The Herald on Sunday
Disinformation report will make uneasy reading for everyone in Scottish politics
An SNP MP will tomorrow release a deeply concerning study on the issue of online lies and hoaxes – with the aim of uniting Scotland’s political parties on a threat to democracy itself
HE was, witnesses said, targeting the young and the unvaccinated.
This week, a man wandered through a sunny Glasgow park handing out leaflets full of lies about vaccines.
There is little new about such antivaxxers. There have long been eccentrics opposed to life-saving inoculation campaigns. And some of these people have long spread falsehoods about their safety and their effectiveness.
But things have been different during the coronavirus pandemic.
Anti-vaxxers have had new technology – social media – to get their deadly message across. And they have had the support of some of the most effective and well-funded propaganda machines in the world, including those of authoritarian states trying to undermine democracies.
Late last year, Britain’s GCHQ announced an operation to counter anti-vax material from what it called “hostile states”, its somewhat coy code for the current governments of Russia and China.
So, the man distributing leaflets in Kelvingrove Park this week was not just relying on paper as he urged groups of sunbathers to get what he claimed were the “facts” about vaccines.
Each of his A3 sheets had a QR code which, if scanned, took users straight to a channel on Telegraph, the encrypted social media app used by everybody from Chinese dissidents to America’s Proud Boys, one of the far-right groups which attacked the US Capitol in January.
Covid has, for many of us, exposed another pandemic we knew – or cared – little about: organised internet disinformation.
Several politicians in last month’s Holyrood elections started to suggest ways in which Scotland – and the UK – could flight back against lies, some of which, such as on vaccines, can have fatal consequences.
TOMORROW, the SNP’s Stewart McDonald MP will publish a detailed discussion paper on what the problem is and how it can be tackled. He hopes parties can put aside normal politics – and find a way to deal with something he sees as a huge problem they all face.
“What the pandemic has done is that it has brought sharp focus onto an issue that a lot of people thought was an abstract thing that did not concern them,” McDonald told The Herald on Sunday.
“What we have seem in the course of the last year – both before and after the vaccine rollout – is that in actual fact disinformation is real, is serious and is particularly dangerous when you are trying to save lives.
“Good-quality, unspun information from the state and the public health agencies to keep people safe, secure and alive is really, really important. “There is no shortage of people both at home and abroad who have an interest in distorting that message entirely and getting people to believe things that are not true.
“Once Covid is behind us – whatever that looks like – when we have a pandemic in future, let us be in a much better place as far as information resilience is concerned.”
Until this current health crisis, much of what little conversation there was in Scotland around disinformation centres on Russia, China and Iran’s efforts to sow discord. McDonald’s paper will make uncomfortable reading for any Scottish nationalists still loyal to Alex Salmond, the former first minister and current host of a show on Vladimir Putin’s premier international mouthpiece, RT. The channel, it says, exists “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”.
BUT the McDonald report stresses that RT and its sister outlet Sputnik – which pulled out of Edinburgh this year – had not made a great deal of headway in Scotland. “Nonetheless, RT and Sputnik continue to maintain offices across the UK, producing English-speaking content for a Scottish audience,” it added. “These platforms’ coverage of European and North American democracies overwhelmingly focuses on social and political dysfunction, aiming to foment discontent with political elites – the increasing appeal of these narratives to the public speaks to a divided, polarised and fragmented society.”
Has Covid made democracies more vulnerable to such messaging, as loneliness caused by lockdowns forces more and more people online?
“In general,” the report continues, “declining interaction with others, including people who may hold different
There is no shortage of people both at home and abroad who have an interest in distorting that message entirely and getting people to believe things that are not true
opinions, makes citizens inclined to think ill of others, while less time spent with others and more with their digital devices strengthens the power and reach of disinformation.”
Kremlin propaganda, the new report reiterates, has played a key role in antivax messaging.
“Since before the pandemic, Russian bots and troll farms, in conjunction with Russia’s foreign broadcast networks, have pushed anti-vaccination messages on Western social media. This campaign has continued and increased in intensity during the Covid-19 pandemic, with Russian state authorities, state companies and state mass media engaging in ‘almost daily interventions’ to advertise and promote the Sputnik vaccine across Europe while attempting to cast doubt on the efficacy and safety of Western-made vaccines.”
TRAGICALLY, the biggest victim of this disinformation has been Russia itself, where vaccine uptake is low. But the report also stresses that China is pushing key propaganda messages during the pandemic, mostly seeking to portray itself as a responsible state responding to a disease which first appeared on its territory.
In Scotland, most of the concerns over Chinese influence have been about Confucius institutes, language and cultural learning hubs at schools, and universities.
Some countries have pulled out of these. Scotland – thanks to policies pursued by McDonald’s SNP colleagues and their Labour and LibDem predecessors – remains committed.
The McDonald report, however, accuses the institutes of steering students away from discussions on issues like the treatment of minority Uighurs and refers to CIs as “an attempt to launder China’s international reputation”.
However, the report moves far beyond traditional concerns about authoritarian states. It says: “Homegrown and domestic disinformation crises must not be discounted: conspiracy theories like QAnon or those related to pandemic pose just as severe a threat to our national security and illustrate the urgent need to build national information resilience.
“The dis- and misinformation of the past year has shown how easily false information can disrupt our society, leading to shortages in supermarkets and panic among citizens; the events at the US Capitol in January 2021 serve as a cautionary tale of how this story can end.”
MCDONALD is not looking to be overly prescriptive about how to respond to the information crisis. He stresses his policy paper represents his own views and not those of his party. But, drawing heavily on counter-disinformation efforts in the Nordic and Baltic world, he has a list of proposals.
These include echoing calls for the Scottish Government to have a commissioner for countering disinformation. He also wants the Government to host an annual clean information summit and to commission its own review of how healthy Scotland’s information ecosystem really is.
But his proposals are not just for Scottish authorities. He suggests other public bodies, political parties and faith groups should host disinformation workshops for their members – and he wants politicians, journalists and others to be able to get counter-disinformation training.
Scots by and large appear to be accepting health messages from trusted sources like the NHS, the BBC and the Scottish Government, McDonald told The Herald on Sunday.
But he said we cannot take it for granted that there will always be the case. “It is in certain people’s interest, abroad or domestically, to attack the BBC’s reputation and whole ethos of public service broadcasting and journalism.
“These people are not giving up. They are spending more money on this than ever before.
“Authoritarian governments are spending more than ever before. There are more private sector actors offering their services to do disinformation campaigns for governments or for others. So, we need to shore up our resilience so they don’t get the outcome they seek, which is chaos and confusion and, during a pandemic, death.”
McDonald said: “It sounds a bit tacky to say this, but disinformation kills.”