'Disinformation commissioner' to tackle bots and fake news proposed by SNP MP

Scotland is facing multiple challenges around disinformation from foreign powers such as Iran, Russia and China, an SNP MP has warned in a new paper outlining the threat posed by fake news originating from hostile countries.

Stewart McDonald, the SNP’s spokesperson on defence, published a paper on disinformation in Scotland on Monday, urging the Scottish Government to appoint a commissioner dedicated to countering disinformation.

The paper also suggested “annual open days” for Scottish media organisations where newsrooms are opened up to the public for a day or surgeries are held with readers or viewers in more rural parts of Scotland in a bid to rebuild trust in traditional media and make public the methods of journalists.

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Stewart McDonald has released a report into disinformation in Scotland. Picture: John Devlin

The report highlights the increased activity of disinformation actors such as Russian “bots and troll farms” pushing anti-vaccination messages or promoting disinformation around the efficacy of vaccines produced in the West.

He also raises the attempts of Iran to influence the 2014 independence referendum and the attempts of ‘Confucius Institutes’ – Chinese state-backed research centres in Scottish universities – to “distort domestic political sentiment”.

The report states: “Scotland faces a range of disinformation actors who make use of a large and evolving toolbox of techniques to influence and corrupt the Scottish information eco-system. There is no panacea for this problem.”

The document adds the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the vulnerabilities to disinformation the country faces and calls for consideration of a wide-range of solutions to the potential problems.

The MP for Glasgow South writes: “The Scottish and UK governments should recognise that the past year has revealed just how vulnerable our societies are to disinformation – from within and outwith the state – and take urgent steps to build information resilience within the Scottish population.

"If hostile foreign powers use the state, businesses and private citizens to advance their disinformation campaigns, then liberal democracies’ response must be similarly holistic.

"Transparency, accountability and truth must be the foundations upon which a response to information operations in Scotland is built.”

Alongside the appointment of a commissioner and the open days in Scottish newsrooms, Mr McDonald also proposes young Scots are given “information literacy training”, which would see professional journalists teach children about misinformation and improve “media literacy”.

Literacy programmes would also be made available for civil servants, elected representatives and journalists, with the Scottish Government also urged to perform a “information eco-system audit” that would assess the “availability of quality news to citizens” and the reach of state-backed institutions such as the Confucius Institutes or RT (formerly Russia Today).

The SNP MP said: “Disinformation is not a new threat, but it is one that is now more sophisticated than it has ever been before. It represents a challenge to open societies that many countries across Europe and the wider world are dealing with, and Scotland is no different.

"Any challenge to our own security, public health and societal cohesion must be met with a robust national strategy to counter that challenge and maintain the open, democratic way of life we enjoy.

‘The pandemic has brought into sharp focus why this issue is of real importance. Disinformation, both before and during the vaccine campaign, has been weaponised at levels nobody imagined.”

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