Debate about Russian meddling in the west has been ramping up in both frequency and tone.
A recent warning was made by European Commissioner for the Security Union Julian King, who asserted that Russian interference in western politics posts a ‘threat to western democracy’.
These discussions have been amplified in Scotland in light of the debut of former First Minister Alex Salmond’s talk show on the Russia-based TV network RT.
The network has been accused as a channel for Russian propaganda, with current First Minister Nicola Sturgeon even delivering a rare rebuke to her former colleague’s actions.
Alex Salmond’s new show on RT could compromise his bid to sit on the new board of Johnston Press, should owner of the firm Christen Ager-Hanssen’s plans for the company go ahead. Ashley Highfield, Johnston Press’s current Chief Executive, said to the Sunday Times: ‘The fact that Salmond seems to be in bed with the Russians would go against our belief in the editorial independence of our titles.
‘We have had a number of readers and advertisers saying they would cancel their subscription or their business if Salmond went onto the board.”
Mr Salmond has denied claims that he legitimises RT by hosting a show on the network, noting that his own production company makes the programme and asserting that he has full editorial control. However, The Herald has claimed that on the debut episode this week, in which Mr Salmond interviewed the deposed Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, ticker headlines supporting Russian policy were overlaid.
Meanwhile, potential for Russian involvement in Scottish politics has deepened following research conducted by a team from the University of Swansea that found that fake Twitter accounts have sent 400,000 messages relating to a second independence referendum in the last 18 months.
The analysts claim to have discovered spikes in activity from automatically-generated accounts revolving around ‘major Scottish events’ – including Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement of her plans to hold a second independence referendum.
The researchers’ data reveals that between May 24 last year and September 24 this year, a total of 388,406 tweets containing at least one of the following keywords ‘scotland’, ‘scottish’, ‘sturgeon’, ‘indyref’, ‘scotref’ and ‘SNP’ were made from automatically-created accounts. This number accounts for around 17% of the total 2,284,746 tweets containing that keyword made during the period.
It appears that the bots were created to cause instability, as most showed messages had pro-Independence themes, while separate data collected by the Swansea University team showed that other bots had been tweeting pro-Brexit themes.
Because of the time constraints of the analysis, the origins of the bots has not been identified. But Ben Nimmo, of the Washington-based Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, said: “It is entirely plausible these tweets came from Russia. We know the Scottish independence vote was divisive and the model deployed by the Russians is to target geo-political events around the world where they can encourage division.”
“Now in general terms, and for obvious reasons, the Kremlin isn’t keen on independence per se but the disruption would be appealing, not least the potential impact on NATO.”