Now a global conference which seeks to find ways of countering the spread of state-sponsored trolling and propaganda in public life is to set up in Scotland.
MisinfoConX Scotland will bring together representatives from news organisations, technology firms and the information security sector to discuss the threat to democracy and national discourse posed by false and malicious online content.
Those attending the event in Stirling include Stewart McDonald, the SNP’s defence spokesman. The MP for Glasgow South has previously warned there is a “prima facie case” that Russia has attempted to exploit Scottish independence as part of its wider push to “destabilise western institutions”.
Last year, it emerged that a Facebook page which backed the cause of Scottish independence and had gathered more than 200,000 followers was a fake account that had been set up in Iran. The page, called Free Scotland 2014, was among hundreds taken offline by the social media firm.
The Scottish gathering is billed as a search for “practical solutions” to a “phenomenon that plagues public discourse and threatens democratic process across the globe”.
Also in attendance will be executives from NewsGuard, a start-up which provides browser extensions to gauge the reliability of thousands of news and information sites.
The conference will feature a workshop by an ethical hacker who will demonstrate firsthand the ease with which bots and fake social media accounts can be created.
The MisinfoCon movement grew out of Hacks/Hackers, an international grassroots journalism organisation.
Those involved in planning the Stirling event say the decision to bring MisinfoCon to Scotland is a sign of how the country is particularly prone to disinformation campaigns.
Jennifer Jones, an independent media researcher and co-organiser of Hacks/Hackers Scotland, said: “The landscape surrounding alternative media and citizen journalism has changed. We now have weaponised citizen journalism which links to fake news and misinformation.
“Whether it’s Russia or something closer to home, people are using fear, outrage and derision to get their message across, and the social media machine runs on likes and retweets – that’s not how we should judge the credibility of a source.”
She added: “One of the reasons I specifically wanted to have a MisinfoCon event in Scotland is because I think the devolved nations are vulnerable. We do things differently, and we not only have issues like Brexit and Scottish independence, but things like sectarianism. These are all issues where misinformation can be spread because of tribalism.”
Jones said that the event, which is being held in association with software company Mozilla, was designed to help improve media literacy as well as encouraging media organisations to build trust with their audiences.
“We’ve spent the past 20 to 30 years criticising media studies as a Mickey Mouse subject, and many people now don’t understand what journalism does,” she said.
Since the inaugural MisinfoCon gathering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2017, it has become a fixture in the US and Europe. Speakers at events have included Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Jessica Leinwand, Facebook’s public policy manager, and Adam Hickey, deputy assistant attorney general at the US justice department.
MisinfoConX Scotland takes place at CodeBase Stirling on 31 January. Tickets for the free event are available via Eventbrite.