Facebook removes boast that it helped the SNP win big in 2015

Nothing to SNP here

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There are two sides to Facebook's influence on the democratic process: there's the 'fake news' agenda, where the spread of viral content spreads a deeply partisan content through receptive echo chambers, but there's also the (comparatively speaking) more transparent way, in which political parties place targeted paid advertising. In very basic terms, the former is something that Facebook was initially keen to downplay, while the latter is something the company has been reasonably happy to trumpet. Until now.

As spotted by The Telegraph, Facebook has taken down a number of case studies from its government and policy page. The first boasted of how the Scottish National Party (SNP) had Facebook to thank for its incredibly successful 2015 general election campaign where it managed to win 56 out of Scotland's 59 seats in the House of Commons. Under the none-too-bashful headline of “Triggering a landslide”, the company bragged that “the political party used a powerful combination of Facebook's targeting and engagement tools to mobilise its supporters and achieve an overwhelming victory in the 2015 UK general election.”

That page used to contain similar success stories for Bernie Sanders' campaign to be the Democrat candidate for the 2016 US presidential election (which, lest we forget, fell well short of success) and a section on Rick Scott's more successful campaign to be Florida governor. All three of these case studies vanished, leaving one campaign remaining: a less controversial bipartisan initiative on the use of green spaces in Finland.

Earlier this week, the page was deleted altogether.

Influential? Us?

It's not clear why Facebook decided to remove the boasts now, although it's pretty easy to speculate. The social network has been under pressure for some time for its ability to alter voter behaviour in one way or another. But Facebook has been inconsistent about how readily it takes credit for electoral success. Back in 2012, its own research demonstrated that simple “I voted” badges on people's posts could boost voter turnout by 340,000, just through viral peer pressure alone. Theoretically, Facebook could target this at specific districts and constituencies, boosting and suppressing turnout with different demographics to play democratic God.

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At the same time, immediately after the 2016 presidential election, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself claimed it was “a pretty crazy idea” to think that the company could have altered the result. He later backtracked on this, in part because it was so transparently not the case. As former Facebook advertising executive Antonio Garcia Martinez said at the time: “It’s crazy that Zuckerberg says there’s no way Facebook can influence the election when there’s a whole sales force in Washington DC that does nothing but convince advertisers that they can.”

One thing is for sure: creaking democracies are struggling to keep up with the way online campaigns are becoming the norm. In the UK, for example, strict campaigning laws mean you have an essentially unlimited national spend, but local campaigning spend capped at around £15,000. Traditional online advertising – rudderless and untargeted – is clearly national spend, but when Facebook allows you to hone in on voters by location, tailoring a localised message relevant to their constituency and local candidate, then surely it should come out of the local spend pot. Facebook don't help much with this process, keeping advertising campaigns completely obscure. You can't see the adverts I've been served, just as I can't see the ads you're getting. There really is no accountability.

How much influence this all has depends on who you ask. Facebook's advertising department will promise you the Earth, while the PRs charged with keeping the firm's reputation positive will play down its influence. Really, nobody knows for sure. You can't do an experiment with two identical electorates in the same political climate with identical candidates, so nobody can offer more than anecdotes and conjecture.

Still, the SNP might offer a bit more of that conjecture themselves, and not necessarily how Facebook's political sales teams might like. The 2015 landslide was followed by an equally brutal ejection just 25 months later when the party lost 21 of its seats in the snap election of 2017. Maybe they just didn't Facebook hard enough.

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