or the No camp).
Much of what I will write could equally be said about social media and politics in general.
I am writing this because I have always been interested in information, information processes and the influence of changes in information media on society. Without going into any detail, examples of the above from the past might include the widespread consumption of newspaper content by the first generation of educated and literate peoples of Europe and the resulting growth of popular jingoism which contributed to public support for what turned out to be World War I; and the growth of mass media (radio, film, various print media) in the 1930s which was exploited through various propaganda outlets, especially by the Third Reich, and which contributed towards public enthusiasm in some quarters for what turned out to be World War II. The most recent development in mass media has been in the form of relatively universal access to the Internet and the growth of social media. I am interested in any possible connections between, for example, modern online social media and the growth of anti-establishmentarianism and any other political movements to the left or right of the spectrum, including nationalism and populism. So, that’s where I’m coming from on all of this.
I say all of the above because the first thing I have found, on social media where there are discussions about Scottish Referendum(s), is that it is extremely easy to be misinterpreted and very easy to cause offense. What frequently happens, on social media where Scottish Referendum(s) are being discussed, is that someone states a viewpoint. The viewpoint can be quite mild, but does indicate the allegiance (either Yes or No in terms of intended or past voting) of the person posting. Very quickly, someone of the alternative allegiance weighs in and says, WTTEO, “So you are saying [something much, much more extreme than the viewpoint of the first poster], and that is so totally wrong because…[many reasons]”. A heated discussion can then follow, with frequent “I am NOT saying that…but what I will say is…” sorts of statements. This is the straw man form of argument.
I suppose that the above is to some extent very similar to discussions made in person, where two people are sitting in the same place or room, talking. But is it? In the case of social media, it can all be done, quickfire, in text. In a physical discussion situation one person could, perhaps, defuse a situation which is getting heated by placing a reassuring hand on the other persons arm and smiling, or do something similar. This sort of thing can’t, obviously, happen online. The nearest you might get is the use of an emoticon. But on many forums you can’t even use emoticons, only text. And in any case, emoticons are pretty limited. So, it’s a bit like when the big guy in the pub, who you’ve been talking to, suddenly gets stroppy and the conversation turns heavy, and the big guy says “Go on, then, hit me…hit me. Take a free slug.” And you can take up his offer with no chance of being decked, because this is all happening online and not in the physical world.
So, online, discussions can, and do, quickly get heated. Before you know it, insults are flying left, right and centre and there’s a real online argy bargy. A physical discussion which became heated so quickly might result in a falling out, someone storming off, or even a fight. Online, there are certainly falling outs, but the falling out is between two people who have likely never met, don’t know each other, and because people are using screen names (on some social media at least) essentially anonymous, so it can’t (unless in extremely rare circumstances) lead to a physical fight. I think it is pretty obvious, therefore, why you get such extreme arguments online which quickly get heated.
Discussions in social media don’t always happen quickfire. It tends to be quickfire in the online newspaper Comments forum sections because, in the case of discussions about Scottish Referendum(s), so many comments are being posted, and if you leave the comments section to visit other website it can sometimes be difficult to get back to the place that you’ve been commenting. It’s not always like that, but often it is. So the discussions can be fairly brief, frantic and often quickly become heated. In some other social media forums, for example YouTube Comments sections, the discussions can be quickfire but can also take place over the space of hours, days or weeks. I cannot completely explain why YouTube Comment forums about Scottish Referendum(s) issues seem to get every bit as heated as the newspaper comments sections, given that there is often less anonymity on YouTube. There is even less anonymity in Facebook discussions about Scottish Referendum(s), however, I’ve noticed that most discussions about Scottish Referendum(s) tend to take place on third party group FB pages (groups which are the equivalent of #IndyRef2 or #NoIndyRef2 for example), rather than personal pages. Maybe this helps to explain why such discussions also often get heated with insults being thrown, even though, probably depending on your privacy settings, it may be possible for anyone to read such comments on the third party group pages, and, again probably depending on your privacy settings, your own FB friends may be able to see what you are posting, if they want to. Comments on blogs can also get heated, even when the person commenting is not anonymous.
