Neil Mackay’s Big Read: SNP MP’s warning over Russian disinformation ops targeting Indyref2
Disinformation by hostile states and homegrown extremists threatens the fabric of society. It’s time to act, Stewart McDonald, the SNP’s Westminster defence spokesman, tells Writer at Large Neil Mackay
“SAYING manyana needs to stop,” warns Stewart McDonald. The SNP’s defence spokesman is sitting in his Westminster office fretting over disinformation operations against Scotland, and the targeting of a future independence referendum by hostile states like Russia. We need to act today, waiting until tomorrow – manyana – will spell disaster for democracy.
A second independence vote would be a target for disinformation operations and Scotland, like the rest of the UK, needs to get its act together to ensure democracy is resilient, the MP says. It’s not just the threat to a future vote that worries McDonald, though. He’s troubled by Scotland’s relationship with China, which has opened the door to disinformation by Beijing. He says Scottish political parties have to counter extremist online disinformation within both the pro-independence and pro-union camps. And the rising tide of disinformation around culture war issues like trans rights and vaccines leaves him fearing violence on the streets.
McDonald, who sits on the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, wants a re-engineering of national security strategy so countering disinformation sits at the heart of defence. He wants to involve all arms of the state in preventing disinformation crippling democracy – from intelligence agencies like MI5 to schools and the NHS. It’s a bold ambition driven by genuine concern about what the future holds in an era when democracies across the world are being shaken to their foundations by both external and internal disinformation threats.
MCDONALD quotes one recent opinion poll indicating around 40 per cent of Scots have concerns about elections being free and fair. “What an amazing opportunity if you’re Russia – or just anyone who wants to cause as much havoc as possible – to sow disinformation,” he says.
Russia has history running disinformation operations in Scotland. At the 2014 referendum there was an attempt “to sow doubt about the result post-the-vote … immediately as votes were still being counted”.
Russia was pushing out fake claims about “ballot boxes” and that “certain votes weren’t being counted”. McDonald jokes wryly that the claims sounded like “an actual Russian election”.
“It’s entirely reasonable to assume any future referendum will be a target,” he adds. Referring to the SNP, McDonald says, “as the party pursuing that referendum we’ve a real duty to be upfront about that”.
It is also incumbent on the SNP to build defences against future disinformation operations, he says. “Just how robust is the ecosystem by which people consume information?” McDonald asks. “If we go into a future referendum, or if Boris [Johnson] calls an early General Election, perhaps next year, it’s a question we need to ask ourselves.”
He adds: “We can’t wait for that to happen. We’ve a job to do grappling with the issue … All of us have to get our act together.” It’s a matter for all parties and all devolved governments, McDonald believes.
The nation needs to “build up resilience so that when you have a major political event, like a future referendum, or a pandemic, there’s that space between government, politics and citizens for us all to act in good faith and ensure that information is clean, well protected, well understood, and people can make informed decisions”.
EARLIER this month, anti-vaccine demonstrators tried to storm the offices of the UK’s medicines regulator. In terms of events in Britain linked to disinformation, “it’s the most violent yet”, says McDonald.
“What comes next?” Teachers are “raising the alarm they’ll become targets” as vaccines roll out to schoolchildren. “The problem is growing,” he says.
With artificial intelligence and the rise of “deepfakes”, McDonald adds: “Imagine how the problem looks 10 years from now? How do we deal with disinformation come the next pandemic?
That’s the question I don’t see many
people asking. It’s one of the biggest problems we face. It’s a threat to national security, public and social cohesion, and public health.”
There’s “an epidemic” of disinformation, McDonald says. It’s shattering trust in government and the media, fuelling dangerous conspiracy theories and extremism, and putting democracy in jeopardy.
“THERE has been attempts to distort public debate in the UK,” he says, “whether that’s Brexit, general elections, or the constitutional question as far as Scotland is concerned.”
Scotland has been targeted by a number of foreign states. The most ineffectual is Iran. “Back in 2012, they were setting up Facebook pages,” McDonald adds. But the attempts to spread division were “sloppy”. One page purported to be pro-independence but contained Conservative Party logos. “It just looked amateur,” he says.
At the other end of the spectrum there’s a history of highly-sophisticated Russian operations. How future operations will work, though, isn’t clear. Russia recently shut its Scottish Sputnik offices which produced pro-Kremlin propaganda, and ran material by the disgraced former socialist politician Tommy Sheridan.
McDonald believes there’s a positive story here: that Sputnik just wasn’t “getting the hits” online in Scotland and is now “focusing resources at a UK level”.
