LEADING figures in the SNP have stepped forward to denounce online abuse by so-called "cybernats" – a hardcore fringe of Yes supporters on social media accused of trolling, bullying, harassment and intimidation.

The condemnation comes from Angus Robertson, former depute leader of the SNP; Stewart McDonald MP, the party’s defence spokesman at Westminster; and Alyn Smith MEP, the SNP’s leading voice in the European Parliament.

They described online abusers as "cowards", "weird", "creepy", "snarling", "vicious", "poisonous" and "vile". The SNP wants to push aggressive online supporters out of the independence debate, and concentrate on wooing undecided voters with "persuasion" and "nuance". There were also calls for a debate about ending anonymity online.

One senior SNP figure said: "Much of this is about who can monetise the Yes movement. It’s about who is getting the most clicks, donations and subscriptions." Another said online abusers seemed "more interested in pursuing an anti-journalist, anti-BBC, anti-mainstream media agenda, than fighting for independence".

The Herald:

Robertson, McDonald and Smith were all clear that abuse came from only a small minority, and that intimidation and insults from pro-union supporters online – so-called "Unionist Ultras" – was equally bad as abuse by extreme Yes supporters.

The issue of online conduct has been brought into sharp focus following comments made by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon at the SNP conference last week when she said that independence supporters "must always" make their case with "decency, respect and dignity". The defamation case involving former Labour Party leader, Kezia Dugdale, and Wings over Scotland blogger Stuart Campbell has also focused attention on conduct online by a minority of vocal Yes supporters. Dugdale won the case.

Renewed talk of a second independence referendum has also concentrated the minds of senior members of the SNP and the Yes campaign on the detrimental effect online conduct may have on undecided voters seen as likely to be put off by aggressive behaviour.

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Senior SNP leaders have been on the receiving end of abuse from hardline Yes supporters as well as hardline unionists.

Smith said abusive online Yes supporters were "failing to attract and rendering us unattractive". He said the Yes community online had to address the social media problem "in the same way the Tartan Army had to clean up its act in the 1980s and then became a massive ambassadorial source for Scotland".

"We all need to step up," he said, adding: "This is allowing us to be portrayed in a certain way that’s damaging." When pro-independence social media users are abusive and insulting, Smith said, all members of the Yes movement should "call them out and send them to Coventry. Make them persona non grata forever – off you pop, you aren’t one of us if that’s how you behave".

Smith said the SNP had been reticent on the issue as "the second we admit that there’s a problem with online stuff it becomes 'the SNP has a problem with online stuff'." He added that the SNP dealt with party members who were abusive online but "we can’t regulate the entire world ... there’s a danger that we’re seen as responsible for every random zoomer on Twitter who says something". He added: "My concern is the wider Yes movement has a real job to do with this."

The SNP "will pretty regularly say some mealy-mouthed like ‘we should all behave ourselves online and we should all be nice’," he added, "but it’s like the Dangerous Dogs Act – the people who are actually in possession of the dangerous dog, they don’t register".

Addressing those accused of online abuse, he said: "If you truly want to help and advance the cause ask yourself honestly if you think you are."

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Angus Robertson said: "I’m expressly underlining the fact that this is an issue for both sides of the constitutional argument in Scotland, and more generally internationally where on social media, often because of anonymity, some people think that they can insult, attack and offend with impunity ... The immediate challenge for the wider Yes movement is to reach out to the open-minded and undecided voters ... however if the environment online is poisoned by aggressive shouty insulting, often anonymous, keyboard warriors, this is unlikely to persuade anybody and more likely to turn people off entirely and that should be a real concern."

Robertson, now director of the pro-independence think-tank Progress Scotland, said: "The most important thing in the wider Yes movement is to adopt a new open and welcoming tone."

He added: "The fact that this has become an issue which people are now prepared to call out is a good first step in hopefully resetting public discourse and letting those people know who engage in this kind of offensive and malicious behaviour that it’s unacceptable ... Regardless of whether a small and unrepresentative group of people continue in their unacceptable ways – which sadly I fear will be the case – I think if people in general are aware that they are unrepresentative on both sides, that has to be a positive step in the right direction."

Roberston said: "I think these people are cowards and wouldn’t be prepared to continue posting in the same way if they were identifiable, quite often because what they’re saying and doing would be considered illegal. We need a cultural change."

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There have been fears within the SNP hierarchy that by calling out abusive supporters, the party could find itself blamed for a deterioration in social media conduct across the board, even though all political parties share the same problem.

Roberston said: "There’s been reticence by senior Yes supporters to call out abuse for fear of undermining the more general debate about Scotland’s constitutional future, and rather than highlight the levels of abuse they received [by unionist trolls] to let it slide, or to avoid criticism because one is wanting to protect the reputation of public discourse more generally.

"This can’t go on. People can’t go on thinking they can sit in front of their keyboards and do nothing but send abuse to people they don’t agree with. You wouldn’t do it in public, you’d be thrown out of a pub for doing it, you’d never do it at a family event, why on earth would you do it online?"

Roberston said that the "Yes movement is getting serious about winning the next referendum, and rather than leaving social media and other parts of public discourse to those who want to shout loudest, there’s an understanding that a renewed, updated Yes case is going to involve a more nuanced and positive case".

He pointedly added: "It’s the SNP and the Yes movement which is being constantly told to intervene and deal with people on the pro-Yes side because of what they do on social media, but never ever do I see by the same token the same being asked of the other side."

Stewart McDonald MP said if Yes supporters used social media "then think about what the hell you’re putting on it because it helps form part of the footprint whether we like it or not of the Yes pro-independence movement officially or otherwise".

He described some abuse by Yes supporters as "creepy", "vicious and poisonous", and "vile", adding that "to be on the receiving end is frightening".

