The Scotland Office, the branch office of the UK Tory government, seems to be using Twitter and Facebook for political purposes. Ministers are using expensive promotions to target specific groups of people and they’re paying for it with public money – our money.
How do I know? I asked David Mundell. During the first half of 2017 the Scotland Office Twitter and Facebook accounts looked odd so I started asking some questions and the answers were incredible. Scotland Office advertising costs had been a couple of hundred pounds each month until March 2017 when it shot up to nearly £12,000 – just before the UK snap election was called and only a couple of months before Scotland’s council elections.
Advertising by governments is valid and important but this was all spent on targeted messages on Facebook and Twitter. No newspaper adverts, no radio, telly, magazine, cinema or billboard adverts, just social media. When I asked who was targeted the answers were vague, and he wouldn’t show me the adverts used because they’d already been published.
A couple of Ferret journalists started digging and discovered that very specific groups had been targeted – people with an interest in RAF Lossiemouth, for example, and women who didn’t go to university. They also discovered that one of the advertising campaigns was conducted entirely in Mundell’s constituency and that another excluded people interested in Scottish independence.
Advertising campaigns limited to people who use Facebook or Twitter but only half the population is a narrow field. When I asked what advertising had that “no independence” filter I was told the “Scotland’s trade” campaign in 2017. Why exclude Scottish independence supporters from an advertising campaign about Scotland’s trade? Surely independence supporters are just as interested in trade as anyone else?
Well, that campaign tried to persuade people that trade with the UK was more important to Scotland than trade with the EU. It was a political point to counter the support of the SNP and the Scottish Government for Scotland’s links with the EU. I suppose he didn’t want independence supporters countering that. I’ve no problem with politicians making political points but they shouldn’t use public money to mount a targeted advertising campaign when their arguments are failing.
What Mr Mundell has been doing isn’t what Cambridge Analytica was doing but it’s presenting one face to one group of people and a different face to another group. We should expect more from government ministers – we should expect that they would be consistent in what they say.
Then there’s the campaign that was run entirely in his constituency at public expense. It was advertising a visit of the UK Government’s Exporting Is GREAT campaign bus to Gretna. That bus went to other places and the Scotland Office Facebook page had posts about those visits, but it was only when it visited Gretna that money was spent on advertising. That advertising was aimed at small business owners nearby.
It’s clear that the Scotland Office has been using taxpayers’ cash to target voters with specific messages. It’s also clear that they didn’t want to tell us about it. I started asking these question in June last year and I only got the answer about independence supporters on Wednesday. I’m sure that there’s more to find and I’ll keep digging to try to winkle it out.
It would be better all round, though, if the Scottish Secretary fessed up and told us what he’s been up to with social media advertising. Thousands of pounds spent just before elections on targeted campaigns just stinks to high heaven.
Deidre Brock is SNP MP for Edinburgh North and Leith. This article originally appeared in the National.