All Quiet on the SNP Front?
In Scotland we see two, literally, textbook disinformation strategies from the Scottish National Party. The textbook in question being “Propaganda & Persuasion – Garth S. Jowett, Victoria O’Donnell”.
As a communication process ‘disinformation’ is described by two models developed by Jowett and O’Donnell. The deflective source model, and the legitimating source model. The aim of both models is to hide the source of the propaganda from the audience, to gain credibility.
The Deflective Source Model
In the deflective source model the propagandist (P) seeds a message (M) who transmits it (M) and looks like the original source.
The Deflective Source Model in Action
By its very nature the deflective Model hides attribution, so can be hard to pin down. It’s in Scotland particularly in the use of proxy campaigns and ‘false-flag’ campaigning. One striking from the independence referendum of 2014 was ‘Labour for Independence’ (LFI).
There is no doubt some Labour voters voted in favour of independence, or that “LFI” was set up online by an independence supporting Labour member – Allan Grogan. What’s interesting is when the group moved offline to become a ‘feet on the ground’ group.
The funding for their first LFI conference was provided by “Yes Scotland” whose leader, Blair Jenkins, spoke at the inaugural event.
For both narrative, and referendum spending declarations, it’s claimed that Yes Scotland were officially separate from the SNP. Blair Jenkins said in 2012
“[It’s] very important to me there’s a distinction made between the SNP and Yes Scotland …so it’s seen as a national movement which embraces a far wider range of people than just the SNP.“
He who pays the piper calls the tune.
That distinction was made – but, as it later turned out, they weren’t as distant as you might expect. From their set up costs, to paying off hundreds of thousands of pounds of debt after the referendum, “Yes Scotland Ltd.” were largely SNP funded.
In 2012 the SNP had ‘donated’ just over £340k in ‘start-up funds’. In the weeks around the vote in 2014 the SNP covered Yes Scotland’s costs of £825k – making the total SNP donation of over £1.2 million.
So The SNP founded the startup costs of Yes Scotland, which founded the Start up costs of Labour for Independence, and whose leader spoke at the first offline event.
That in itself does not count as disinformation: To meet the deflective source disinformation model we would need to show a direct line of SNP communicating propaganda as though Labour for Independence were the original source.
Can we show that?
To join LFI members were meant to be either Labour members, or unaffiliated to any political party. Photographs of Labour for Independence canvassing and campaigning showed their campaigners were in many cases SNP councillors and office holders.
The SNP leader of East Ayrshire council, Douglas Reid was photographed campaigning for Labour for Independence.
SNP MSP Christian Allard was found to be supplying LFI leaflets.
SNP Councillor for Preston/Seton/Gosford Peter McKenzie was caught manning a ‘Labour for Independence’ street stall.
‘Labour for Independence’ office-bearer, treasurer Celia Fitzgerald had been an SNP member and activist since 2004, and admitted in an interview to joining Labour in 2013 to undermine and agitate from within.
Grogan later admitted that the majority of LFI were not Labour members ( he estimated only around 40% were) and that he was aware SNP activists had been campaigning with LFI branded banners, leaflets and social media activity.
There were several potential benefits to the nationalist campaign using this disinformation model.
Obscure source of Funding & messaging.
During the referendum political parties were subject to spending limits. The SNP fully spent their own limit of £1.3 million, however they also “donated” £1.2 million to Yes Scotland – meaning they effectively spent double. In comparison the unionist campaign group ‘better together’ did not accept funding from political parties. The SNP funded “Yes Scotland”, and “Yes Scotland” funded Labour for independence. It should be noted that Labour for independence were fined by the electoral commission for not correctly following the financial rules.
Undermine Political Opponents from within
When LFI moved from online to offline, with Yes Scotland funding which had ultimately come from the SNP, the SNP leadership – First Minister Alex Salmond and Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, quickly hailed it as evidence of a split in the Labour party. LFI then targeted Scottish Labour voters with SNP / pro independence propaganda from the deflected ‘credible’ source of the Labour for independence organisation.
Labour voters who would not have seen these SNP councillors as credible in their true yellow and black colours, will have been more likely to listen to them under their labour guise due to the Behavioural Bias of “In-Group”
Create a false sense of wide grassroots support
As alluded to by Yes Scotland there was a strategic aim to make the Yes movement seem more than just the SNP – by creating a huge number of “for Independence” or “For Yes” brand groups. Often there was much overlap between these groups – and as later shown, with the SNP. While some of many groups that arose were independent of the SNP others went on to show closer links – for example an office holder of “women for independence” went on to be disgraced SNP MP Natalie McGarry. A key campaigner of “business for Scotland” went on to be disgraced SNP MP Michelle Thomson.
The Legitimating Source Model.
In the legitimating source model, the producer of the propaganda (P) again seeds the message (M1) into a source. The message is interpreted back (M2) . The propagandist transmits this message (M3) to the target audience (R) as though the the source was the original source of the message. They have ‘legitimised’ the message.
The Legitimating Source in Action.
Here is how it is being put to use in Scotland.
On 8th December, 2021 – SNP MSP Kenneth Gibson, an SNP MSP in Holyrood, submitted a prearranged written question to the Scottish Government. This was answered by Kate Forbes on 22 December 2021.
This (M1) is then seeded into a source – In this case STV – and is covered on the 26th Janurary some 4 weeks after the question was answered. The content of the article itself makes clear that it is an SNP claim. (M2)
However, in the social media post, (also M2) value judgements are made.
The article headline is “Figures reveal ‘eye-watering cost’ of mitigating Westminster policies, and the post text is simply “It is costing the Scottish Government nearly £600m per year to ‘right the wrongs’ of decisions made by the Conservatives at Westminster.
Now we see (M3) – The dissemination of the propaganda as though coming from another source.The SNP Media team have taken the value judgement headline, and created a social media meme out of it.
The meme is not SNP branded, it does not link to the article, it quotes the headline and cites “STV news” as though it is the original source, and the body making the claim.
In the final stage this image, separated from the SNP account, is then further disseminated by campaigning groups and other supporters.
To the end target audience, this looks like a statement of fact being reported by an investigative news organisation, rather than quoting an SNP crafted answer to an SNP crafted question, with an SNP interpretation.
They have successfuly hidden the source, and legitimised the claim.
That is the mechanism – to give some context on the content and see how the story is biased, consider this equally true statement of the same facts, and you can see how it can be made to support the devolution settlement, rather than independence:The story could equally have been framed as
“Additional funding from Westminster allows and supported the devolved Scottish government to pursue different local priorities”
The framing bias is first that the spend originates from the Scottish Government. It doesn’t. The source of this Scottish Government funding is the Westminster block grant. The SNPs own annual accounts show that Scotland gets more in funding from the union than we raise in taxes. The story here is that from the one pot of UK money, Westminster spent less than it might on certain things, but the Scottish government allocated some of the pot differently to counteract that.
In many ways, being able to create a grievance from this situation is remarkable work!
Consider if Westminster spent £600 million directly in Scotland, allocated that spend to scotland and – as a zero sum game – cut the Scottish government’s block grant by £600 million: The SNP would claim it’s an outrage that money is being spent on Scotland’s behalf and that these millions were not under their control at Holyrood where they could “spend it on Scotland’s priorities.”
What makes it even more extraordinary is that they are using it to make a case for Independence – when financially with independence their own growth commission plan shows they would need to make austerity-max level cuts.
Countering these Models
By their nature, these models are designed to hide the propagandist from you. By tracing facts and quotes back to their original sources, by being aware of funding models and org-chart overlaps, you may be able to spot these disinformation models being used – if you see any please share them below or on twitter!