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

- By David Leask

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.

Huge problem

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”.

Russian influence?

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.”

China’s message

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.”

MSP’s proposals

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.”

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 ?? Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty ?? Anti-lockdown protesters outside the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh last year
Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Anti-lockdown protesters outside the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh last year
 ??  ?? Sputnik, the sister channel of Vladimir Putin’s RT, pulled out of the capital last year
Sputnik, the sister channel of Vladimir Putin’s RT, pulled out of the capital last year

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