The engagement of young people with politics during the referendum has had some dramatic results from increased party membership to a reduction in the voting age. Alan Mackie and Jim Crowther of the Institute of Education at The University of Edinburgh, find out how it happened and consider whether it will last.
In the aftermath of the referendum we decided to conduct research on how people learned and educated themselves informally about the Independence referendum. Given the range of information and issues people faced, particularly over the final six months of the process, hearing how people made sense of it all is clearly an area of interest – particularly for academics, community educators and politicians.
Through an online survey conducted in December 2014 we asked people a series of questions to ascertain, amongst other things, how and where they gained information, how they interacted with that information and how they utilised social media (if they did so). The survey makes no claims to be representative – indeed the returns are skewed towards Yes supporters - but it can highlight the educative processes some groups of people engaged in. In particular we wanted to know what the most important factors were in their final decision, if they changed their voting intention and whether or not they are more politically aware post-referendum and if this has influenced their engagement in democratic life. Due to the overwhelming response we received (1345 returns) we are slowly working our way through the data. The first cohort we have analysed is young people, aged 16-24 (86 fully completed returns), to try and make sense of their responses. The findings are extremely interesting.
Of these 86 returns from young people, when asked their position one year before the referendum 37 were decided Yes voters, 17 were No and 32 undecided. In relation to factors influencing their decision our Yes voters prioritised political autonomy and equality whereas No voters were more concerned about the economy and identity issues. In terms of main sources of information, unsurprisingly perhaps, young people stated that the Internet was critical. They particularly valued undertaking active Internet searches for critical information and assessing arguments, as well as that gathered from both personal and campaign groups’ social media sites, as the following quotes indicate:
Reassuringly for those who value the interpersonal and dialogical nature of political discussion, young people also stressed the importance of debate and interaction with friends and family when formulating their voting intention. This was true for both Yes and No voters. Only for female No voters did more traditional forms of media (TV & Newspapers) score particularly high and this was a very small sub-sample (12) so it would be unwise to extrapolate anything from it.
Antipathy to the traditional forms of media was palpable amongst Yes voters. The BBC and newspapers were the targets of much hostility with many citing the necessity of the Internet as an important counterbalance to traditional media sources. For example:
We asked the cohort how highly they rated a range of social media sites and text messaging and e-mailing in terms of sharing information. Interestingly, Yes supporters were more positive about Facebook and Twitter than their No voting counterparts, who were much more ambivalent about these media. The first three quotes below highlight the deliberative sharing of information and the last one, how social media use might be experienced negatively:
The trolling of celebrities such as J.K. Rowling, after she financially backed the No campaign, led to mainstream media highlighting the negative aspect of social media during the referendum. Nevertheless, 43% the young people surveyed here felt that it had a positive impact, whereas only 27% reported it was negative. Indeed, many of the young people argued that the information gathered through digital sources helped how they discussed politics offline:
Another interesting development is perhaps the notion that young people are now using their social media pages, particularly Facebook, differently post-referendum. In this respect, the impact of the referendum has been to reduce the distance between personal and political issues. Nearly 40% of respondents indicated that they are now more likely to share stories and news pertaining to politics than previously:
What is more, the activity of posting and commenting was deliberative and educational rather than being simply passed on. From the cohort analysed, a significant proportion stated that they had critically engaged with material from the respective campaigns and had decided to change their voting intention as a result:
It is hoped that this level of critical engagement – which sweeps across the entire youth cohort - will leave a ‘participative footprint’, meaning that this generation will now be critically engaged with the democratic process. When asked if they felt that they were more interested in politics as a result of the referendum, 56% stated that they were, with only 7% saying they are now less interested (disgruntled yes voters, primarily!). As a result a number indicate they have since joined a political party, they are posting more information online and a small minority have become active in community and campaign groups. If the referendum leaves any legacy then perhaps this is the most important; a generation of politically aware, critically engaged, activated young people. This is a very welcome outcome.
Alan Mackie is a doctoral student in the Institute for Education, Community and Society. Jim Crowther is a Senior Lecturer in Adult and Community Education also in the Institute for Education, Community and Society.