Every so often the myth of the ‘Cybernat’ appears across the corporate media. The latest was prompted by what appears to have been an entirely bogus story surrounding the alleged ‘gagging’ of a pro-Union journalist by STV, after two SNP politicians had complained about the individual.
The ‘Cybernat’ myth is regularly used as a proxy for the smearing of the SNP. In June 2015 a storm erupted on Social Media and headlines were generated in a few newspapers when a dossier compiled by Scottish Labour listed tweets from alleged ‘Cybernats’.
The tweets were a mixture of offensive terms, name calling and swearing. Many of the tweets had been aimed at Scottish Labour party figures. The tweets had been gathered together in an attempt at harming the SNP, in particular its leader Nicola Sturgeon.
Sturgeon had been the subject of a high profile smear attempt the previous 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’ was 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 Unionist leaning media commentators or 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 continue to promote the myth of the Cybernat.
The dossier compiled by Scottish Labour suggested that inappropriate language was the exclusive preserve of the pro-independence online commentator. It wasn’t of course. Indeed not only are Unionists more than capable of posting offensive tweets, but some of the worst offenders are actually serving Unionist 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 ‘Cybernat’ myth is a cottage industry for some journalists. They actually make money from promoting the idea of an online army of independence supporting trolls marshalled by the SNP and ready to pounce on anyone brave enough to question the SNP or independence. The ‘Daileygate’ episode is merely the latest manifestation of that industry.
Attacking those you disagree with is not of course a phenomenon created by the independence referendum. It’s been around since the days of Adam. No sooner had humans learned the art of communication than they were having a go at other humans.
Abuse is not even restricted to Unionists on Nationalist or vice versa. There have been examples of well known Yes activists having a go at SNP politicians, as the image to the right shows.
The ‘critical’ tweet from Yes supporting Loki brought backing from Unionist commentator Alex Massie. Like poison and meat, one person’s abusive trolling is another person’s justifiable criticism.
I myself was criticised at the beginning of the year when, in a Sunday Herald article headlined ‘Why a hectoring online fringe is putting the achievements of the Yes movement at risk‘, Common Space editor Angela Haggerty wrote:
“The Twitter account of @GAponsonby is a prime example of that element of the independence movement which seems hell bent on its own destruction. The man behind this popular anonymous account is constantly warning about the apparent threat of – wait for it – pro-indy initiatives like the new socialist coalition Rise, to independence.
“Even pro-independence newspapers like the Sunday Herald and The National aren’t pro-indy enough for him: the media can’t be trusted, nobody can be trusted – put all of your faith in the SNP, don’t ask any questions and, for God’s sake, wheesht for indy. Great ‘truth-tellers’ such as these lack the self-awareness to recognise the sheer arrogance required to shout others down while elevating themselves on the pedestal of a movement created by the very people they now declare a danger.”
Having criticised the Common Space over what I saw as the dangers to the independence movement over its [and others] promotion of RISE, the article was Angela’s reply.
Unionists are also guilty of having a go at other Unionists as the Scotsman headline to the right proves. Had an SNP MP accused the Tories of being ‘anti-Scottish’ he or she would have been vilified. But it was Gordon Brown, saviour of the Union, so it was deemed acceptable.
The ‘Cybernat’ myth has endured for seven years, mainly due to a media that is Unionist to its core and unable to accept that many who once consumed its output passively, no longer do.
The Stephen Daisley episode is an example of the subtle evolution of the ‘Cybernat’ myth from one of ‘abuse’ of those holding opposing views, to one of seeking to prevent, ‘gagging’, those views from being broadcast or published. The Herald headline that accused the SNP of seeking to have Daisley ‘gagged’ was dishonest and was itself an example of the ‘Clickbait’ journalism that is designed both the attract attention and to provoke reaction.
Poking Yes supporters with a stick is good for business. Just look at the amount of corporate media copy The Herald article has generated. Most of it of course is based on the false claim that the SNP is gagging journalists.
‘The creatures outside looked from journalist to troll and from troll to journalist, and from journalist to troll again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.’
Like I say, the ‘Cybernat’ myth is a cottage industry.
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