Glasgow Refugee Asylum and Migration Network (GRAMNet)

Bringing together researchers, practitioners and policy makers working with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland

Tweeting about Migration and Independence. Welcoming new voices.

by Giuliana Tiripelli*


On Friday the 7th of February, I attended the COSLA SMG conference about the Independence Referendum and Migration in Edinburgh. This event involved a number of speakers who provided interesting and innovative insights from different perspectives about migrants in Scotland and the impact the referendum will have on these. I attended as social media co-ordinator for GRAMNet, with the task of participating in the Twitter debate under the #migconf2014.


Tweeting is very much a tool used in policy and journalistic circles and is a recent entry in conferencing, but also one that is gaining ground fast. I used it first in last year’s Migrant Voice conference in London, where a big screen projected the tweets behind the speakers, providing, thus, the opportunity for a dynamic and interactive discussion of their arguments. Twitter was similarly used in Edinburgh last week by COSLA SMP. In addition to COSLA SMP (‏@migrationscot), among the organizations tweeting at the conference were the Scottish Refugee Council (@scotrefcouncil), Migrant Voice (‏@MigrantVoiceUK), Politics & International Relations at the University of Edinburgh (@EdinburghPIR), Wales Migration Partnership (@WMPWales), Fife Migrants Forum (@FifeMigrants).

Such uses of Twitter create new spaces for audiences to participate in the discussion whilst allows the conference to achieve a more inclusive debate that involves a greater set of subjects than just the official speakers. But being a relatively new device, some may look at it with suspicion. For example in the academic world researchers value face-to-face exchange and non-mediated communication and yet also conduct much of their work via email and virtual learning platforms. One could draw a parallel here with the experience of migration: anything you don’t know, anything unfamiliar requires us to make an effort against our fear of novelty and difference.

I can provide here one reason why one should try Twitter at conferences. When I tweet about something which is being said, I have to extract and rephrase arguments for a wide audience in ways which can reflect speakers’ viewpoint while I actively listen to everything that is being said. This means that I do not only listen and think about the precise content of the talk, or that my listening is solely shaped by the need to expand my personal knowledge about what is being discussed; but rather that my listening and capturing of meaning is part of a wide dialogue in which I participate. This dialogue involves the speakers, the rest of the audience as well as the members of the public who will read my tweets.

GRAMNet encourages the use of Twitter at conferences and seminars, where appropriate, for two important reasons: a) because it widens the space for debate and makes it a democratic interactive process, as it brings on the same level prestigious speakers and general audience; b) because the medium is also the message and this is not always a bad thing: Twitter only allows you to use 140 characters, which forces users to make a choice and highlight the most important parts of an argument. On Twitter, participation requires us to give up a bit of what we may have in other contexts, i.e. to convey content in a little space, in order to leave space to others, to whom we can listen.

GRAMNet also uses Facebook simultaneously as this is more of a grass roots medium preferred by migrants more generally. In addition, GRAMNet is presently experimenting with new online applications in order to assess how they work and how we can use them best to widen the space for informed debates. One of this is Storify, through which anyone can collect stories composed of any kind of material available online. I thought of using it in order to give you an overview of the debate at the COSLA conference which unfolded online and in parallel with the talks. You can find this overview here. It is made up of the points that the Tweeters liked and debated most among the issues raised by the speakers. As Twitter, Storify is a very democratic medium too, but in another way: it allows the user the choice in terms of how much time they want to spend on it. The user can scroll down quickly, and still get a full sense of the story, or click on each tweet (or each link provided in the icons composing the story) to see who the tweeters (and original sources) are, and you can connect with them via your own Twitter profile. COSLA SMP also provided a Storify for that conference, which is available here.

Thanks to this general overview on Storify, I can focus here exclusively on the arguments that I found innovative, without feeling too embarrassed about leaving some of the important voices of the COSLA SMP conference out. Prof. Christina Boswell presented interesting data in light of which one could critically evaluate the expectations of the Yes and ‘Better Together sides of the present Referendum debate. Her contribution is summarized in these slides which she made available after the conference.

The point I liked the most was the wider rationale of her analysis, and which concerned the idea that migration will bring economic benefits. An idea which is recurrent in the debate about Scottish Independence. She argued that the economic impact of migration “is largely a question for the market”. I really liked the way she demonstrated this, as I think the expected outcomes of progressive policies should be as autonomous as possible from our expectations about market dynamics. These policies should be courageous, able to tell us what is the price we may have to pay in order to actually have a society that can be welcoming and based on Human Rights first and foremost.

Sir Geoff Palmer‘s speech provided the audience with many engaging ideas and was one of the speakers who was most present in tweets. The most inspiring of his points was for me the idea that “Scottish people are big enough to listen to what is true”, which I see as very much linked to the points that Prof. Boswell discussed.

Among the questions raised from the audience, the one that was for me the most important of this conference was that by a francophone migrant who asked MSP Humza Yousaf the following: “Qu’est ce que c’est votre plan B? What is plan B for migrants if the ‘Better Together’ campaign wins the referendum?”. MSP Humza Yousaf replied that in any case the Scottish Government will continue to do whatever it can for them, but he believed that a vote for Independence would be the only way to give Scotland the power it needs to make the difference.

Finally, Prof. Alison Phipps, whose final contribution in some ways links back to, and perhaps inspired, what I said at the beginning of this reflection on the COSLA conference, stressed the points of consensus which the conference had highlighted. 1) A Human Rights Based approach to Migration 2) The central importance of integration in communities, done in participation with many different partners. 3) A sadness that the Scotland Office had not attended or sent representation at short notice and that this diminished the quality and opportunities for practicing debate in this crucial area.

She also spoke about the ways in which we can carry on building the debate about the referendum and migration, which is already an essential brick of a healthy, welcoming society. Therefore she invited all participants at the conference to make of their involvement in this debate first of all an activity of listening, of care and critical respect for public opinion and its beliefs. Listening and whispering, choosing the right rhythm and the right volume for this debate, these are the next steps to take in order to enhance actual dialogue and expand participatory processes, and mark a shift from xenophobia. Because these allow us to find new ways and new spaces to share more and do it better, whatever the outcome of the referendum.

*Giuliana Tiripelli is social media coordinator for GRAMNet


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