A further reason why things get heated, surely, is because emotions towards the Scottish Referendum(s) are running particularly high (even though, at the time of writing, there has not been an official call for a further Referendum). The No camp know that in the case of a further Scottish Referendum, it will likely be a close call either way, and that the Yes camp, to some extent, may hold some of the cards on when it will be called (though even that is heatedly discussed online). The Yes camp also know that it will likely be a close call, and that if they lose another referendum, that will almost certainly be that for quite some time (though even that issue is also heatedly discussed online).
Newspaper comments forums tend to be mostly one-on-one discussions, though not always. One person posts something, another person replies, and then they (often) go at it. By no means does it always end in an argy bargy, but it often does. On YouTube, blogs and especially Facebook, it seems to be more a case of everyone weighs in if they want to.
One thing which emerges is that newspaper journalists, who write the articles which are commented on in the forums following the article, are often the most abused. A journalist who puts his/her name to any article about Scottish Referendum(s), whether pro-Yes or pro-No, and even neutral viewpoints (if that is even possible) will likely receive extremely hostile and personal attacks in the comments that follow. You have to be very thick-skinned to be a journalist writing about Scottish Referendum(s).
Scottish and UK national and regional newspapers with an online presence are enjoying a renewed engagement with their public. A Pew report last year reported that a majority of adults (in this particular case in the US) were getting their news on social media. By offering their own social media outlets, in the form of commenting facilities, newspapers are able to attract viewers back to their sites again and again. Their hit rate statistics go up, their accompanying adverts are viewed more often, and because in order to comment on an article you normally have to register with the newspaper in question, they can subsequently send those who register daily/weekly alerts on new items, with links back to new articles.
The available options within different online newspaper Comments facilities vary considerably. On some you can post a comment, reply, and like or dislike someone else’s comment and that’s about all. On others you can include your profile picture (these are sometimes ‘humorously’ created from an unattractive photo of a politician (Sturgeon, Davidson, May, Salmond, etc) with whom the person commenting disagrees). I have a profile on one newspaper which allows me to view every comment I have made, plus every reply made to those comments, plus the number of Likes to those comments and replies.
I haven’t noticed a great deal of abuse on Twitter, though mild insults are very common. If you search Twitter for #indyref2 or #noindyref2 you will quickly see many examples of typical postings, some of which have images as attachments. Not all the posts to #indyref2 are pro-Yes and not all the posts to #noindyref2 are pro-No. There appears to be a lot of goading of the other side as well. Many politicians and journalists have Twitter accounts. I’ve noticed many tweets with @[politician’s twitter account] included in them. The authors of such tweets may think that, by adding @[politician’s twitter account] to their tweets they may actually be read by the politician in questions due to email notifications and Twitter Mentions. I’m sure this is highly unlikely though. The sheer bulk of such @’s would surely make it impossible for most politicians to spend time reading them.
I’ve noticed political Retweet Bots, robots that retweet any tweets with certain words in them to their followers, for example which retweets the term indyref2. Tweets containing the word indyref2 or with the hashtag #indyref2 may be either pro indyref2 or against indyref2.
Pinterest is also being used by some to save and manage images about the Scottish Referendum(s), and similar with tumblr. My son tells me that even on Snapchat people are posting politically orientated videos.
It can be quite funny.
There are numerous examples of clever, humorous and witty comments made about Scottish Referendum(s) by those in both the Yes and No camps. It is difficult for me to post examples without losing the impartiality I am attempting in this analysis. Many of the screen names of those posting are also clever and funny. Again, I can’t quote most of the funniest ones for the same reason. A few I have noticed include: AlternativeFacts RabTheRanter Mealiepuddin ScotlandTheBraveYes and also ScotlandTheBraveNo plus almost every variation of every cliché that could possibly use the word ‘Scotland’.
Sometimes postings are inadvertently funny. I noticed the following:
A, B, and C were having a discussion on a forum about Scottish Referendum(s), replying to each other in one long stream.
A wrote something, then B wrote something, then C wrote something.
Then A started to swear at B.
