Euan McColm: Twitter classes show power in politics

As the first result came in and it became clear the No campaign had won. Picture: Michael Gillen
As the first result came in and it became clear the No campaign had won. Picture: Michael Gillen
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A COUPLE of hours after polling stations closed on 18 September last year, Alex Salmond was preparing to give his victory speech.

The first results were yet to be revealed, but the former first minister was convinced that the Yes campaign had not only won the independence referendum, but had won it comfortably, perhaps by as many as 14 points.

So sure had he been for days that the result was a foregone conclusion that Salmond had seen to it that the Scottish Government’s most senior civil servants – then waiting in a conference room at his official residence, Bute House – were briefed that negotiations over the break-up of the UK would begin immediately.

And then the first result came in and it became clear the No campaign had won by 55-45.

I don’t want to appear a smart-arse, but I could have told Mr Salmond this was going to be the result if only he’d asked me a week before.

I knew this, because it was what the SNP’s own tried-and-tested internal polling was telling the party and it was what my Nationalist contacts were telling me. All of the Yes Scotland campaign’s canvass returns also showed precisely the same margin of victory for No.

But, still, Salmond believed he had won. This was because of his secret Canadians.

At huge expense, and amid considerable secrecy, the former SNP leader had brought in polling experts from across the Atlantic. With their new methodology, they’d be able to give him the most detailed predictions yet seen in political analysis. Or something like that.

The reason I mention these secret Canadians, apart from the fact that their existence remains a fascinating, if little known, aspect of the referendum campaign, is that unlike most traditional operators in their field, they placed great store on the use of social media among voters.

By monitoring interactions on Face­book and Twitter, a fuller picture would be painted.

In the end, the fuller picture turned out to be a fake, but the fact that Salmond was willing to invest so heavily in his secret Canadians shows us how seriously the SNP – and, naturally, all other political parties – take social media as a campaigning tool.

There’s every chance that if you’re one of those reading this column in print that you don’t pay a great deal of attention to Twitter which, although there are around 300,000 registered accounts in Scotland, is reckoned to be used regularly by fewer than 80,000 of us.

Yet, despite the fact that the website is used by a fairly small minority, it plays a huge part in shaping our debate. Twitter didn’t exist a decade ago, yet I expect it to be the most important battleground in the 2015 general election campaign.

Last year, at the same time as Salmond’s secret Canadians were getting social media wrong, campaigners on both sides of the referendum debate were making great use of Twitter. There were the rather tiresome spats and pointless rows among campaigners, of course, but Twitter was also crucial in shaping the wider news agenda.

A senior figure in the Better Together campaign – a veteran of political battles stretching back many years – told me that news stories which in the past might have been expected to stay at the top of the office white board for a day or more could be shoved off into oblivion in a few minutes by a change in mood on Twitter.

To those of you on Twitter – and many of you reading this on some kind of device will have come here via that route – it will hardly come as a surprise that politicians and smart-arse hacks use it to pass snap judgments on political decisions.

Add to that mix the campaigners constantly feeding in new tit-bits, and issues that might once have set the agenda can be forgotten in the time it takes to retweet a photograph of a cat in a plant pot.

In theory, social media should empower ordinary people and, to some degree, that may be true. Certainly, it makes contact with those in power far easier.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is a perfect example of a politician who absolutely gets social media. Her Twitter feed is a mix of politics, updates on what her wider family’s been up to, and details of whatever crime novel she’s reading. And she engages, too, answering (polite) questions from those who ask.

But if Twitter empowers the powerless to any degree, what it does far more clearly is pull the curtain back on who wields influence and power in politics.

The lines that make it beyond the internet and onto the pages of newspapers are increasingly shaped by discussions online. It used to be that journalists would huddle together at the end of a press conference, asking each other “What’s the line?” Thus, all present would have a story that every­one generally agreed was in the vicinity of the truth.

But, now, decisions on what the lines are are made in the few minutes it takes for a few Tweets to ping around in the ether.

And it is, by and large, the usual suspects who shape these narratives.

It’s easy to understand why relatively few Scots sign up to social media. Who wants to see endless photos of other people’s attempts at risotto? Who wants to put themselves out there to be abused for daring to express an opinion?

But the fact is that if you want to get to the heart of our political debate in the shortest possible time, you have to be there. All of the political parties have dedicated teams, doing their damnedest not only to drive on their armies of online supporters (who often end up talking to themselves) but to drive the news agenda that dominates the mainstream media.

This means most every step of the general election campaign will first leave its mark on Twitter and Facebook. If you want the opportunity to influence the direction of debate but you’ve never signed up to social media, now might just be the time to take the plunge. «

Twitter: @euanmccolm