It’s created a storm on Social Media and headlines in a few newspapers. A dossier compiled by Scottish Labour lists tweets from alleged ‘Cybernats’. The tweets are a mixture of offensive terms, name calling and swearing. Many of the tweets have been aimed at Scottish Labour party figures.
The tweets have been gathered together in an attempt at harming the SNP, in particular its leader Nicola Sturgeon. Sturgeon was the subject of a high profile smear attempt last week when Buckingham Palace levelled false claims against the First Minister and her Government. Had ‘Palacegate’ succeeded, the dossier was set to be the icing on the cake for opponents of the Scottish National Party.
The ‘Cybernat List’ is the latest manifestation of a Labour/Unionist strategy that goes all the way back to November 2009. It was then that the term ‘Cybernat’ was coined by a Labour politician. The term has come to represent anyone online who disagrees with the fundamental Unionism espoused by the Labour party and its Lib Dem and Tory allies.
In my book ‘London Calling: How the BBC stole the referendum’ I commented on the Unionists’ fear of the internet and its open forum culture in the years leading up to the referendum.
When an argument cannot be defeated then the best way to nullify its effectiveness is to discredit those making it. There was a considerable amount of talent amongst pro-independence online activists. Some provided commentary, some news, some live broadcasts. Others were irreverent and satirical. It wasn’t just an online media evolution, it was a cultural evolution. It encompassed the arts and literature.
The internet’s open access meant that there were no filters applied. Sitting alongside the articulate and positive were those whose online contributions were abusive and offensive. Both sides of the referendum had people who posted offensive and obnoxious content on the web. For every poster who called Unionists traitors, there was one who called Nationalists Nazis. For every disgusting reference made about Nicola Sturgeon there was one made about Johann Lamont. Both Yes supporters and No supporters could be equally abusive - and were. No side had a monopoly on bad language, threats and god-awful vitriol.
But only one side was singled out by the media. A derogatory term was coined for Yes supporters. Anyone expressing online support for independence, or who challenged the orthodox view being promoted by Unionists, was branded a ‘Cybernat’. The term was believed to have been coined by former Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray. In November 2009 speaking in the Holyrood chamber, the MSP said:
“Back in May I asked Alex Salmond to get a grip of these 'cybernats' bloggers. At the time they were spreading rumours about me and other politicians as well. I think Alex Salmond has to come to parliament, apologise, and explain just exactly what has gone one.”
“I wish to see these anonymous blogs rooted out and got rid of.”
Thankfully, Iain Gray’s threat to ‘root out’ and ‘get rid of’ bloggers he disagreed with did not come to pass.
Before I go any further I have to clarify something. In 2010 I helped create an online media outlet called Newsnet Scotland. Newsnet was like nothing that had been seen before. It challenged the narrative being created by the pro-Union media, particularly the BBC. Newsnet became a phenomena. The website attracted considerable interest from the burgeoning online indy community. Its readership went from hundreds to tens of thousands in the space of a few months.
This was before the SNP won the 2011 election with a historic majority and everyone latched onto the referendum. Newsnet was publishing daily news stories and challenging the traditional media before the term ‘alternative media’ had even been coined.
By the time the SNP won the 2011 Scottish election, Newsnet had established itself as the dominant pro-independence website. It wasn’t uncommon for articles to attract several hundred comments, most of which were pro-indy. The site achieved a cult-like status amongst some readers and home-made banners were fashioned by some advertising the site’s existence.
But the cult-like attraction came with problems. Amongst the several hundred comments per article were many which were inappropriate. Newsnet had a small team of volunteers who moderated comments, but after a while it was clear that they were being swamped with the sheer volume of messages. It was also difficult for moderators to determine what was an appropriate comment and what wasn’t.
Newsnet eventually realised that comments were a potential minefield for a site that was set up to inform & persuade those yet to decide. Moderate language was key to Newsnet’s success. But how many people thinking about backing independence would be put off by reading the comments below the line?
Potentially damaging to the site’s reputation, and its effectiveness in challenging the pro-Union media, were those comments that used terms such as ‘traitors’ or ‘quisling’ to describe Unionists. The approach we adopted for those kind of comments was to close the account of the poster making them. If you used the word traitor to describe Unionists then you didn’t post again. We eventually restricted the comment facility. The site continued to grow, but the people for whom the opportunity to comment freely was important, moved on as did Newsnet’s cult status.
