Thousands spent on targeted Facebook adverts by Scottish politicians

Figures published by Facebook show that �6.4 million was spent on political ads on Facebook or sister site Instagram.
Figures published by Facebook show that �6.4 million was spent on political ads on Facebook or sister site Instagram.

Facebook users are being targeted with thousands of adverts seeking to influence their opinion of local politics.

Hundreds of individual MPs, elected officials and local authorities have placed nearly half a million pounds’ worth of promotions on the site in less than a year, we can reveal.

In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the social media giant last year began publishing details of who places – and pays for – adverts promoting political or social issues.

Spending on these ads, often targeted to specific groups, has totalled more than £6.4 million since last October.

And while much of the attention has focused on the big parties and pressure groups on either side of the Brexit divide, the data also reveals the thousands of adverts placed at a local level, often seeking to influence constituents on what can appear to be seemingly mundane neighbourhood issues.

Under new rules Facebook introduced in October 2018, anyone placing a political advert must declare who paid for it.

Our investigation identified around 300 ads on the pages of local politicians and councils which were run without these disclaimers – including 40 placed on behalf of sitting MPs.

There is no suggestion that any of the adverts had been deliberate attempts to deceive constituents. They were all found and removed by Facebook.

Most adverts placed by or on behalf of Scottish MPs from October 2018 to September 7, 2019, were for amounts less than £100.

There were a few exceptions – £325 spent by Gordon Conservatives, £3042 by Lib Dem leader and East Dunbartonshire MP Jo Swinson, £703 by Angus Conservatives, £373 by the Perth and Kinross Conservative Association, £397 by Linlithgow MP Martyn Day, and £539 by the Conservative Party.

For MSPs, the majority also spent sums less than £100 promoting material on Facebook.

The exceptions were former Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson (£4012 paid by the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party), Anas Sarwar (£1098), Johann Lamont (£965 paid by the Scottish Labour Party), Liam Kerr (£686 paid by the Scottish Parliament), Alex Rowley (£628), Alexander Burnett (£600 paid by the Scottish Parliament) Peter Chapman (£555 paid by the Scottish Parliament), Beatrice Wishart (£476 paid by Paul Moat), Richard Leonard (£200 paid by the Scottish Labour Party), and West Lothian Courier Partners (£125 paid for by Angela Constance MSP).

Two Scottish local authorities spent money with Facebook – City of Edinburgh Council (£706) and the SNP Group on North Ayrshire Council (less than £100).

Two Scottish politicans each had a Facebook advert removed as it appeared without a disclaimer – Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East MP Stuart McDonald and Martin Docherty-Hughes, MP for West Dunbartonshire.

Unsurprisingly the biggest spenders on Facebook over the past year have included various Brexit campaigns – People’s Vote UK (£461,549), Best for Britain (£ 444,015) and Britain’s Future (£423,834).

Production company Slainte Media spent £10,219 promoting former First Minister Alex Salmond’s televisionchat show.

A Westminster Government spokesperson said: “There should be greater transparency in political advertising, which is why we have already pledged to introduce the requirement for digital election material to be clearly branded. We will bring forward technical proposals by the end of the year.”