A paper has been published by Stewart McDonald MP setting out his assessment of disinformation activity in Scotland as well as practical solutions to fight back.
In the document by McDonald entitled ‘Disinformation in Scottish Public Life’ is an assessment of disinformation activity in Scotland over recent years, including with regards to the COVID-19 pandemic and political campaigns.
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Stewart McDonald is the SNP’s defence spokesperson at Westminster and a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee and he is keen to stress that this paper is not an SNP policy paper or a paper about the constitution, but instead one that seeks to build a “much-needed consensus to help us move forward”.
I agree, disinformation is something that impacts everyone no matter their political opinions.
Stewart assesses the actions of hostile states and other actors, outlining some examples of the different ways in which they seek to interact with people in Scotland on a range of issues and via different platforms and means.
The report also outlines 9 recommendations that he believes will help make Scotland more information resilient, building up a national resistance to hostile disinformation campaigns and conspiracy theories.
In the foreword, Stewart points out that disinformation is not a new problem. However, it is growing in sophistication, scale and reach.
“I have spoken and written on numerous occasions urging us as a society to call time on the false sense of security in which we continue to bask. Disinformation poses an urgent threat to all free and open societies, and Scotland is no exception. However, as other countries think seriously about how to combat hostile disinformation campaigns, Scotland has been uncharacteristically mute on the subject. Thankfully, that is starting to change: the manifestos of some parties at the 2021 Scottish Parliament election, including my own, show that there are those who have started to engage with the issue. The work, however, is just beginning.”
Highlighting how disinformation campaigns work, McDonald says:
“Disinformation campaigns allow hostile foreign states to discreetly target and influence citizens while remaining below the threshold of war, fomenting distrust and polluting the information ecosystem. Russia, China and Iran have all been credibly accused of attempting to distort the information ecosystem in Scottish public life, using a range of platforms and media to manipulate public opinion. These campaigns do not themselves create distrust or division, but instead exploit existing rifts in societies and capitalise on pre-existing feelings and beliefs.”
The author then goes on to outline the variety of tactics used by three hostile states, the following excerpt discusses Russia.
“The Russian government has made extensive use of its state-backed media platforms in Scotland, platforming George Galloway and Alex Salmond on RT and Sputnik. These platforms exist to promote the Kremlin’s line on issues of key concern to the Russian state: after the Skripal poisoning, RT was fined £200,000 for repeatedly breaching impartiality rules.
A 2018 report from Kings College London on Russian-state backed media in the UK found that RT and Sputnik pushed a variety of narratives around the Skripal poisoning, including the idea that that the Novichok found at the scene was produced by the United Kingdom and that the poising was a hoax orchestrated the by UK intelligence services.
While the threat from these platforms should not be underestimated, the relative failure of Russian disinformation to take root in Scotland had been demonstrated by the closing of the Sputnik office in Edinburgh in April 2021, citing a ‘hostile environment’. Nonetheless, RT and Sputnik continue to maintain offices across the UK, producing English-speaking content for a Scottish audience.”
I’m not going to reproruce the whole paper here so I’ll skip to one of the solutions Stewart presents named “Information resilience training”.
“People will always exaggerate and embellish stories and politicians will always spin. However, elected members must be more cautious than most about what information they share. Sharing false information or ‘unconfirmed reports’ – as one MSP did in the Scottish Parliament in 2020 – erodes public trust in democratic institutions and the people who run them.
The UK and Scottish Governments should, drawing on the Swedish experience and the model of the UK Parliament’s ‘Valuing Others’ training, implement a course of information resilience training for politicians, political press officers and selected civil servants.”
There are a number of well thought out solutions to the issues outlined by McDonald, you can read them yourself by clicking here.
Commenting on the publication, Stewart McDonald 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.
This report, whilst not a wholesale strategy, is an attempt to outline my own assessment of how the threat of disinformation to Scotland currently manifests itself and maps out some ideas on how we can meet that threat. This ought to be something that has way more discussion in political and public life and so I hope, if nothing else, that is what my report encourages. 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. Clear public health messaging really matters when you are trying to save lives by communicating facts, and there is no shortage of people who want to distort those facts and disrupt our ability, as an open society, to communicate them clearly.
As we start to both recover and learn from the pandemic, it is incredibly important that lessons around how we counter-disinformation is part of that learning process. We cannot go into the next pandemic – and there will be another in the future – with the same toolkit as we’ve used this time round. Disinformation campaigns are always evolving to become more sophisticated and better resourced, and so too must our own counter-disinformation strategy. I hope this report encourages some deep and cross-party thinking on the issue, and encourages politicians and civil society groups to work together and help Scotland build robust information resilience that is fit for the modern age.”
You can download the report here ‘Disinformation in Scottish Public Life’.