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By Jason Michael
British nationalist online trolls have become a ubiquitous feature of the Scottish political cyber landscape. They receive no coverage by a British media hell-bent on portraying the independence movement as the work of Russia.
2017 was marked by a concerted effort across the western mainstream media to convince the general public of nefarious Russian state involvement in a number of elections, including the United Kingdom’s European Union referendum, and the French and United States’ presidential elections. It is alleged by a number of governments and government agencies that, as part of a so-called cyber war against these governments, Russia unleashed a swarm of fake social media accounts designed to look and act like concerned citizens of these democracies in order to subvert the political campaigns and nudge public opinion.
There certainly is enough evidence to suggest Putin’s Russia has been playing such an underhand game, and that this tactic has had a degree of success in its strategic objectives. Russia is not alone, however, in playing such a game. In fact, when it comes to evidence, the case against Russia is circumstantial at best – relying on the accumulation of coincidences rather than hard, verifiable facts. The real evidence, as we know from the behaviour of British PR firms such as Bell Pottinger, British and US defence contractors, and the Israeli government, is that the British State – a world leader in terms of “soft power” – has been leading the field in manipulating democracy and public opinion with the deployment of fake social media accounts.
Part of the British media’s campaign through 2017 was to claim that the online activism for Scottish independence had been infiltrated by Russian bots, effectively suggesting the growing desire in Scotland for self-determination is being driven by Moscow. Given that we have no access to the Kremlin and the FSB’s files, this allegation is difficult to disprove; an uncertainty which allowed the pro-British press in Scotland to insinuate that former First Minister Alex Salmond’s decision to host his talk show on the Russia Today network proved a connection between the Scottish National Party and the Russian state.
There is no doubt Scotland’s online political scene is crawling with fake accounts dead set on disturbing and disrupting the discussions of ordinary people. It is well known to supporters of independence that crossing swords with some of the more abusive unionist accounts immediately triggers a wave of “porn bots,” accounts purporting to be links to pornography websites through highly suspicious links laden with mal and spyware. These account, in the dozens, begin to follow their targets and interact with them through likes and retweets in the hope that the target will become a victim by taking the bait and clicking the link.
Such accounts, owning to their non-political nature, are easily avoided, and proving their connection to the government – to any government – is next to impossible. Their appearance after engagements with well-known unionist trolls may be a coincidence. In my own opinion, activists of any hue are being dangerously naïve if they believe in coincidences like this.
Yet there are other accounts that are more obvious, and more obvious about their political allegiances. Everyone with even a modicum of influence online in the Scottish independence movement is aware of the dedicated political troll. This is not your common or garden unionist activist, unionists or pro-union organisations with their own Twitter or Facebook pages. These are accounts set up with the singular purpose of following, harassing, and often intimidating prominent pro-independence activists and groups. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of these accounts are active; continuously deleting themselves and re-spawning under new usernames in order to get around their targets’ efforts to block them.
A cursory look at a number of these troll accounts is enough to show that they share an identical mode of operation, hinting to them being created and run centrally and following a manual. Invariably they follow about forty active pro-independence accounts, focusing their attention on these – their marks, and have very few followers of their own. They do not engage with unionist accounts in any way, and demonstrate a level of activity that would imply they have funding to do what they are doing.
Accounts of this type are not interested in discussion. They routinely insinuate themselves into ongoing conversations pretending to be ordinary people – giving no indication of their political position – and work, if given the chance, to derail the discussion and waste people’s time. When this tactic fails, or when they are discovered and called out, they resort to personal abuse and threats in an effort to drive people away from the conversation.
Whether these accounts are professional political troll accounts or the work of extremely dedicated unionist activists, the one thing they are not is Russian. These accounts are directed exclusively towards destabilising the independence movement in Scotland – the very thing the BBC and the British government and media have been claiming the Russians have been supporting. The sheer number of these accounts, the fact that they follow an identical set of rules, and the time they commit to their task make them highly unlikely to be the work of private individuals. That we know of the British government’s use of this form of cyber warfare in the past through the agency of PR firms and military contractors makes it likely these are indeed the handiwork of the British government.
Successful IP traps set for a number of them in the past have shown them to have the technical ability to evade them and the sophistication to bring down the IP tracker websites involved. It’s not a smoking gun, but it is informative. These are not ordinary social media users.
How many Russian trolls does it take to influence Brexit vote?