Disinformation: How Scotland has been complacent over the risks posed by conspiracy theorists, bots and propaganda – Martyn McLaughlin

Life in the disinformation age can at times feel overwhelming. Geopolitical shifts and rapid technological advancements have heralded a new era of propaganda, waged by bots, deep fakes, dark ads, and troll farms.

There was a time, not so long ago, when we were promised that having information at our fingertips 24/7 would be a liberating force, one capable of breaking down barriers.

Nowadays, such a covenant rings hollow; the more knowledge we have at our disposal, the less capable we seem of deliberation. Instead, our ecosystems are places where manipulation and subversion run rampant. Information has become a tool with which to distract and disrupt rather than engage and enlighten.

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The easy response to all this is to tune off and drop out. It is much more difficult to propose a pragmatic set of solutions to try and counter the problem.

Fortunately, Stewart McDonald has done just that. The SNP MP has long been a thoughtful commentator and activist when it comes to the scourge of disinformation. The publication this week of his report on how the issue impacts on Scotland goes further by setting out a series of recommendations which should, at the very least, act as a springboard for detailed debate.

A good deal of Mr McDonald’s report is concerned with the actions of hostile states and other actors in Scottish political discourse, and it points out that we have been complacent about such threats for too long.

This is undoubtedly true. Compared to some northern European countries, we are behind the curve when it comes to acknowledging this issue, let alone dealing with it, and there is a persistent naivety when it comes to understanding the precise nature of the threat.

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Stewart McDonald's report on disinformation in Scottish life should prompt further debate around the issue (Picture: John Devlin)Stewart McDonald's report on disinformation in Scottish life should prompt further debate around the issue (Picture: John Devlin)
Stewart McDonald's report on disinformation in Scottish life should prompt further debate around the issue (Picture: John Devlin)

As Mr McDonald’s report notes, a majority of voters believe that the Russian state has interfered with recent general elections, as well as the 2014 independence referendum and the vote on whether to leave the EU. The question of whether that interference occurred is not irrelevant, but a singular focus on it obscures other pressing concerns.

The very perception that our democratic processes have been compromised is, in itself, deeply dangerous. This, remember, is the purpose of disinformation – to sow mistrust, discontent, and unrest, and erode faith in our institutions.

The process of undoing that harm is not easy, but several of Mr McDonald’s suggestions are achievable, such as his proposal for voluntary information resilience workshops for members of political parties, trade unions, and faith groups, and an assessment of the influence of foreign, state-backed entities like RT and the Confucius Institutes.

He also calls for the Scottish Government to appoint a disinformation commissioner. This, too, is welcome and feasible, though the details will have to be fleshed out – the existing Scottish Information Commissioner only has the bite to match its bark because its powers are derived from the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act.

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The discussion sparked by Mr McDonald’s report has been framed predominantly around the political implications, and understandably so, given how the tribalism of our discourse leaves us exposed to disinformation attacks. Yet our electoral system is not the only thing at risk. Disinformation threatens our societal cohesion and indeed, even public health.

The report rightly highlights how the ongoing pandemic has been fertile breeding ground for campaigns which seek to discredit the safety or efficacy of vaccination programmes. Much of the messaging and momentum behind them, Mr McDonald points out, has emanated from Russia.

But we have also seen a small if not insignificant surge in homegrown networks perpetuating the same disinformation, often linking to the same spurious sources and professionally produced content which lends even the most absurd claims a veneer of credence.

The greater their presence becomes, the larger the audience exposed to harmful narratives undermining trust in the media, the government, and the scientific community.

The networks in question are not obviously cranks, or at least, not always. One Scottish Facebook group with close to 4,000 followers promotes itself as a “health and wellness” hub. Though the vast majority of its posts are innocuous, it has occasionally posted reckless twaddle about Covid-19, from videos railing against social distancing to articles which ask if fasting can “help you stay safe”.

The impact of this may be negligible, but it demonstrates how disinformation can thrive thanks to the dynamics of social media and the sincere misinterpretations of its media-illiterate users.

Regrettably, some of the organisations amplifying Covid-19 disinformation are motivated by conspiratorial mindsets. I first wrote about one such group, Saving Scotland, last September, when its members held an anti-vaccine demonstration outside Holyrood. The event was organised by a serving councillor.

Nine months on, the outfit is going strong, with upwards of 8,000 members and scores of posts shared in its private group every day. It continues to claim that Covid-19 does not exist, and that the ongoing regulations are legally unenforceable.

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The question of how to counter the growth of such groups is a dilemma, and even if Mr McDonald’s recommendations are implemented in their entirety, they will not be sufficient. That is not intended to sound defeatist. It is a recognition that any Scottish Government-led action will only be effective in the context of a multifaceted, multilateral response.

How, for example, do we deal with online advertising ecosystems which happily accept revenue from those who spread harmful information? One of the wilder social media groups, Scotland Against Lockdown, only has a little over 2,000 followers, but Facebook, in its infinite wisdom, allows it to purchase advertising. For an outlay of less than £100, one of its ads – which promoted a series of anti-mask gatherings – reached a potential audience of more than one million people.

None of this will come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Facebook’s woefully inadequate mechanisms to crack down on harmful conspiracy theories, but it shows how the battle against disinformation and misinformation must be fought on several fronts.

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