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Why we’ve got the most to gain from cleaning up Scottish Twitter

AS an MEP, I put a lot of time into getting out and about personally. I enjoy the fact I represent the length and breadth of Scotland– and have seen most of it! I think it is an integral part of my job to be available, and as visible as I can be, so that folk can see what I’m up to.

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First published in The National, 26 October 2018

In recent times I also think it is crucial that I get information from Brussels over the Brexit process to the people I serve in Scotland so that we can have as many facts in our discourse as we can, and hopefully make better decisions in the challenges that lie ahead. So with the whole of Scotland and five and a half million folk to cover, I produce a regular Friday update of facts from Brussels, and was an enthusiastic early adopter of social media, Facebook, Twitter and the like.

I’ve seen how the growth of social media has enriched and empowered folk across Scotland. How it is impacting upon other media I think remains to be seen, and indeed today’s giants like Facebook and Twitter may be tomorrow’s MySpace and Bebo. This is a fast-moving environment.

But it is not all positive and there are regular lurid headlines about abuse or fake news – we’re kidding ourselves if we think Scotland is all sweetness and rainbows. As an out gay pro-EU Nat I’ll hear no lectures from anyone about abusive cybernats – all Scottish discourse is infested by a small minority who just want to crash things and we’ll all benefit from upping our digital literacy.

With that in mind I’ve commissioned researcher and author James Patrick to examine Twitter, and his independent report, Scotland and Social Media, Trolls Under The Bridge?, is published today. He analysed a total of 27,000 Twitter accounts, with 9981 being the main focus, given that their geographic location is openly set up to identify as “Scotland”.

The findings are intriguing. He has found that some 4.25% of Scottish Twitter activity is identifiable as potentially malign, though this rises to a maximum of 12.24% in an assessment of certain account types. Malign bots – those aimed at influencing public discourse and currently active on Scottish Twitter – centre around Brexit and “Dissolve The Union” messaging. Of 36.4 million tweets analysed, a potential maximum of 4.2m tweets could be malign, and the report’s author warns that Scotland’s social media user community is likely to see itself increasingly targeted by bots and trolls.

So there are some wasps in the room, and the report indicates that we all need to ca’canny. There’s a lot of good stuff on Scottish Twitter (much of it hilarious, which I only wish I could retweet on my parliamentary account!) but there are persons unknown who want to sow discord and confusion.

In the light of the report, as well as publishing it today so everyone can read it and judge for themselves, I’ve launched to empower Scottish (or indeed any) social media users to access the three main online troll identification engines. The Twitter account @scotorbot, also launched today, will aid the visibility of the facility on Twitter.

But I’m also concerned in the way a Twitter account with a few cosmetic changes can appear to be from anywhere. I have written to Twitter urging a “Place Verified” status in the same way as people can have their identity verified.

The firm should use geoblocking technology to ensure that profiles are located where they say they are. Such status would in no way limit free speech, but it would make clear, literally, where an account is coming from. If I see a Twitter account festooned in SNP and Yes branding but saying a lot of positive things about Brexit, it would be really handy to be able to see if the account is indeed coming from Minsk or Saint Petersburg.”

All in all, the report shows that there’s a lot of good to come from social media in Scotland. As the Yes movement, we’re the ones with most to gain from an egalitarian “crowdsourced” education on how the world works. Our opponents would far rather we all got our information from one or two traditional sources. So we have most to lose if Scottish Twitter becomes a pit of despair that sensible souls will not go into.

In the same way as the Tartan Army are such ambassadors for Scotland not just because they’re all nice folks but because they self-police anyone getting out of line, so we all owe a duty to each other to ca’canny online, up our digital literacy and remember that, online, all might not be what it seems.