SNP MP warns disinformation risks 'radicalising' parts of population amid claims Iran meddling in Scottish election

An SNP MP has warned disinformation risks “radicalising” parts of the population amid claims Iran has been meddling in the Scottish election.

Stewart McDonald called for a new approach to tackle misinformation following reports cyber specialists working on behalf of the Iranian regime are targeting Scottish voters by posing as pro-independence users on Twitter and Facebook.

It is believed fake accounts were encouraging real users to share content and material of a pro-independence nature in the form of memes, graphics and cartoons with their friends and contacts on the sites.

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Fake websites have also been set up, designed to influence the campaign by tricking internet users as part of a wider disinformation campaign from Iran.

A think-tank has warned about the Iranian regime's social influence on the Scottish election. Picture: PAA think-tank has warned about the Iranian regime's social influence on the Scottish election. Picture: PA
A think-tank has warned about the Iranian regime's social influence on the Scottish election. Picture: PA

Now the SNP’s defence spokesperson has called for a serious strategy to crack down on disinformation.

Mr McDonald said: “Foreign, malign interference in our elections is no real surprise – it has been a running problem for almost every country in Europe and, most prominently, the United States.

“Although it is true to say that the level of activity in Scotland from countries such as Iran and Russia does appear to be minimal, that is not to say that it’s something we can afford to ignore – we can’t because the problem will grow.

“So it is incumbent on all political parties to better understand the problem and do what we can to counter it.

“We will, however, have to go further and develop a comprehensive national strategy to counter-disinformation.

“Too often we are stuck in a mindset of thinking that this is just a few twitter bots and whilst this might be how it starts, it is rarely how it ends.

“As events in Washington in January showed us, disinformation only needs to radicalise a relatively small part of the population before it becomes a physical assault on democratic institutions.”

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Mr McDonald has previously called for the UK and Scottish governments to work together to tackle the issue, as well as the appointment of an “ambassador for hybrid affairs” to work with other countries to tackle the issue.

He said: “As the fight against disinformation is a pan-Western concern, Scotland could work in concert with other governments by establishing an annual information resilience strategy summit, hosted here in Scotland, where governments and civil society groups can come together to better learn from each other and also coordinate strategies where this would make sense.”

An SNP spokeswoman claimed the party was working to counter disinformation.

The spokeswoman said: “That is why we led the calls for the Russia report to be published, so work could start sooner rather than later to tackle the threat of foreign interference in UK and Scottish politics.

“However, we have been disappointed by the slow nature of the UK Government’s response.”

The comments follow a study by the Henry Jackson Society think-tank, which echoes Mr McDonald’s previous warnings and claims the Iranian regime's efforts are similar to that of Russia – designed to instil chaos, uncertainty and division to weaken their adversaries.

The study explained “Iran has become increasingly sophisticated in both the scope and choice of its target”, with the author of the report, Dr Paul Stott, saying that in terms of cyber capabilities, Iran should no longer be considered a “third tier” country.

The research said the increasing presence of Iranian disinformation was an attempt by the regime to “attack the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom”.

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The report concluded: “Iran has shown itself to be a country which engages in Russian-style disinformation campaigns, repeatedly establishing fake websites and internet accounts in an effort to disrupt the political systems of liberal democracies.

"Judged within this context, Iran is almost certainly looking to disrupt our current elections, most likely those under way for the Scottish assembly.”

It included that while the majority of the activity targets Israel, Afghanistan and Iraq, there has been an increasing amount of effort targeting Scotland over the past year.

Responding to the report, Scottish Conservative candidate for Perthshire North, Murdo Fraser, called for action from the social media giants.

He said: "This is not the first time we have seen such meddling by hostile foreign regimes, but it is deeply concerning that Iran's operation to manipulate Scottish democracy is becoming increasingly sophisticated.

"Five minutes on Twitter is all it takes to see the vast number of anonymous pro-nationalist accounts dedicated to relentlessly targeting the Scottish Conservatives, as we are the only party with the strength to stop the SNP's destructive agenda.

"The social media companies seem to understand the dangers, but there is clearly much more they should do.

"One problem is knowing which of these accounts are run from Tehran and which are 'sock puppets' controlled by anonymous cybernat cowards who spew out abuse from behind a keyboard."

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Social media sites Twitter and Facebook are proactively trying to identify and ban “co-ordinated inauthentic behaviour” by regimes such as Iran.

One of the accounts recently closed down by Facebook was a fake Iranian persona, which had shared material “mocking the Scottish Conservatives”.

It was one of 446 accounts closed by the site for violating its policies against foreign interference, according to its February 2021 Coordinated Inauthentic Behaviour Report.

Questioned about the study this morning, Foreign Office minister James Cleverly admitted the UK Government had serious concerns about Iran’s “destabilising behaviour” in the Middle East and more broadly.

He said: “How the international community responds to these kinds of accusations or concerns about cyber actions will be one of the things on the agenda of the G7 meeting that the foreign secretary will be hosting with foreign ministers from our economic and international partners.”

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