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Can Technology Help Swing Scotland’s Referendum Towards Yes?

BY Jon Worth | Wednesday, September 17 2014

Lady Alba for Yes versus PatronisingBTLady for No (screenshots)

Scotland has been part of the United Kingdom since 1707 and the old cultural ties to the rest of the British Isles are one of the main arguments made against independence in tomorrow's referendum vote. Yet if the Yes to independence side is to succeed – the polls narrowed in the final month of the campaign to within a couple of percent after a sudden surge in support for independence – it will be something much more modern that will win the day: the use of online technology in a top-down data driven manner and networked grassroots way.

The Scottish National Party (SNP) led by First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond was the first British political party to make use of Nationbuilder software in the 2011 Scottish parliamentary elections, and it was its win, building on its partial 2007 success, that paved the way for tomorrow's referendum. This top-down technology has since been reapplied to Yes Scotland, the umbrella campaign on the Yes side. The No side – officially the Better Together campaign – has been playing catch up in terms of technology.

The independence referendum has five components that make it an ideal testing ground for online politics. First, the question at stake is a simple one: Yes or No to an independent Scotland. Second, every vote counts equally. There are no key seats or the UK equivalent of swing states in US election; although only residents of Scotland can vote, which excludes those living out of country, roughly 20 percent of all Scots. Third, political parties have had to collaborate and build umbrella campaigns: the SNP and the Greens on the Yes side as well as Labour, Liberal Democrats and Conservatives on the No side. Fourth, Scotland is one of the least densely populated parts of the UK meaning technology has helped overcome geographic distance to network people with similar views together. Fifth, the mainstream media, especially the London based newspapers, have been slow to cover the referendum and are almost all on the No side, meaning the Internet was the main place for the expression of alternative views.

Technology is also one of the reasons why the mass grassroots campaign network on the Yes side has helped to narrow the polls, taking Scotland to the brink of independence. These activists have been networking extensively online. Websites not part of the official campaigns such as Wings Over Scotland have run their own fundraising campaigns, raising more than £150,000 on their own. Meanwhile, parodies such as Lady Alba’s “Gaga for Independence” livened up the campaign with reasons why Scotland and the rest of the UK have had a “Bad Romance.” The spectacular failure of the No campaign's video aimed at undecided women voters – which received the label #PatronisingBTlady – shows the extent to which it has failed to capture key voting groups.

Analysis of social media use by both sides in the campaign – both by the official campaigns, and also Facebook's analysis (paywall) – show greater activity on the Yes side. Both sides have traded allegations about social media intimidation of the other by its activists, which has also crossed from online into offline. No side politician Jim Murphy suspended a speaking tour as a result. Official campaigners on both sides acknowledged that the debate has grown so large and complicated that no official campaigner can control either side.

With 97 percent of eligible voters have signed up to the electoral rolls and a turnout of close to 90 percent is expected, this referendum is an extraordinary event. Whatever the result, technology was central to these campaigns.

Follow #indyref from 2200 BST on Thursday to find out the results!

Jon Worth is a UK citizen and blogger resident in Berlin. His blog - www.jonworth.eu - is one of the longest running blogs about EU politics and technology. He works as a freelance online communications consultant for politicians and governments across Europe.