In the context of the Scottish independence campaign there are growing fears that the British government, either by the use of its own intelligence resources or through contracted proxies such as public relations firms, is involved in a clandestine cyber war geared towards distracting, misinforming, nudging, harassing, and otherwise undermining the independence movement. Without making unnecessary assumptions, and thereby avoiding worsening any sense of paranoia, it is sufficient to say that the British government has developed the capabilities required to achieve these ends. It has used them in conflict zones, and recent evidence published by Oxford University has uncovered evidence suggesting that such psychological operations have been deployed domestically against UK citizens.
Britain’s Armed Forces announced in January 2015 that the 77th Brigade – with responsibility for 15 Psychological Operations Group (15 POG) – was focusing on “non‐lethal psychological operations using social networks like Facebook and Twitter to fight enemies by gaining control of the narrative in the information age.” The obvious question arising from this shady remit concerns the definition of the term “enemies.” Time and again what is developed by the military-industrial complex in foreign conflicts is eventually turned against domestic populations during times of crisis.
According to the Oxford University working paper, Troops, Trolls and Troublemakers: A Global Inventory of Organized Social Media Manipulation (2017), by Samantha Bradshaw and Philip N. Howard, the purpose of this unit was to:
…shape public behaviour through the use of “dynamic narratives” to combat the political propaganda disseminated by terrorist organisations.
The use of military personnel and funding for the purposes of influencing political discussion online is by no means limited to the United Kingdom. This is a global phenomenon in which governments are using social media in order to influence the flow and character of information and communication channels in order to manipulate public opinion. In the UK the Oxford research found that the government was creating human operated fake social media accounts to target groups and individuals and publishing content intended to mislead and misinform.
Time and again what is developed by the military-industrial complex in foreign conflicts is eventually turned against domestic populations during times of crisis.
“Cyber troop teams” have been found to be charged with producing substantive content for the purposes of spreading political messages. This is more than simple Twitter or Facebook updates and responses, but includes blog articles, YouTube vlogs and videos, “fake news,” and memes that promote a government agenda. In Britain the government has been shown to have been creating “persuasive messages” under a whole host of false personas and aliases in “psy-ops” framed as “anti-radicalisation” campaigns.
Typically these operations shroud themselves in the rhetoric of counter-terrorism and state security, but – as mentioned hereinabove – the interpretation of what constitutes terrorism and/or a threat to the security of the state can and has been shifted to meet the changing requirements of the government. This means that various pieces of legislation and countermeasures intended for use against terrorist organisations can and have been deployed against political and social movements within the state.
Scottish independence is a definitive threat to the integrity of the British state, bringing the independence movement in Scotland well within the scope of these operations. Even with the current lack of solid evidence in the case of Scotland – such evidence, by the nature of covert government operations, always being difficult to find – it can be safely guessed that Scottish social media users are being subjected to these dirty tricks.