However, he adds that as “disinformation campaigns are becoming more sophisticated”, Sputnik leaving Scotland may signal that using online media platforms as a method is “on the way out” and “new stuff” is coming. The Alex Salmond Show on Russia Today, however, lends “legitimacy and credibility” to Kremlin propaganda. Unionist George Galloway appears on RT too.
China also brings disinformation to bear on Scotland – but using different methods. “If Russia is a forest fire, China is global warming,” McDonald says. “The main footprint in Scotland is the Confucius Institutes.” Officially, CIs in Scottish universities promote Chinese culture and language. However, McDonald calls them a “tool of the Communist Party”. Nicola Sturgeon’s Government provided £745,000 for CIs in Scotland. Sweden has kicked out all CIs. “Why on Earth does Scotland have more Confucius Institutes per head of population than any other country?” McDonald asks.
CIs, he says, operate differently to Russian disinformation campaigns. “They’re not pumping stuff out, they’re trying to shape a narrative as far as opinion on China is concerned. Russians are trying to cause division and chaos based on issues and divisions that already exist. What Confucius Institutes do is shape the way things are debated on sensitive issues for them.” That includes persecution of Uighurs, Hong Kong, Tibet and “human rights in general”.
McDonald says he has met Chinese students in Scotland who had pictures of themselves at pro-democracy rallies in Edinburgh sent back to their families. The intention, he says, was “tell your son to wind his neck in. That’s quite common”.
CIs “are a major part of the propaganda network”. He says: “Any proper assessment of the information ecosystem in Scotland has to look at them. The big challenge is: we need to wean ourselves off these, but what do we replace them with? They bring enormous funding to universities … I’m of the view we just can’t have them.”
THERE’S been much talk in Scotland about extremist nationalist and unionist blogs spreading disinformation. Unlike his concerns over Russia and China, however, McDonald – although he loathes homegrown online disinformation actors – feels panic about the blogosphere is “overrated”.
“You can chap on doors in my constituency and most people won’t know who these people are. That gives me faith.”
Some SNP MPs, MSPs and councillors have been criticised for amplifying online disinformation. McDonald says all political parties “should be rolling out counter-disinformation training for elected members, election agents, potential candidates and ordinary activists.”
When it comes to Yes activists setting up on online, “we should be giving people the skills to equip themselves so they can run good organic pages that don’t get taken over by disinformation actors”. The same goes for unionists, he says.
In terms of SNP members who previously amplified online disinformation actors, McDonald says: “I don’t want to name names but I think people came to realise [the truth] in their own time. I’m not going to chastise people for that. Some cottoned on very early, others maybe took more time.”
He also says that some online disinformation actors “got high on their own supply … Some started off quite well – you think, ‘this is a good asset’ – then they become off the wall.”
In terms of disinformation training for politicians, McDonald suggested a scheme similar to the “Valuing Others” course that MPs receive to prevent bullying. “It’s mandatory, you’re published on a list if you don’t go. We could do that for disinformation.”
McDonald says “journalists could do that as well”. The media has to up its game too, he believes. Pressures of the digital age mean there’s a rush to get news online first and that risks accuracy. Rebuttal of fake news also has to be improved.
“What happens when the first deepfake of Nicola Sturgeon singing Rule Britannia comes out? That’s maybe jocular, but what do you do when it starts to effect serious issues? The ability to turn the screw on sensitive topics is going to be a huge disruptor to the point where it’s a real threat to democracy and society.”
McDonald is proud of the way his party handled Russia Today after Salmond’s show began. “I’m pleased you’ll never see an SNP senior frontbencher at Westminster or a Government minister going on it. The way we’ve done that isn’t by instituting a ban – we just made it as toxic as possible as a platform.”
“ABSENT of any major international efforts to help set rules and standards” by Big Tech, says McDonald, “we have to ask ourselves as open societies: what can we do?” The only answer is to “build up information resilience among our own people”.
Scotland, he says, should learn from Sweden, Latvia and Finland who have all made counter disinformation central to national security due to Russian threats. “We’ve a threat picture for a national security strategy that determines how big the armed forces are. We need a hybrid threat picture – an audit of information ecosystems –that looks at where people get information, how resilient are people, are specific groups more vulnerable. We can then make recommendations how we meet that threat.”
He adds: “We should call time on the false sense of security that we’ve been basking in. All the alarm bells are going off.” The intelligence services are deeply concerned about disinformation operations. McDonald suggests that just as the UK Government gives regular updates on terror threats, it should do the same for disinformation threats. “It’s important the public has a greater understanding of what’s going on.”
