A study by academics at Robert Gordon University (RGU) has shed new light on the impact of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum on levels of political engagement and participation among first-time voters.
The Aberdeen Business School researchers conducted a national survey of first-time voters in the referendum, as well as a range of interviews with first-time voters and representatives of some of Scotland’s main political parties and campaign groups. They also worked with colleagues in RGU’s School of Computing Science and Digital Media to undertake a mapping of post-referendum Twitter activity among first-time voters.
- The referendum did mobilise young people politically. There was clear evidence from within the survey and interviews that young people who were not previously interested in politics had developed a keen interest in politics and political issues as a result of the debate.
- The study showed that the ‘engagement effect’ of the referendum is strongly uneven. On Twitter, political activity posting is strongly skewed towards certain users and tends to be reactive to political events rather than consistent. Despite large increases in party membership among young people, some 16 and 17 year olds who were interviewed said their interest in politics had declined because they were not able to vote in the UK general election.
- Young people’s activism changed dramatically in the aftermath of the referendum. Our survey and interview data suggests that campaign groups served as the predominant vehicle for engagement during the campaign, but these were largely replaced by political parties afterwards.
- There were only limited efforts by political elites to appeal specifically to first-time voters during the referendum campaign. Rather, schools, family, friends and youth agencies/organisations were seen as being important sources of influence on political engagement.
- Twitter use is largely ‘monological’ rather than dialogical. Many claims have been made about Twitter’s potential as a democratic enabler, particularly for young people. However, whilst we found clear evidence that first-time voters are engaging with Twitter for political purposes, this is rarely done in the context of a dialogue: instead, Twitter is disproportionately used for one-off statements, with a disproportionate tendency towards retweets (rather than original contributions) when dealing with political content.