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Disinformation and conspiracy theories, by Alastair Cameron

We can smile at nationalist conspiracy theories – but we should worry about them, too.

Recently, my eye was caught by a Twitter post which catalogued some of the Scottish nationalists’ more bizarre conspiracy theories, in the style of the ‘Stonecutters’ Song’ from a classic episode of The Simpsons. While it’s easy to poke fun at many of the ridiculous assertions which are spread by nationalists, I believe it also worth highlighting some serious issues with the combination of conspiracy theories, disinformation and attempts to sow doubt put about by nationalists, particularly on line.

I see three themes at work here. In the first, we have what can perhaps be described as examples of the ‘big lie’. These are blatant falsehoods, which are either clearly paranoid (such as recent claims that British Army helicopters on an exercise in Scotland were mapping the country in preparation for martial law); or easily proved to be incorrect (as when the SNP’s Philippa Whitford MP recently claimed that a particular article had only been published in the English edition of The Telegraph in order to hide it from Scots, when it was in the Scottish edition). The purveyors of these falsehoods are either straightforwardly deluded or incredibly cynical, as the stories are probably only believed by people who are already deeply committed to Scottish separatism. The purpose of these lies is thus to galvanise core support, rather than to try to win over any waverers.

Many of these theories, from secret oil fields to claims that the British Army is planning to put tanks on the streets to close down Holyrood, would be as entertaining as the theories that the moon landings were faked, were it not for the fact that senior SNP figures, many of whom are elected officials, tolerate or promote some of them. To be fair, most of the really bizarre theories are not publicly espoused by the SNP leadership, but there are examples of SNP MSPs and MPs, indulging in or tolerating some significant conspiracy theories (for example, the SNP’s Christina McKelvie MSP endorsing the theory that in 2014 MI5 trolled J.K. Rowling to discredit the nationalist campaign). My concern here is not primarily that the tacit or overt support of nationalist politicians gives the stories added credibility, but that it demonstrates a readiness to embrace confirmation bias which is not helpful in people who are supposed to represent all their constituents.

The second theme is the use of imagined conspiracies and other suggested motives to try to get people to question experts and authoritative evidence. This is the other side of the conspiracy theory coin, in that it’s not about getting people to believe a particular lie; rather, it’s trying to get them to question the truth. Examples of this include nationalists tilting at one of their favourite targets, the Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland (GERS) statistics. Some nationalists not only aver that the figures are produced by ‘Westminster’, rather than the Scottish Government statisticians who do produce them; and that they are in some way imposed on Scotland with the specific intent of keeping Scotland down. There is also the constant trying to chip away at the credibility of GERS and other data, for example when then-MP Paul Monaghan stated falsely that ‘the flow of money is south’ or when Angus MacNeil MP tweets that ‘GERS is just junk!!’ [his own punctuation]. Similarly, there is a nationalist refrain that the UK somehow grabs export duty on goods from Scotland (and particularly whisky), when in fact there is no such duty; the added conspiratorial aspect of this claim is the suggestion that the hiding of whisky export duty is done deliberately to make Scotland’s independence appear less viable.

This is more serious in many respects than the outrageous statements described earlier in this blog, in that it cynically seeks to undermine public trust in established facts and reputable institutions – and it is disturbing that the SNP leadership tacitly allow it to continue. The SNP as a party is famously disciplined, so would a responsible leadership not help to quash these lies immediately, even if only by telling their MPs and MSPs to retract them or delete their tweets? Going back to the GERS examples, Nicola Sturgeon could kill off the ‘produced by Westminster to do Scotland down’ conspiracy theories in about two minutes, by giving an interview on the day of their publication to highlight their veracity and validity, and their value to policy-makers. In doing so, she would also recognise the thorough and painstaking work of her own administration’s civil servants, who surely deserve this kind of support.

Finally, and in some respects complementing the second theme, there are conspiracy theories directed specifically at the media, and most notably at the BBC. As I have noted before, Scottish nationalists abhor and attack the BBC for the same reason that other nationalists do, as its authoritative and globally trusted reportage presents some hard truths that undermine their cause. One line of attack against the BBC is that because it is publicly funded it must be biased in favour of the UK Government; this line usually comes from the same nationalists who retweet everything funded by the Scottish Government. More specifically, in recent months we have seen nationalist commentator Lesley Riddoch claiming that BBC bosses have deliberately scheduled prime time shows on a new BBC Scotland channel to clash with prime time shows on other channels; website ‘The National’ claiming that Scotland in Union has special access to a new BBC ‘Debate Night’ show (a patently false suggestion which was nonetheless re-tweeted by former SNP MP John Nicolson); and many SNP politicians fuelling nationalist hysteria surrounding the make-up of the  ‘Question Time’ audience. Returning to my earlier observations, these could all be quite entertaining were it not for the fact that they are allowed to stand, and indeed sometimes promoted, by senior figures in the SNP.

The question is what sensible people should do about these conspiracy theories and attempts to undermine truth-telling. First, it’s probably best to ignore the really silly ones, with the exception of calling out any senior politicians who are spreading them. Second, we should continue to fight disinformation with facts, particularly in the case of economic statistics. Finally, we should support independent, critical and trustworthy media outlets by sharing their stories and buying or subscribing to their services.

Oh, and if the reference at the start of this blog rings no bells for you, a final recommendation: do watch the Stonecutter episode of the Simpsons, if you can; it’s very funny.


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