‘Disinformation has been weaponised at levels nobody imagined’ – Glasgow MP

Written by Jack Thomson on 22 June 2021 in News

SNP member Stewart McDonald publishes report mapping growing threat posed to Scotland

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Scotland faces the threat of a range of disinformation actors, who use an "evolving toolbox of techniques to influence and corrupt" its information ecosystem, a Scottish National Party MP has said. 

Stewart McDonald, the Westminster representative for Glasgow South, has published a report entitled Disinformation in Scottish Public Life, which considers the problem of false information intended to mislead and how it can be tackled.

The report, which is said to be the first of its kind in Scotland, outlines nine recommendations that he believes will help make the country more resilient and build up national resilience to hostile disinformation campaigns and conspiracy theories.

McDonald said the Scottish Government should appoint a commissioner for countering disinformation, which would draw on the model of Finland's hybrid affairs ambassador.

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Westminster’s Intelligence and Security Committee previously found the Russian threat had been “badly underestimated” and the UK government was “playing catch up” in its response. The inquiry covered a range of issues, pointing out that the UK was a target for Russian disinformation and the defence of democratic processes was a “hot potato” with no one organisation taking a lead on it.

McDonald felt the Scottish Government should take the lead by appointing a commissioner.

Other ideas put forward by the MP included the creation of a youth information initiative, which would see journalists teaching media literacy to pupils, as well as the offer of information resilience training to politicians, political press officers and civil servants, and holding a clean information summit.

McDonald also called for the UK government to provide parliament with an annual update on its threat assessment regarding mis- and disinformation across the nation.

His report is not a "wholesale strategy" but an attempt to outline his assessment of the threat in Scotland and map out ideas which can tackle it.

He looks at disinformation activity in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, vaccination programme, and political campaigns.

Citing the 2007 riots in Estonia and the storming of the US Capitol, he says the "destruction and disorder that disinformation has caused has been plain to see".

Later in the report, he said it is in the interests of the Scottish Government and wider independence movement to "meaningfully engage" with the threat disinformation poses to democratic processes and take steps to counter it.

McDonald referenced the influence of foreign broadcast networks, saying: “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.”

He claimed the platforms exist to promote the Kremlin’s line on issues of key concern to the Russian state.

McDonald urged the Scottish and UK governments to recognise that the last year has shown how vulnerable societies can be to disinformation.

“The pandemic has brought into sharp focus why this issue is of real importance,” he said. “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.

McDonald added: “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.”


About the author

Jack Thomson is a journalist at PublicTechnology sister publication Holyrood, where a version of this story first appeared. He tweets as @jackr_thomson.

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