Were those who expressed a view that some Scottish Unionist politicians were traitors, wrong to do so? Of course they weren’t. They had, and still have, the right to express that view. It’s called Freedom of Speech. But we had to recognise the corrupt pro-Union media landscape within which Newsnet operated. We anticipated the onslaught that would eventually arrive at the door of any pro-independence outlet that allowed such comments to be published. Those comments would be used to undermine and demonise the site.
That was then. The referendum is no longer. Scotland made a decision and we have moved on. However Unionists, especially Scottish Labour, continue to promote the myth of the Cybernat.
Whether language is inappropriate or not is subjective. The claim that the use of the words ‘traitor’ or ‘quisling’ is an extreme form of abuse, pre-supposes that Scottish Unionist politicians have never acted in a manner that was detrimental to Scotland. What though of the McCrone Report?
In the 1970s the UK Government was handed a report on the economic effects North Sea Oil would have on an independent Scotland. The McCrone Report concluded that an independent Scotland would thrive economically. The language used throughout the report made it clear that Scotland, if it achieved independence, would benefit enormously.
Yet Scottish Unionist politicians repeatedly told the Scottish electorate that the oil was not worth as much as they knew it was. Scots were told that it would run out within twenty years. How do you describe politicians who lie in this way? Some apply the word ‘traitor’.
During the independence referendum, Scottish Unionist politicians repeatedly sought to undermine their own nation’s status by arguing against Scotland’s continued membership of organisations like NATO and the European Union. The Scottish Conservatives held a secret meeting with a Spanish political group which was seeking support across Europe for legislation that would see newly independent countries expelled from the EU. In a separate move Scottish Labour MEP David Martin sought to argue against Scotland being given equal status to the rest of the UK with respect to the UK’s membership of the EU.
In August 2013 the Catalan News Agency reported the following:
The European Parliament has vetoed a report on “the consequences of secession of the territory of a member state for its membership of the European Union”. The Scottish Labour MEP, David Martin, hoped to prepare a report about the impact of secession for Scotland and Catalonia, but authorisation to do so was delayed and blocked by his own socialist group, as shown by the minutes of the meetings of the Conference of Presidents of the European Parliament.
How very patriotic.
But it isn’t just those of a pro-independence bent who accuse Unionist politicians of acting against the interests of their own country. Unionists themselves are not beyond suggesting their own constitutional allies are acting against the interests of Scots. Weeks after the recent General Election, Gordon Brown accused the Conservatives of being anti-Scottish.
Brown was of course referring to the UK Conservative party. But that includes Scottish Conservatives. The former Labour leader was effectively accusing people like David Mundell of acting against Scotland. Brown was making the same accusation as ‘Cybernats’ but using more ‘agreeable’ language.
The dossier compiled by Scottish Labour suggests that inappropriate language is the exclusive preserve of the pro-independence online commentator. It isn’t of course. Indeed not only are Unionists more than capable of posting offensive tweets, but some of the worst offenders are actually serving Labour politicians.
I’ve witnessed Labour politicians use the Holocaust to attack the SNP. One used the tragic murder by a mother of her small children to attack the nationalists. Another used the Hillsborough disaster in order to attack Alex Salmond. During the referendum at least one Labour MP actually attacked ordinary Scots. Ian Davidson accused people who commemorated the Battle of Bannockburn of wishing to do so only because thousands of English people had been murdered.
The tweets highlighted by Scottish Labour came from individuals who had confirmed their SNP membership. There were indeed some messages that the SNP hierarchy would condemn, the one aimed at BBC Scotland’s Douglas Fraser was particularly offensive as were a few that called for some Unionist politicians to be hanged. The SNP is nothing if not disciplined. I wouldn’t be surprised if a handful of new members found themselves ex-members sometime soon.
But Scottish Labour might just have made a rod for its own back. If the SNP acts by rescinding a few memberships then Nicola Sturgeon can at least say she has done all she can to tackle the scourge of online trolling. But can Scottish Labour? What steps has Iain Gray’s party taken to ensure its own cyber-house is in order? Will it henceforth take action against any member, official or politician who compares the SNP to Nazis or similar?
At the time of writing this article the dossier looks to have made little impact. The Scotsman, Times and Sunday Herald all published pieces and Scottish Labour itself took to Social media to highlight the newspaper coverage. Alas, as I have said many times, a smear campaign will only succeed if the BBC runs with it. Mercifully, BBC Scotland all but ignored the story on Sunday.
Scottish Labour is facing another humiliating defeat in next May’s Scottish Election. This episode should serve as a warning to those commentators who continually suggest a strong Scottish Labour party would be good for Scotland and her democracy. Don't make me laugh.
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GA Ponsonby is the author of 'London Calling: How the BBC stole the Referendum'.
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