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By Jason Michael
WOE IS ME! During the independence referendum campaign in 2013 I decided to open a Facebook page to promote Scotland and the idea of independence. It wasn’t very successful, gathering only a few hundred members. As a Scot living and working in Ireland, it wasn’t possible for me to vote in the referendum, but independence is important to me and so I wanted to do something to encourage others to see the merits and benefits of independence. On 19 September 2014, saddened by defeat, I launched The Butterfly Rebellion website with another Facebook account and a Twitter site to promote it. The idea was to keep some hope alive. The Yes campaign had given birth to a mass movement for independence, and it would be a shame to see all that energy simply evaporate and transform into frustration and bitterness.
By May 2016 I had come to the conclusion that the anonymity of The Butterfly Rebellion was something of a problem. Sure, my identity had already been ‘doxxed.’ With what was happening with social media in the United States and in the United Kingdom — the use of military grade manipulation techniques, hasbara, sockpuppet accounts, bots and trolls by government and dark money funded public relations outfits — I had come to the realisation that online political campaigns had been stripped of integrity. Paranoia was everywhere, and the only remedy was to build trust in who I was and what I was all about. So, I came clean. ‘Jeggit’ was set up with a Twitter account and my own private blog journal, Random Public Journal, was repurposed to make the case for Scottish independence. Since then, what I have published has been read almost 1.2 million times. In anyone’s money, that’s not bad for one guy writing in his kitchen.
It turns out, however, that I am a polarising figure. Some have construed my Irish Republicanism and membership of Sinn Féin as support for violence. Of course this isn’t true, but it clearly serves some agendas — both unionist and nationalist — to undermine trust in what others are doing. But that’s the thing with political writing; everyone who speaks is polarising. Seven years after the independence referendum, what we first feared has become a reality: the Scottish independence movement, frustrated by inaction and stasis, has gotten frustrated and bitter. All the political differences we ignored in the 2012-14 campaign have been exposed. Bad actors and bad thinkers have successfully divided the Yes movement into hostile and trigger-happy entrenchments, to the end that the independence movement is eating itself alive.
No one in the maelstrom was ever going to walk away unscathed. Wee Ginger Dug and Wings Over Scotland took very different paths, Bella Caledonia and what was National Collective went back to feathering their nests — and more power to them, and the Scottish National Party simply settled down to a life of empty promises and political comfort in post-referendum Scotland. Those in the movement left unrepresented by this new status quo began to sink into despondency until the launch of Alba, whereupon all of these disparate groups came together under a new political umbrella. But this too could be nothing but an uneasy alliance; those who prioritised the acceleration of independence and those who prioritised gender critical feminism found themselves in the same camp. Even among the independence fundamentalists there were factions; abstentionists, republicans, civic and ius soli nationalists, Parnellites and more radical Connollyites — a political marriage made in hell.
All the while — with, in, and behind all these tensions — the discussion was driven on social media; on Facebook and Twitter. But this was always a problem. There were always bad actors. We know the British government has invested massive amounts of money in troll farms and in the infiltration and manipulation of social media in Scotland. Yet, the problem was not always, as the paranoid argue, the involvement of the British state. There were always ‘bad thinkers,’ social media users who either never quite learned how to behave or to put serious thought into what they were doing. Discussions that really should have remained discussions became intense internecine wars in which the internal lines of communication within the movement were severed and in which trust and the ability to cooperate were corroded to the point of uselessness.
Reading over comments about me — not to me — on social media, I see something quite disturbing. ‘Politicalicious’ on Twitter, an independence supporter, recently posted a Gif to a thread discussing me of a priest from the film The Exorcist saying the rosary to which she added the tag ‘bad priest’ — the insinuation, as you might imaging, being that I am a child molester. ‘A Douglas,’ another independentista, suggested I was just ‘an opportunistic blogger looking for a crust’ ( I don’t make money for what I do). And ‘Mel,’ sometimes an independence supporter, simply says ‘Jeggit is a misogynist.’ All this for what? Hating women? No. This onslaught of bile came at me — from hundreds of accounts over a period of weeks — for refusing to endorse transphobia. Nothing to do with Scottish independence — for simply refusing to stay quiet while some pretty nasty people said some pretty vile and disgusting things about other people.
Aye, woe is me! But this isn’t just about me. This is happening to all sorts of people right across social media, and it’s about all sorts of topics — discussions that really should stay discussions. Yet, they are becoming infernos — fuelled by bad thinkers and driven by bad actors. Social media has become the perfect weapon against movements for change. Government bad actors and other interfering parties have perfected the process of fragmenting movements and poisoning the wells; turning movement solidarity into strife and bitterness over discussions which, had they happened offline, would have remained discussions among friends. Social media has become an instrument for transforming normal civil discourse into bloody feuds. And none of this is by accident either. Chamath Palihapitiya, a former senior executive at Facebook described the situation:
We have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works. That is truly where we are. And I would encourage all of you, as the future leaders of the world, to really internalise how important this is. If you feed the beast, that beast will destroy you. If you push back on it, we have a chance to control it and rein it in. And it is a point in time where people need to hard break from some of these tools and the things that you rely on. The short term dopamine driven feedback that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth, and it’s not an American problem, this is not about Russian ads. This is a global problem.
Social media is the problem. I don’t blame ‘Politicalicious,’ ‘A Douglas,’ ‘Mel,’ or any of the other Twitter users who, without knowing anything about me, have made it their business to discredit me and manufacture an image of me as a child abusing woman hater — these are not intelligent people. There is no shortage of useful idiots on the internet. They believe, as bad thinkers, that they are achieving something. They’re not. They are merely adding to the conditions in which they too can be so easily dismissed — and always to the advantage of the bad actors, those who have pumped incalculable sums of money into a global project geared towards the protection of their power by the dismissal, defamation, and destruction of anyone who challenges them. In short, social media has become the mechanism by which we become the instruments of our own oppression.
It is time, then, that I take a hard break from this form of media. Facebook and Twitter are doing nothing to advance the cause of Scottish independence. In fact, these social media platforms are making things more difficult for us. They are breaking down solidarity, undermining trust, and ramping up paranoia and fear. The platforms themselves are doing this because they understand anger gets a better response than other emotions — and response means revenue. Government interference and the interference of other bad actors is a golden egg for the social media corporations. And this is bad for us. It is catastrophic. I will not, however, be leaving social media and deleting my accounts. This too would be counterproductive. Rather, I will use these platforms to promote the writing I am doing and the other content I am producing — and that’s it! Nothing else. We cannot have nuanced conversations on social media, in an environment where it is easier to sink to personal four-letter-word abuse than it is to use our words.
Facebook Whistleblower Frances Haugen