B came back and said, “Hey A, why are you swearing at me?”.
A answered, “Sorry, I meant to swear at C”.
B continued, “But why are you swearing at C anyway?”
A said, “Because C swears at me, and I thought that swearing at him would be the only way to get his attention. I would never swear at you, B”
And they continue their discussion, which C drops out of, for whatever reason. But then the conversation between A & B gradually deteriorates, and eventually they both start swearing at each other with gusto.
Need clarification? Don’t ask on most political social media, then.
It is not impossible that, if you ask for clarification of some point or other on many popular political social media, you will be given a helpful reply. I have had several extremely helpful and very thoughtful responses to my postings. However it is much more likely that even an impartial request for clarification on any matter concerning Scottish Referendum(s) will be taken as questioning the viewpoint of the topic, article or posting under question.
I posted a pretty impartial question on one noticeboard. I was quickly accused of being a member of political party A and there followed an insult. When I replied that I had never voted for party A, there followed an accusation that I was a member of political party B, plus some insults. When I further responded that I had never voted for party B either, and was simply conducting some academic research, the next response I got included insults about academics.
If you ask your friends on Facebook for clarification, you will be much more likely to get a helpful response.
reddit is a much more likely place to get well informed discussion on Scottish Referendum(s), and clarification, or help, on issues associated with the topic, than many of the other social media, but also sometimes includes abusive comments.
Why the aggro?
The most obvious reasons for aggression have already been mentioned above, e.g. emotive issues, anonymity, etc. To these might be added the frustration that might come from stating what the poster feels to be the absolute truth, only to find that within seconds someone has posted a reply which states the exact opposite.
I am usually as civil as I can be on the various forums, but in one instance, and in a spur of the moment thing, which I won’t dismiss as being entirely for research purposes, I found myself responding to someone who had called me a “comically incompetent moron” in a way that I considered to be clever, though I certainly didn’t call him/her names. I think I posted something like “If only your talents went further than thinking up insults.” I now openly admit that I found the touché moment very satisfying, and I expect that this sort of thing is common.
These things don’t necessarily explain the reactions which are made immediately after a post/comment has been made. For example, someone poses an opinion about an article or video, etc, and the very first reply to that posting made seconds later is an insult, such as ‘You ignorant idiot. You will get what you deserve.” Such a response, obviously, is in no way attempting to engage in discussion or persuade the original poster or offer an alternative opinion, but is merely an outburst of aggression. One thing which might possibly help to explain such things it is that, in the modern world, we are now so used to instant gratification. Don’t agree with someone? Make a free insult, then.
This paper, Attitude Certainty and Conflict Style, suggests that the more strongly people believe their attitude is correct, the more competitive they will be in their discussions. This certainly seems to apply in political social media.
It strikes me that the performances you can easily read on social media are virtually akin to forces building themselves up and preparing to go into physical battle.
Have you ever written a letter to a newspaper about anything to do with local or national events, or a political figure? Maybe, but maybe not. Have you ever thought about writing a letter, though? It is so easy to write on a newspaper’s comments forum, and everything you write gets published every time! Apart from if it is too abusive, in which case it will probably be deleted.
It doubt very much whether anyone has been persuaded to change their voting intention as a result of posts/comments/discussions by and between individuals about Scottish Referendum(s) in social media, and certainly not as a result of receiving or reading insults. Though others may disagree with this, e.g. here. See also here. I’ve never seen any reply on social media saying anything remotely like, “You have persuaded me, and I’m going to change my vote.” OTOH, what about those who have not yet made up their minds, can they be persuaded? OTOH again, how can many people not have made up their minds yet, after years and years of this stuff? I reckon that voters are far more likely to be persuaded, one way or another, via TV debates and other TV programmes, newspaper articles, more generic social media postings, clever posters on billboards and other media. So why is so much effort put into social media by both camps and in particular by individuals?
I suggest that those who indulge in political debate on social media are actually more likely to harden their own original standpoint, rather than change it, and possibly do the same with respect to anyone who reads their contributions.
So why do individuals post to social media on their views towards Scottish Referendum(s)?
