By Ana Langer, Michael Comerford and Des McNulty

The role of social media in broadening the conversation during the independence referendum is highlighted in research we have conducted. During the campaign, extensive use was made of social media. Both official campaigns used Twitter as a broadcast channel to draw attention to and reinforce campaign messages. The immediacy of Twitter made it especially useful to campaign managers in relaying information to journalists and activists. Leaders of the campaigns, Nicola Sturgeon and Blair Macdougall, were amongst the most frequent tweeters.

But many people who were not professional politicians also used Twitter to express their opinions. Some 2.8 million twitter messages using #indyref from 145,000 separate accounts between January and September 2014 were collected and the content and the patterns of interaction were analysed. We found a huge discrepancy in activity levels between the Yes and No sides. Although it is not always possible from just the tweets to detect whether a user is a Yes or a No supporter, of the 10 most re-tweeted messages, seven were in favour of Yes and three were neutral.

The differences were not confined to the numbers on each side. When we analysed the direction of interactions between users, it was clear that No supporters were more passive (simply receiving or retweeting messages) than Yes supporters, many more of whom were exchanging information and comments through their networks. Uncommitted people joining #indyref conversation at any point during the campaign would have found the range of pro-independence views being expressed through twitter much livelier and more diverse. Our data showed that pro-independence organisations such as National Collective (@wearenational) had a very active and interactive digital media presence, to the extent that they appear on our map of twitter traffic as distinct nodes.

To understand what was going on behind the tweets we conducted in-depth interviews with those who ran the respective official campaigns, asking how they used social media and how it fitted into their strategies for achieving their campaign goals. Labour, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats formed Better Together with the sole objective of ensuring a No vote, never intending that it should continue after the referendum was over. Organisers ran a highly centralised operation, which relentlessly targeted floating voters, attacking SNP proposals rather than putting forward a shared vision. This was based on polling data that suggested that undecided voters were worried about the impact of independence on the country’s economic prospects and the possible adverse consequences for themselves. Social media activities were tightly controlled from the centre. A senior manager of the No campaign told us: "Nothing with the Better Together brand could be run without editorial control by staff members."

The Yes campaign was much more permissive. Its primary goal was securing a Yes vote and there was a similar focus on undecided voters. However, Yes Scotland believed that it had to build momentum from the ground up, harness the energies of supporters, enthuse new recruits and bring together lots of disparate groups in the attempt to create a national movement rather than fight a traditional election campaign.

The more loosely organised and grassroots orientated structure of the Yes campaign encouraged more people to channel their energies into a variety of activities including the use of social media.

Its narrative of hope and change, which enabled supporters to project their own aspirations onto their shared cause, was more conducive to social media activity than the negative tone of Better Together. Social media platforms are increasingly important as campaign tools. In the Scottish referendum both sides used Twitter as a uni-directional method for conveying campaign messages. But Yes campaign managers adopted a more inclusive and flexible approach, encouraging people to contribute and share their ideas whereas the No campaign was more rigid and controlling, with consequences that are visible in our analysis of patterns of use.

Losing the social media war was not decisive in determining the outcome of the referendum. Better Together won the vote and immediately left the political stage. Arguably both campaigns achieved what they set out to do, even if that was not apparent when the referendum result was declared. Although the Yes side failed to achieve victory, its social media strategy helped the SNP and its allies in engaging people and building a momentum for change that has resulted in seismic shifts in the balance of political power in Scotland.

Dr Langer, Dr Comerford and Des McNulty are researchers at the University of Glasgow.