A NEW study by a team of Scottish academics has shown that the Scottish Greens and the SNP are the most trusted parties on the reliability of facts they present on the internet and social media, while the Scottish Conservatives are the least trusted.

The study by Professor Rita Marcella, research fellow Graeme Baxter and researcher Agnieszka Walicka explored public perceptions of the reliability of information presented online as “facts” by Scottish political parties.

It is the follow-up to the study they carried out about the referendum in 2014, which found that citizens were “generally sceptical about the reliability of information presented online as ‘the facts’ or ‘the truth’ by Better Together, Yes Scotland, and the main Scottish political parties”.

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This led the trio to conduct another study earlier this year, which focused specifically on the public’s perceptions of online political “facts”. This study consisted of an online survey of 538 people which gathered opinion on the reliability of “facts and figures” contained within five social media posts made by the five main Scottish parties. They also carried out 23 extended, face-to-face interviews with Aberdonians who were asked to consider information presented as “facts” on the Scottish parties’ websites.

The SNP talked about the “positive initial destinations” of school leavers, the Scottish Conservatives attacked the SNP Government’s record on college places, while Scottish Labour questioned the SNP’s pre-referendum oil revenue forecasts. The Scottish Greens highlighted childcare costs while the Scottish Liberal Dems also attacked the SNP Government’s 10-year record on education.

The five social media images were chosen deliberately by the researchers, as none gave any indication of the source of the “facts and figures” presented.

They said yesterday: “This, it was hoped, would prompt our respondents to give some real thought as to the accuracy and trustworthiness of the information. It is worth noting that we were able to trace the origins of all five parties’ figures, but only with considerable perseverance and fairly sophisticated information seeking techniques.”

The Scottish Greens’ post was viewed as the most reliable, closely followed by that of the SNP. The Scottish Conservatives’ post on college places was regarded as the least reliable.

They added: “Our participants were asked to indicate if they had a particular allegiance, and when we looked at the answers of those who revealed their preference, a pattern of sorts emerged. This was most obvious amongst the self-proclaimed SNP supporters, 74.5 per cent of whom felt that the ‘facts and figures’ in the SNP’s post were ‘very’ or ‘quite’ reliable.”

“There was a general awareness among our participants that the information provided on parties’ websites and social media sites is unlikely to be entirely objective; and that particular statistics may be ‘cherry-picked’ to support or oppose a political argument.”

Asked how they would obtain information, “for the vast majority of our participants, Google would be their first port of call”.

“The analysis of our data is still ongoing,” said the authors, “but one aspect we are currently exploring is that of the ‘journey’ of a political ‘fact’, from its origins in, say, the report of a government agency, parliamentary committee, third sector body, or academic institution, to it being cited regularly by politicians in, say, speeches, media appearances, or social media posts.

“Perhaps unsurprisingly, our results so far suggest that, as the journey of the fact progresses, its original source becomes less and less clear, and the fact itself is increasingly likely to be reinterpreted to suit the needs and agenda of the political actors using it.”

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A spokesperson for the SNP said: “Digital is a key part of our comms strategy, helping the SNP achieve great success in recent years. Although feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, we’re always looking for ways to improve engagement with our growing online audience.”

A spokesperson for the Scottish Greens said: "This is an interesting piece of research. Social media is a key part of how we communicate with the public, and our style of online activity relates to our actions on ground - using evidence to bring constructive challenge and get results.

"Coupled with our well-respected team of MSPs, including Patrick Harvie who regularly tops satisfaction polls of Holyrood leaders, we look forward to generating more social media content that continues to build trust in the Scottish Greens."