Firstly, I suggest, because they feel strongly on the issue, and they feel that posting/commenting is something they can actually do which may contribute in one way or another to the outcome they want to see.
Secondly, because they can vent their anger at someone, anyone, of the opposite persuasion.
Another reason would be to bring to the attention of the community something that you’ve thought of which perhaps no-one else has thought of (someone almost certainly will already have thought of it, though).
Some postings/comments are obviously designed to cause division within the opposing side. Others express fears (e.g. “has [the other side] not realised that..”.).
Another reason results from what I stated earlier with respect to instant gratification – social media is very good at satisfying that need.
Some contributions are examples of showing off, trying to be clever or merely entertaining. Many others appear to be efforts at garnering support for one side or another.
Some posts/comments appear to be from people seeking reassurance that an opinion is justified. They seem to be hoping for encouragement from like-minded people. There may also be reassurance to be found from belonging to a group. I posted a comment on one forum, and shortly after received a reply from [X] saying, “Will someone else explain real life to this [expletive deleted] moron. I’m fed up pissing into the wind” Incidentally, I could, once more, not resist replying in turn, “Keep pissing [X], you may end up with a second skill, to go with insulting people”. Anyway, [X] in his/her ‘fed up pissing into the wind’ response, was I believe demonstrating a need to belong to a virtual group of people who agreed with him/her.
On social media related to Scottish Referendum(s) you will quickly find examples of Competitive resolution and Cooperative resolution, but much more likely the former.
From the style of many posts/comments made to political social media forums of an obvious and distinct allegiance (e.g. in the lions dens, see below for more detail), it is apparent that many of those posting/commenting feel a need for others to agree with them, because why else (apart from encouragement) would they be posting in such places? This is similar to the group thing, and is explained far better in the article: Why We Need Everyone to Believe We’re Correct.
The group thing can quickly descend into a lynch mob mentality. You can find examples of this in either of the lions dens I describe below. Someone from the other camp posts a strong opinion which is not shared by the majority of those subscribing to the forum/group, and the mob then descends on them with insulting replies.
I suggest it can be virtually addictive or at the very least that you can become obsessed. We’re told that social media in general can be addictive. A book, which I haven’t yet read (Irresistible: Why We Can’t Stop Checking, Scrolling, Clicking and Watching, by Adam Alter) looks at Internet and social media addiction in general. I think that it may well be quite addictive when the attention is not so much on Kardashian nonsense or cuddly cats than on a political topic in the real world which means so much to people. You make a comment, someone replies contradicting you, you must respond to that to show they are not correct, and so on. Then you need to revisit the comment to see how many people have Liked what you say, and even to see whether what you have said has been Liked more times than what the person who replied with an opposite viewpoint has been Liked. Sometimes you will receive notifications about responses, which drags you back to the site, and the process continues. The same sort of thing applies with retweets, and Likes on Facebook.
It is obvious that many people post because they feel that they should express their sincerely-felt opinions. It is an outlet for emotion. What will happen when one or the other of the camps is unsuccessful? This is an unknown.
Trolls, false profiles, deletions, etc
I ventured into the social media lion’s dens of both the Yes and No camps. I don’t want to specify exactly where, but you can find them fairly easily if you start searching for IndyRef2 or NoIndyRef2 and then follow some links. You need to be thick-skinned to venture into these places, and don’t expect to find accurate reporting. Both camps use extreme exaggeration in their headline postings to attract attention, and quite obviously fake-news in the content, and these result in predictable reactions from those who comment. Within minutes of posting to both camps something which was actually pretty bland, I was called idiot, moron, various other derogatory names, and someone suggested that I should be ashamed of my surname. In that particular instance it was doubly ironic, as the person making the comment had used a fake profile (with the name Reardon Ray and a picture of Ray Reardon, the retired snooker player).
There is a lot of fake stuff out there on social media. Some people use what are obviously fake profiles. In the case of Reardon Ray which I described above, when I replied to his/her comment saying WTTEO “That’s a bit ironic of you to suggest that I should be ashamed of my surname when you don’t use your real one to post your comment” the Reardon Ray comment was quickly deleted, as was the fake profile.
