It has become a vital tool in the way party leaders communicate with their supporters and voters at large.

Few politicians would operate without social media, and with the former President of the United States virtually conducting policy through its megaphone, it is clear that digital campaigning is here to stay.

But as another election campaign rumbles across Scotland, what have out local leaders been saying as they reach for their phones and bring up Twitter?

A survey of tweets by Nicola Sturgeon, Douglas Ross, Anas Sarwar, Wille Rennie and Patrick Harvie (selected as he is currently an elected MSP, rather than co-leader Lorna Slater) illustrates the issues each considers important as they try to win the hearts and ballots of Scots from John O’Groats to the Borders.


Focusing on keywords - currency, independence, economy, jobs, Coronavirus/Covid/Covid-19, unemployment, recovery, climate change, Indyref/Indyref2/Referendum - The Herald examined how many times each of the leaders mentioned these issues, hoping to give a picture of where their priorities lie.

Internet political campaign expert Dr Rhys Crilley, a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow and part of the Department of Politics and International Relations at University of Glasgow, examined the tallies to explain what the strategy could be behind the Tweets.

The survey looked at Tweets from 1st January to 23rd April this year, only selecting those mentioning the keywords. Other tweets were made by the party leaders which have not been counted. Some party leaders Tweeted more than others, and this is not reflected in the overall tally.

Nicola Sturgeon, SNP

As a First Minister who is dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and has an important public health duty, it is no surprise her Tweets focused almost exclusively on Covid and its variants, mentioning it directly 32 times – by far the most of any leader.

Despite leading a party whose aim is Scottish independence, she only mentioned it four times, and a referendum three times.

The economy was mentioned twice and jobs once - while recovery was the subject of four Tweets. Unemployment and climate change were not mentioned.  

Dr Crilley said: “I think Nicola Sturgeon's decision to focus on Covid reflects her position as a First Minister who takes her responsibility to keep the nation up to date and informed seriously.

“The SNP have also made it clear that they want an independence referendum once we are out of the pandemic, so for now there's no real reason for Nicola to bang the independence drum, mainly because we all know that the SNP want indyref2.”

Commenting, SNP Depute Leader Keith Brown said: "This shows clearly that Nicola Sturgeon has been focused on getting Scotland through the pandemic and onto recovery - as do the plans we have set out for the first 100 days of an SNP government.

“If we are re-elected we will immediately deliver support for our NHS, protection for jobs and help for our children and young people.

"The SNP, with Nicola Sturgeon as Leader, are the only party putting forward a serious plan and credible policies for a strong and green recovery for Scotland after the pandemic.

"It is only by voting SNP on 6th May that we can secure that recovery and put Scotland's future in Scotland's hands - not Boris Johnson's."

Douglas Ross, Scottish Conservatives

The leader of the opposition at Holyrood appeared to value two subjects above all others when he took to social media – stopping a second referendum on Scottish independence, and the country’s recovery from the pandemic.

Mr Ross mentioned independence nine times, and a second referendum on 23 occasions. Recovery came up 30 times. By contrast, he Tweeted about the economy four times, jobs 14, unemployment once and Covid seven times

Dr Crilley said: “Douglas Ross's decision to focus on the independence referendum reflects the fact that the Scottish Conservatives are mired by the UK government's poor handling of the pandemic as well as the current 'cash for curtains' scandal, alongside the fact that the Conservatives have very little to offer in the way of positive policies for Scotland.”

A Scottish Conservative spokesman said: "Douglas Ross tweets about a broad array of subject that matter to the people of Scotland, but all of these key issues will be neglected if the SNP win a majority and inflict another divisive independence referendum on our country.

"That is why it has never been more important for pro-UK voters to rally behind the Scottish Conservatives, by lending us their peach-coloured party list vote to ensure that Parliament is focused on recovery, not division."

Anas Sarwar, Scottish Labour

The new Labour leader went into the election cycle having been in the job for a matter of days, but has been campaigning relentlessly with the slogan ‘National recovery plan’.

This is reflected in the number of Tweets mentioning recovery appearing in Mr Sarwar’s feed – with the word cropping up 56 times, the most of any leader.

Despite leading a party committed to the union, Mr Sarwar only mentioned independence or a referendum on one occasion apiece – while Covid appeared 12 times, jobs eight, and climate change three times. The economy was not brought up.  

Dr Crilley said: “I think Anas Sarwar suffers from a lack of perceived authenticity. He's in charge of a traditionally working class party but he's from a family of millionaires and sends his kids to private school.

"No matter how slick and impressive his TV and social media campaign is, I think it's hard for him to avoid coming across as a hypocrite.”

Scottish Labour have been approached for comment

Willie Rennie, Scottish Lib Dems

Like Anas Sarwar, Mr Rennie has made recovery the heart of the Liberal Democrats campaign – with the slogan ‘Put recovery first’ featuring heavily on his social media.

His Tweets, some posted during his early morning runs, mention recovery 31 times, while the jobs and the economy were mentioned 16 times together.

The Lib Dem leader tweeted about independence 13 times and the referendum on six occasions, Covid twice and climate change twice. Unemployment was not mentioned.

Dr Crilley said: “Willie Rennie's decision to focus on recovery is probably a good one, though I think on social media he's more well known for his funny photo ops rather than for having any interesting policies.

“I also think that the Lib Dems are consigned to irrelevancy with millennials and the online generation, mainly because of Nick Clegg's broken promise on tuition fees in England which was seen as such a betrayal of the young people who had previously supported the Lib Dems.

"People just don't trust the Lib Dems anymore because of what they did in coalition with the Conservatives.”

A spokesman for the Scottish Lib Dems said: "This analysis shows that Willie Rennie's priority at this election is the recovery from the pandemic, not another independence referendum.

"If you want the next government to be focused on recovery, vote for the Scottish Liberal Democrats."

Patrick Harvie, Scottish Greens

Despite heading a party known to have a youthful support base, Mr Harvie stood out by being the leader who used Twitter the least, sending out fewer messages on the subjects covered than anyone else.

In contrast the Anas Sarwar, the Greens leader Tweeted fewer times than his political opponent mentioned recovery alone. Of his 19 messages containing one of the surveyed keywords, Mr Harvie mentioned the economy once, Covid nine times, recovery three times and climate change on six occasions. 

Despite being a party which supports Scottish independence, he did not Tweet about it during the period covered.

Dr Crilley said: “It's interesting to see that Patrick Harvie doesn't seem to tweet much, I think one reason for this might be that the Greens have a vocal group of young campaigners who are effective at getting a good bit of engagement online.

“I think the SNP youth do a similar thing, so perhaps that's also something interesting to mention - the fact that on social media it's often not the party leaders, but young activists, who are the best at creating content that gets a message across and can go viral.”

A spokesman for the Scottish Greens said that co-leader Lorna Slater is more active on social media, adding: “Our slogan is Vote Like Our Future Depends On It, and we don’t tend to use the words climate change, but instead use climate emergency or climate crisis.”