The rise of pandemic conspiracies, however, means that “people are now highly alive to disinformation in a way that we just weren’t before. That’s an opportunity.”
The US Capitol attack “shows you only have to get a tiny percentage of the population to cause real havoc. If this were any other threat to national security and domestic cohesion we just wouldn’t accept it”.
Responsibility for countering disinformation is “far too spread across government … far too muddled” with the Home Office, MoD, Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and intelligence services all involved. “That’s before we even have a discussion about what role devolved governments play,” McDonald adds.
McDonald says he doesn’t want to start a “constitutional rammy” but the threat demands devolved governments “just start assuming responsibility” in areas where they have powers like education, with training schoolchildren in media literacy.
CONTROVERSY around trans rights is a “perfect culture war issue for disinformation”, McDonald says.
“There’s a playbook just being repeated here,” he adds, pointing to previous events like the campaign to keep Section 28. “It’s the same kind of language about ‘militant gays’ as it was back in the day, only now its ‘militant trans rights activists’.” McDonald adds: “Trans people shouldn’t be left to defend themselves against this.” He references Florida’s Pulse Nightclub shootings which targeted the gay community, and the London nail bomber who attacked a gay bar. “My big worry is we’re heading for something like that, where someone is going to get really hurt. We’ve already seen physical attacks on the rise. The whole trans issue on social media is the background music to that. My concern is something major happens and it causes us to go ‘how the hell did we get here?’.”
McDonald says the draft bill to simplify the process trans people go through to get their gender legally recognised rarely comes up on the doorstep. When it does “people will ask, perfectly reasonably, ‘what’s this? Are you going to let men into women’s toilets?’. When you explain what the issue is, they’ll then say ‘oh right, why didn’t you say that to begin with?’. We did – in the proposals. But nobody reads those things.”
He wonders if the SNP should have made the issue more like “the equal marriage campaign”, adding: “That was positive, friendly, fun. I wonder if we should have emulated that. I think the problem is you can’t, as this is such a boring technical problem. Equal marriage was different – a day out, a ceremony with loved ones. This is entirely administrative – how do you have a happy campaign with that?”
The big fix
MCDONALD would like to see “vetted” journalists in schools explaining how the media works and teaching skills to check facts and sources. He is an avowed supporter of “the mainstream media –and I don’t use ‘mainstream’ as a slur, I like my media mainstream”.
He says: “Capturing young people is relatively easy – the broader challenge is how do you capture someone who’s a civil servant or in Tesco or cares for their mother?”
McDonald suggests an “information resilience driver’s licence” where citizens take accredited courses offering rewards like free subscriptions to quality newspapers. Workplaces – particularly trusted institutions like the NHS -–could also offer counter-disinformation courses just like staff first aid training, he suggests. The media should open its doors to the public to demystify journalism. He thinks politicians and journalists are distrusted because “most people don’t meet politicians or journalists whereas everybody has met a doctor or nurse”.
Disinformation is a “hybrid threat, a non-kinetic, non-military threat” to national security. “You’re not waiting for an invading army – nobody says we’re coming to run a disinformation campaign.”
McDonald praises the Swedish “total defence” strategy which puts disinformation on the same footing as threats to health and security. He also cites the Latvian model “where people are trained up in information resilience so you’re not having to dispatch huge arms of the state to counter hostile disinformation campaigns”.
McDonald wants a “national strategy to counter disinformation” that involves the government, the private sector, academia and the public. “If you’ve a proper robust and coherent national security strategy why on Earth would counter-disinformation not be part of that? “Anything that’s not focused on building up information resilience will just fail if all you’re left to do is rebut falsehoods constantly. You’ll never win, it’ll just become this self-fulfilling feedback loop of s***, and you can quote me on that. Disinformation is getting more sophisticated. We need to get more sophisticated. That would be my rallying call.”
One of the major planks in his strategy is the creation of a “commissioner for countering disinformation” who could “do a proper audit, independent of government, and then make recommendations how we meet the challenge, that threat”.
It’s not all gloom, though. McDonald makes clear that the UK and Scotland aren’t in the same predicament as America or even France where disinformation is much more damaging to the fabric of society. That makes for a “relatively good place” to start the disinformation fightback.
“We’ve not had that kind of activity. That’s why it’s important to act … I don’t think we’re in a terrible place, but are we resilient enough? It needs to get better.”