When someone deletes their contribution(s) in a one-to-one discussion (this is not possible in some forums), it can then seem as though the author of the comments remaining is some sort of obsessed nutter who keeps answering their own comments with increasingly illogical, unrelated content.
There are warnings posted in certain social media, such as “The [other side] use trolls to help turn people against [our side]. So if you see people being overly negative you are probably reading a troll’s comments”
Think about the following. In any of the social media you might find someone posting something like, for example: “Ungrateful Scots”. This could either be from someone who actually thinks that Scots are ungrateful (ungrateful for what, I can’t go into here without losing neutrality); or a troll who is trying to stir up a reaction. In the instance that I saw the use of the term “Ungrateful Scots” it was neither – it was someone being sarcastic who then added some other sarcastic comments. Realistically, however, it is impossible to tell for sure.
People are now very aware of the troll issue. I saw the following comment, on one forum, “They seem to have fielded their best trolls to rebuff [politician]”
It is pretty obvious that organisations are now using political social media data in order to target people with content in the same way that they do so for adverts. Since I shared a small number of political posts on Facebook, I have suddenly started to receive more suggestions of political posts that I may want to investigate or share. The intentions of such content providers can either be to push material which might sway the receiver one way or another, or simply be click-bait leading to other sites and adverts.
There is a rumour going around that there are loads of zombie accounts already in existence, just waiting to go into action when needed.
Who is posting?
If you’re new to all of this, you might assume that it is only sad lonely dweebs, sitting at a computer, who are posting to political social media. You’d be wrong. There seem to be many, many people of all ilks, young and old, who use social media to express their feelings or concerns about Scottish Referendum(s). On the other hand, I’ve seen the same ‘faces’ turn up in several social media sites about Scottish Referendum(s).
There are also a few pretty obviously sad dweebs as well. On one newspaper forum I watched a discussion about insults within the forum. Poster A claimed that there were far more insulting posts from supporters of one viewpoint about the Referendum than the other. Poster B said that that was not correct and that he/she had counted them. He/she stated that there were actually more insults from those of the other viewpoint. Poster A retorted “I counted insults in posts and also insults in replies. Did you?”
Because social media is so much a part of so many people’s daily routines it is not surprising that so many people are getting involved, one way or another. It is very easy to ‘Share’ a political post on Facebook, though the majority probably don’t.
Does insulting on social media have a social function (for letting off steam harmlessly), or does it actually encourage more frustration? I don’t know.
What differences are there in content and style on the various political social forums? The most obvious difference is between people posting on the websites of the broadsheets and those posting to tabloid sites. The former are more articulate and less insulting than the latter. Other differences have been covered elsewhere in this blog post.
The final word. The last person to post in a comments thread wins the discussion, right?
Some discussions go on, and on, and on. Those who have taken part can’t leave it alone. The tit for tat continues, sometimes for long periods.
In order to prevent this, with my own contributions I sometimes post the following:
Remember, the last person to post in a comment thread doesn’t necessarily win the discussion.
Please think about that one, for a second. I have found, unfortunately that it is not always a successful tactic.
A couple of conclusions
Are we more disrespectful, nowadays, towards politicians and professional political commentators? I think that is obvious. Has social media enabled the growth of this disrespect? I believe so. We certainly seem to be more disrespectful towards each other, on social media.
What we are seeing on social media relating to Scottish Referendum(s) at the present time is almost like a phony war, because there has not even yet been a call for a second Referendum (though there may be one soon, even though, it has been stated elsewhere, neither Sturgeon or May want one in the immediate future). Things will obviously get much more intense if/when a Referendum is called.
This analysis has been cobbled together over the past few days during which I nearly became addicted to political social media. It is obviously just scratching the surface of what is a fascinating topic. Now, I need to get back to that newspaper comments section to see how many Likes I got for that witty post I just made. Obsessed? Moi?
- Impartiality alert: This might have been either the Conservative Party and then the Labour Party, or the SNP Party and then the Green party.