THE SNP may have lost target seats because pro-Union groups spent tens of thousands of pounds on digital ads pushing tactical voting, an investigation has revealed.

The SNP and Scottish Greens won a total of 72 seats in Holyrood on a record turnout for the Scottish Parliament elections of 63% – 10% higher than the previous average.

But an OpenDemocracy report found the party could have lost key seats, which prevented them from achieving an outright majority, due to  social media adverts with a lack of transparency over funding.

The site found a group called Young Unionists spent more than £20,000 on Facebook ads, including more than £5000 in the final days of the campaign. Tens of thousands of voters were pushed to the VoteUnion tactical voting tool.

Under new election legislation, digital adverts in Scotland are supposed to carry details of who paid for them. But Young Unionists' ads had no disclaimer and there was no name attached to the campaign.

Young Unionists did register as a non-party campaigner in the Scottish election. Its secretary is listed as Maximillian Young – who was involved in a campaign called Capitalist Worker, which spent £65,000 on anti-Jeremy Corbyn ads in the 2019 General Election without declaring any donors.

Another Facebook page, Vote Union, last week spent £3012 promoting its tactical vote calculator “to stop an SNP majority”. 

The pro-Trump student group Turning Point UK spent £3700 on Facebook ads last week, all focused on the Scottish election. Between Tuesday and Thursday, at least 70,000 voters saw a Turning Point ad that said “vote Conservative, Labour or Liberal to remake Scotland!”.

The Turning Point UK ads had no imprint so it was unclear who paid for them but they were all targeted at people in England, perhaps in an attempt to evade Scottish legislation on digital political ads.

Another website, Think Scotland, run by former Brexit Party MEP Brian Monteith – who was also behind Capitalist Worker – spent £12,600 pounds on Facebook ads in the week to May 6. The SNP, by contrast, spent less than £10,000.

The group's spending included at least £3000 on ads pushing Vote Union’s tactical voting tool. The ads were all bought in Monteith’s name. He has previously said all protocols have been followed in respect of election donations.

Another campaign, Businesses for the Union, spent more than £10,000 during the Scottish elections. Facebook data shows that the ads were paid for by Matthew Kilcoyne, deputy director of the Adam Smith Institute – an influential free-market think tank that does not declare its donors.

A former Conservative Party activist and regular contributor to The Spectator and The Telegraph, Kilcoyne has worked as an adviser to the UK government’s strategic trade advisory group.

It is believed pro-independence voters may also have been tricked on the list vote.

Independent Green Voice, whose candidates included an alleged Holocaust denier and two former BNP activists, has been registered with the electoral commission since 2003. But in this election there are concerns their name and logo may have cost the Scottish Greens regional seats in Glasgow and South Scotland.

In Glasgow, where Independent Green Voice were not on the ballot paper in 2016, they gained 2210 votes (0.7% vote share). The Scottish Greens were only 1000 votes away from taking a second regional seat that eventually went to the Tories.

READ MORE: Greens say confusion over 'fascist front' may have cost them seats

Independent Green Voice, set up by Alistair McConnachie, who has been accused of Holocaust denial and was the candidate for Glasgow, also may have had an impact in South Scotland.

There they won 1690 (0.46% vote share) votes that also may have been a result of voter confusion. The Greens only needed 100 votes to take the final regional seat there. The party was also not on the peach ballot in 2016 for South Scotland.

There are now implications that the fringe party may have stopped the pro-independence seat total from being 74 instead of 72.

A spokesperson for the Scottish Greens said: “Independent Green Voice, now a front for fascists, was allowed to use a logo with ‘green’ in big letters and the other words in small print on the ballot paper. This attracted enough votes to potentially prevent two additional Scottish Green MSPs to be elected, one in Glasgow and one in the South of Scotland.

“There are serious questions about how the Electoral Commission allowed such blatant electoral deceit.”

A spokesperson for the Electoral Commission would not confirm if any complaints had been made or if it was investigating.

She said: “We assess all party applications against the criteria set out in law and consider comments made by the public and other parties. This includes assessing the identity marks that appear on ballot papers to ensure voters would not be misled as to the intention of their vote. If a party’s application meets the legal criteria then it must be registered.”

Yesterday John Curtice said the SNP’s lack of an outright majority was because Unionist voters voted for a party in each constituency that had the potential to beat the SNP.

The polling expert said: “Denying the SNP an overall majority was, indeed, a collective effort – at least on the part of Unionist voters, who on the constituency ballot demonstrated a remarkable willingness to back whichever pro-Union party appeared to be best placed locally to defeat the SNP.”

READ MORE: John Curtice says lack of overall SNP majority was 'collective effort' by Unionists

The SNP achieved a record fourth term in government with 64 seats, 48% of the constituency vote and 40% of the list vote.

But Curtice said anti-SNP tactical voting was successful in SNP target seats like Eastwood where former Tory leader Jackson Carlaw was re-elected in Eastwood after Labour’s vote slumped by a massive 15% from 2016. Carlaw received 17,911 votes beating the SNP’s Colm Merrick who netted 15,695. Labour got just 6759, taking third place.

In the SNP target seats of Edinburgh Western and Edinburgh Southern unionist supporting voters also swung behind what they regarded as the strongest pro-UK party in the area.

Tactical voting saw support for LibDem Alex Cole-Hamilton rise to 25,578 votes – a 13% rise on his 2016 result.

The SNP’s Sarah Masson received 15,693 votes while Labour netted just 2515 and the Tories 2798 – with falls of 4% and 8% respectively. Turnout was a massive 71.5%.

In Edinburgh Southern – another key target seat for the SNP – Labour’s Daniel Johnson was returned to Holyrood.

Johnson was elected with 20,760, a 10% increase on his 2016 result.

The SNP’s Catriona MacDonald took 16,738 votes, increasing the party’s vote share by 4%.

However, the Tory candidate Miles Briggs saw his vote share tumble by 14.5% while the LibDems also fell by a percentage.

The results also suggest significant tactical voting in North East Fife. LibDem leader Willie Rennie took 22,163 with 55% of the vote – up 11% on 2016.

Rhuaraidh Fleming for the SNP came second on 14,715 – up 3% on the last election, while the Labour and the Tories saw falls of 3% and 10%.

“These patterns had a decisive impact on the outcome,” Curtice added.