Do's and dont's: a guide to getting involved in the online referendum debate

Published: 19 May 2014
Author: Mark Shephard

As the independence referendum nears, and arguably as tensions rise, it is important that we engage with media critically and continue to communicate with one another with civility and respect. Building on our (Shephard, Quinlan, Paterson and Tagg) research of social media platforms of the Scottish independence referendum 2014, a dimension of which has explored the content of over 5,300 social media comments on the BBC’s Have Your Say (HYS) discussion threads, this blog identifies ‘6 Fs’ that users of social media platforms need to keep in mind when posting and evaluating contributions and information obtained from these channels.

1. Flaming posts
Flaming posts refer to those comments that use excessive emotion (for example, over-punctuation such as ‘??’ or ‘!!’)  or that signify heat and anger (for example, type in UPPER CASE).

2. Foul posts
Foul posts are those that insult and/or use profanity. In the case of the independence referendum, politicians and parties are often the main targets of foul posts, particularly attempts to insult, for example, ‘Crown Prince Cameron’ and ‘Slimeball Salmond’ (bearing in mind that these are at the tamer end of the spectrum).

3. False posts
False posts are those that either state things that are not true, stretch the truth, are economical with the truth, or that stem from false accounts designed to mimic (and usually satirise) typically a key person and/or party in the discussion. Even if you are not trying to present false information, the character and word limits of many social media forums can make it difficult to convey complexity and nuance and so the capacity for false posting is invariably high. The best way to deal with all posts is to cross-check information across sides of the argument (for example, by checking both the Yes Scotland and Better Together campaign web pages and visiting The Future of the UK and Scotland and What Scotland Thinks websites).

4. Fallacious posts
Fallacious posts are a special sub-set of the false that deserve their own category. The classic example is when people speak for others, for example, ‘we in Scotland think this…’ or ‘the English know that…’. Unless you are reporting representative public opinion (with confidence intervals and error terms), it is problematic to make claims about what everybody else thinks.

5. Foggy posts
Foggy posts refer to comments that lack clarity, for example, references to Alex Salmond as ‘wee Eck’. If you want to communicate with others and not be misunderstood, it is invariably best to avoid slang and local ‘in the know’ colloquialisms.

The problem with ‘flaming’, ‘foul’, ‘false’, ‘fallacious’ and ‘foggy’ posts is that they can aggravate other readers, stirring up hostility, and as a consequence, detract from the capacity for serious debate. The last F to look out for is the ‘follower’ base:

6. Follower base
Follower base refers to the make-up of the audience you are communicating with. If you are leaving comments on the BBC’s HYS, you should bear in mind that while online access and usage is fairly equal throughout the UK, the UK population is very asymmetrical, for example, the population of Scotland is estimated to be 5.3 million compared to the population of the rest of Britain of 58 million (Office of National Statistics, 2013). Consequently, if you take part in HYS it might look like there are far more rest of Britain (especially English, as 53.3 million people live in England) than Scottish comments. The follower base would be very different if you were to take part in discussions on, say, Scottish newspaper threads.

There is a lot of really good stuff online, but keep your wits about you and remember the ‘6 Fs’. I am happy to hear of any more ‘Fs’ you have in mind (although obviously not that one!).

Note: The research that inspired this blog was made possible by funding from the Advanced Quantitative Methods Network (AQMeN) as part of the ‘Future of the UK and Scotland’ research programme: