Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland parties spent £25,000 on social media ads during election

Northern Ireland's five main political parties and some of their candidates spent around £25,000 on social media advertising during the election campaign.
Northern Ireland's five main political parties and some of their candidates spent around £25,000 on social media advertising during the election campaign.
Jonathan Bell

By Jonathan Bell

Northern Ireland's five main political parties and some of their candidates spent around £25,000 on social media advertising during the election campaign.

The parties paid out a minimum £18,000 while candidates spent just over £6,000 on Facebook and Instagram in the run-up to the December 12 poll.

But the figures are dwarfed by parties in Britain.

The Conservatives spent almost £1m, including over £250,000 in the last week of campaigning. And £250,000 was spent on Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Facebook page.

The figures are recorded on Facebook's Ad Library and indicate total spend by individuals and parties as well as the price band on individual posts. For example, many advertisements are listed as having a spend of under £100, or between £100 and £200.

Alliance spent the most on advertising on social media. It paid £8,575 for political adverts with just under half spent in the last week of the campaign.

It ran 65 ads between December 1 and 12 and most featured either leader Naomi Long or deputy leader Stephen Farry. Mr Farry was elected as MP for North Down.

As well as covering policy such as health, economy, animal welfare, climate change and welfare cuts, many of the ads included polling figures on the East Belfast and North Down constituencies and how close the projections were.

It spent between £500 and £600 on an ad for Mr Farry dealing with loyalist "fake news" posters which appeared around North Down and other areas linking the party to nationalism and the IRA.

"Just some of the nonsense we've seen over the last few weeks. Don't let loyalist trolls and their fake news tell you how to vote," the post, which was accompanied by some of the offending material, said.

Its most effective ad emphasised how Northern Ireland was home to "thriving business" and how Brexit would place "barriers" to trade. Around £300 was spent on it with it reaching an audience of 80,000.

Facebook has admitted that it cannot keep track of every advertisement from a political organisation or individual on its platform of 2.45bn users.

The social media giant was put under pressure to ban political ads. It established a special operations centre to combat abuse and stop the spread of misinformation and urged users to flag any problematic posts.

And in the run-up to the election there were reports of posts disappearing from the Ad Library. Facebook said it would investigate.

Twitter banned all forms of political advertising ahead of the election on its platform.

When an advertiser categorises its ad as about political matters it must disclose who paid for it under Facebook rules. Information on exactly who the target audience was is only provided to those that are served the ad on their timelines.

Reports suggested a DUP ad - featuring Carla Lockhart on the party's anti-abortion stance - targeted people interested in gospel music and the Catholic Church.

Of the main parties, only the UUP did not post any advertisements. Two of its candidates did, however.

Almost £270 was spent on leader Steve Aiken's page in his ultimately unsuccessful challenge to the DUP's Sammy Wilson in East Antrim.

And £1,043 was spent on South Antrim candidate Danny Kinahan's campaign in his bid to reclaim his seat from the DUP.Paul Girvan held the seat.

The DUP were the next big spenders of the parties on the social media platforms locally. The party spent £6,104 on 26 advertisements from October up to the election. In the final week of the election £1,046 was spent.

In North Belfast Nigel Dodds' bid to hold the seat was the focus of its online campaign in the final weeks. An ad featuring Mr Dodds at the party launch of the manifesto emphasising how it had delivered for Northern Ireland and its "positive plan for the future", was its biggest spend.

The party spent at most £600 on two different versions of the ad. The 30 second clip was featured on at least 50,000 Facebook profiles. It appears to have been targeted at men and mostly those under 34.

The SDLP spent £2,490 - third on the list of local parties. Separately £3,303 was spent on leader Colum Eastwood and Claire Hanna's pages.

The party took out four ads in December. Three were for Michael Savage's campaign in South Down, where Sinn Fein's Chris Hazzard was re-elected, and one for Colum Eastwood, who won back the Foyle seat. The Eastwood ad appears to have been targeted at women, particularly those aged over 54.

Sinn Fein spent the least. It has the biggest following of all the local parties with 168,000, dwarfing the DUP's 20,000, the next biggest following. Alliance has 12,000 followers.

According to the Facebook data, the party spent no money on ads in the UK in December and November. However, in Ireland it spent just over €7,000 from March up to December 12.

It ran five ads in December. Two featured returned Fermanagh-South Tyrone candidate Michelle Gildernew, who was elected, and three for defeated Foyle candidate Elisha McCallion.

As Facebook only gives ranges of money paid, it can only be estimated the party spent a maximum of €1,000 on ads specifically for the Westminster election.

The most amount of money in December was spent on an ad for Ms McCallion. Between €300 and €400 was spent on an ad which featured a simple photo montage on the party's influence around the world.

The page for new North Belfast MP John Finucane has a following of 8,000 - bigger than that of the SDLP and UUP. Four ads were taken out by the page and all in the UK, with less than £100 spent in total.

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