In this “pandemic election”, when door-to-door canvassing and in-person meetings were significantly restricted, social media communication, including but not limited to advertising, was – besides televised debates – the most important tool for political parties to get their messages across and persuade the electorate to vote for them.

Social media advertising represents an important add-on in a wider context of persuasive communication during political campaigning, but it is unlikely to be decisive.

We, therefore, have to be careful when interpreting social media advertising spending in relation to the electoral success.

However, data on how much political parties in Scotland spent on Facebook ads reveals some interesting insights.

It confirms that the parties’ stance on the constitutional question in relation to the Scottish independence (and to an extent EU membership), political performance and track record rather than social media budget played a decisive role when people were casting their ballots.

READ MORE: Labour spent £190,000 on election adverts, three times SNP spending

Out of the three largest parties in the Scottish (and UK) Parliament, the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon spent the least on Facebook ads (£60,000) with the Scottish Labour being a record spender (£187,000), followed by the Scottish Conservatives (£110,000). Yet the SNP had the highest efficiency per seat won.

They had a very strong start at the beginning of the election campaign and additionally capitalised on excellent leadership and communication of the First Minister during the pandemic.

Their messages emphasising competent leadership of Nicola Sturgeon and democratic argument for the second independence referendum after the COVID-19 recovery were cleverly chosen and boded well with the Scottish electorate.

The fact that the Scottish Labour and Anas Sarwar were the highest spenders indicates their ambition to become the biggest opposition party. Anas Sarwar is considered as one of the most talented leaders in the Labour Party, not just in Scotland, but UK-wide, yet his persistent distancing from the constitutional debate did not seem to convince the voters.

The Labour focused on COVID recovery instead, but divorcing the recovery from the constitutional question is like discussing the issue without a backdrop. The constitutional question matters to people of Scotland on both sides of the debate, so it is unsurprising that their advertising spending did not translate into an electoral success.

The Scottish Conservatives were campaigning on a single issue – opposing the second referendum – and came across as the most convincing amongst the pro-union parties. Their relatively high spending figure indicates how important this election was for the future of the United Kingdom and their investment was the second most efficient after the SNP.

The Liberal Democrats found themselves in a conundrum. They pose as a pro-EU party, even though Willie Rennie during televised debates showed an astonishing lack of knowledge and understanding of the EU, evident in incorrect statements on how old the EU is and misguided comparisons between the EU and the UK. Lib Dems also lack clear policies on what this pro-European stance means, while reducing the constitutional argument to a simple “we do not need another divisive referendum”. It is unsurprising that their spending of £42,000 was the least efficient per seat won (if we disregard Alba party, which spent £25,000 without winning any seats).

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Following the Liberal Democrats were the Scottish Greens with £40,000 spent on Facebook ads, indicating their hopes to increase the representation in the Scottish Parliament, which they did with a reasonable efficiency. They came across as a very consistent and competent party in this election and their pro-independence arguments were at times more eloquent and convincing than the SNP’s.

The increasing societal concern about climate emergency, particularly in the light of post-COVID recovery, also played in their favour.

Alba’s spending was the lowest and the most fruitless. The party had a slim chance in this election, considering it was only founded three months before the election with manifesto launched a few weeks before the polling day and tainted by allegations against its leader Alex Salmond.

Social media without a doubt played a very important part in this election, but there is a question to what extent Facebook advertising had an effect beyond “preaching to the converted”.

Where social media will play a far more important role is cultivating the future political debates in Scotland. We need to move away from clichés of “divisive referendums” and “uniting the country”. Referendums do not need to be divisive if we learn to listen to each other, debate with respect and discuss issues that matter in a constructive manner. There is no progress without differences in opinions, so we need to come to terms with diversity of views and cultivate a constructive democratic dialogue amongst politicians and the electorate alike. Social media will be one of the central platforms for this.

Dr Alenka Jelen is a Senior Lecturer Communications, Media and Culture at the University of Stirling.