After a particularly robust debate about religion on an old Twitter account I decided to set up an atheist account and debate with religious fundamentalists. It was a lot of fun and a good learning experience of how to debate with people for whom facts are secondary to their learned world view. We debated everything from the origins of various religions to evolution, and there was always a cry for evidence of any claim. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence so if you say every scientist on the planet is wrong and you’re right you need to be able to back it up. This was shorthanded to “pics or it didn’t happen”. Show me a picture and then I’ll believe you.
This human need to see something before accepting it as real is ingrained in many of us, it’s the same reason you still try the cash machine even though three people before you have failed to get cash out. It’s the same reason you have to try the handle again even though someone told you it was locked. Images are experience and experience is empathy. We can be aware of tragedy and walk past it every day like the homeless and the beggars on the streets, we can know about the horrors of whole families being lost at sea trying to flee bombs that the UK has either dropped or sold to be dropped and do nothing, but one shot of a young boy washed up on a beach is somehow enough to grab the public psyche and call for action.
Images can also be misleading and generate opinions that are based on snapshot of a moment taken out of context. A five second video on the internet showing someone being attacked or berated making the aggressor look like the instigator can drive public opinion and gain viral following, but a subsequent longer video showing the person being attacked having provoked the situation is seen by only a few and so a narrative is created. A picture at a political event with few attendees taken tight on the crowd to make it look bigger and hence make the politician seem more popular, conversely the same trick can make a large crowd seem smaller.
These images are like opinion polls, they don’t reflect public opinion, they seek to create it. The BBC is a passed master at these techniques, as evidenced during the snap election campaign, and the same principle is applied across the media when it comes to Scottish independence. Anything that might bolster the case for independence or show the public at large that there is in fact a growing appetite for independence is downplayed. Even the Sunday Herald put a picture on their front page which seemed to suggest there was an almost equal number of British nationalists at the demonstration. Estimates of the crowd range anywhere from 60-90 thousand people attending the march with only a handful of opposition protestors yet fewer than 30 police officers were reported to have controlled the crowd and no reports of arrests. So why was the Sunday Herald’s caption for the already distorted image that “ugly scenes” had “marred the event”, cementing the notion that a march for independence involved violence. No evidence is required for this because we’ve got a picture of flag waving nationalists and a newspaper telling us as much, so confirmation bias does the rest.
During the 2014 independence campaign there were numerous large marches which were all but ignored by the media with numbers consistently played down. That the march on Saturday 5th in Glasgow was the largest public demonstration in Scotland in the best part of a decade should have warranted more coverage than to be described on the state broadcaster as “tens of thousands”. While that is of course technically true, more accurate would to have given the estimate of close to 100 thousand. Playing down support for independence and making it seem a minority pursuit is intended to infer that it’s a minor issue; most people are just getting on with their day and don’t care about constitutional matters, there’s no appetite for a second independence referendum.
Our media are fond of informing us just now how little people care about the “most boring constitutional crisis in living memory”. They do this while simultaneously delighting in downplaying the extent of the powers coming back from Brussels or what their misapplication could mean to farming and fishing communities. They infer that the sensible option is to allow Westminster to continue with the right and proper process of deciding what’s best for us and then telling us what that is. They don’t even have to get agreement, just to say they asked for it, how terribly British. Better to ask for forgiveness than permission. We have a media in Scotland, a country that voted 62% to remain in the EU, which consistently tells us “hush now, it’ll all be OK, just let the big boys figure things out while we get on with overblowing every single issue with Police Scotland or the NHS to distract you”. We even had another exclusive story on information about the safety accreditation of the apparently much hated Baby Box, which was freely available months ago to anyone who cared to look for it. Spoiler alert, cardboard does burn if you hold a naked flame to it for a minute and a half.
Images are powerful. The image of the small girl holding her wee Scotland flag aloft with 2 British nationalists unfurling a Union flag was one which stuck in the memory and evoked an emotion. They move us, they trigger memories, imagination, empathy, disgust, pride, revulsion, anger, joy, any number of the emotions we are capable of. They can be snapshots or put together in order to tell a story and create a narrative. Users of social media are well aware of the discrepancies between the images shown on the BBC or the front pages of the newspapers and those online, but if you’re not on social media, you won’t be. You’ll think there was a small march attended by a few zoomers who caused trouble and think “well, there’s no point, we’ll just go along with this Brexit thing, what can you do?”.
It’s all too easy to get demoralised and think “what can you do”, “what’s the point in fighting when nobody else cares”. But if you see that 100,000 of your fellow Scots of all origins and persuasions took to the streets on a bank holiday weekend just to tell Westminster that we’re not taking this lying down and the Scottish government that the time is coming, maybe that makes you go to a meeting, maybe it makes you attend an event, or organise one, and that’s the last thing the British establishment needs right now. They’re too busy trading away our resources and protections for our unique products to try to make up for a disastrous Brexit that the voters in this country didn’t want.
All the evidence you need is online. Others might not be on social media or have seen the videos but you can show it to them. When you’re debating with someone online who says there is no appetite for independence you can show them the seemingly endless stream of marchers on a website for proof. And then you can ask them what the appetite for the union is, where are the marches supporting the British state. They’ll point to the increased number of Tory MPs and MSPs, then you’ll remind them the SNP have more MPs than the other parties combined and would have a simply eyewatering majority in Holyrood under a first past the post system. When it comes to support for the union in Scotland it’s time to push back and say “pics, or it didn’t happen”.