McDonald, who has even "been accused of being in the pay of the intelligence services", said: "They hunt in packs and it looks weird to people." He added: "These people aren’t the face of the Yes campaign."

McDonald said the problem of online abuse in the Yes movement was "at the fringes not at the heart, and where we find anyone at the heart who does stuff that is malicious we deal with that through party structures".

He added: "If people think they can help by shouting people down and trying to see conspiracies where they don’t exist and whipping themselves into a frenzy over nothing frankly, then I’d prefer them to go back to the old days of the conspiracy theory blogs where they all kept themselves to themselves." He added: "The best thing that could happen to some folk is that they lose their internet connection."

McDonald believes politics needs a "robust exchange of views", but says "unfortunately that too often seeps into a poisonous horrible discourse and what fundamentally some need to realise is that the Yes campaign doesn’t exist for them to feel good – the Yes campaign exists to deliver Scottish independence".

He added: "I don’t understand these folk who insist on spreading poison and cynicism. What it is they think they’re doing to help advance the case of Scottish independence? No-one serious engages with them, they aren’t changing minds, they aren’t persuading people, they all just seem to swirl around echoing each other."

McDonald said many young Yes campaigners worry about conduct online damaging independence. "The best thing we can do is empower good decent hardworking activists to also call out people, empower them to run a good campaign as we need them." Leaders of the Yes movement "need to set an example", he said.

McDonald, who has been subjected to abuse from supporters of the far-right activist Tommy Robinson, added: "I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end – just because you support Scottish independence doesn’t make you any better ... It makes you no better than the types of obnoxious thugs who turned up at Donald Trump’s rallies."

He said that aggressive online Yes supporters needed to "just f**king chill out a bit, and you can quote me directly on that ... some of the anger is over the most absurd things".

"On the face of it you might feel that it’s a bit annoying that X wasn’t top of Reporting Scotland or this headline was particularly unfortunate – fine we all get p****d off with something like that but just chill out a bit and think about things in the grand scheme of things. I think sometimes they wind themselves up so much."

McDonald thinks all political parties "just don’t know how to handle" the problem of online abuse by supporters. "I think we’re still grappling with the nature of the beast".

McDonald said that online abusers should "just stop". I was thinking to myself – do you ask them to change their behaviour, but they’re probably irredeemable, so just stop. If you’re one of these people who just pumps out poison and targets individuals, find another hobby, find something else do do – there’s plenty of decent, honourable Yes activists who can pick it up from here.’


IT isn’t just so-called "cybernats" that worry Alyn Smith. He’s concerned about possible "false flag" accounts on social media posing as Yes supporters. "There are vast amounts of Yes identifying accounts that are signalling against the SNP and causing arguments among the Yes side," he says.

"On Twitter there are clearly and demonstrably phoney accounts. I’ve got to the point where unless I see a name and a face, I don’t think that half of this is genuine ... It is beyond doubt that there are phoney Yes accountants that are actually not on the Yes side, and indeed there are phoney unionist accounts as well that are there to be abusive."

Smith points out that in the abortion debate in America, Russian troll farms ramped up both sides of the argument. "This can be easily done," he says.

Smith is also concerned about hostile foreign interference in domestic politics. He recalls making a speech where "if I didn’t mention Russia, I certainly mentioned dark forces trying to influence the election". He adds that he quickly received messages saying things like "I hope you die" which he believes were "clearly coming out of the same troll farm in Vladivostok".

He has proposed that Twitter gets rid of anonymous accounts. "Clickbait and rammy is now part of Twitter’s MO – it’s their business model and that’s dangerous, Smith adds.

To Smith, social media at its best means the "democratisation of information" and that’s why he wants to fight to make it trustworthy. Nor does he want people turned away because it’s become a "bear pit".


ANGUS Robertson’s new think tank Progress Scotland is trying to refashion debate in Scotland over the constitution. The buzz words are "moderate", "persuasion", and "reaching out". It’s the polar opposite of what’s happening with the online fringe.

"For those of us who are keen to foster a more moderate opportunity for discussion and the evolution of ideas, persuasion and debate, it’s a challenge because much of the public space online has been taken up by a small minority of people who misunderstand basic psychology – one is not going to persuade anyone about the merits of your case by screaming abuse at other social media users and for that matter journalists and others who are engaging in public discourse," Robertson says.

Research by Progress Scotland shows that about a fifth of all Scots are "open minded" or "undecided" on independence. "Only one in 20 voters theoretically need to change their minds to secure an independence majority," Robertson added. The think tank has found that the same arguments from 2014 "will not suffice to persuade them". Robertson says "nuance" and "persuasion" are needed – not "an angry aggressive snarling approach".

To tackle online abuse, Robertson says the "wider Yes movement" should "adopt a new, open and welcoming tone which is specifically aimed at the open-minded and undecideds". He believes this will "bring about a significant change of tone and content in public discourse".

Robertson said there was a "very strong argument" in favour of verified accounts online – as long as anonymity for whistleblowing was not endangered.


UNIONIST trolls are just as bad as the so-called "cybernats". SNP MSP Christina McKelvie had to call police before the 2016 elections as "abuse and threats were becoming a tsunami". She was called a "c***" by unionist trolls.

Mhairi Black, SNP MP, was called a "nasty little f**k" and a "slut". MSP Roseanna Cunningham was called a "bitter shovelled old c***", Elaine C Smith a "thirsty c***", and Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh a "slut" and a "common street whore".

Nicola Sturgeon was called a "f***ing prostitute". Another said of the First Minister "I’d love to kick that c*** @nicolasturgeon right in the face". The "@" sign made sure the FM would see the threat.

Others have called for "nationalists to be anaesthetised", likened the SNP to Nazis, and accused SNP supporters of "touching kids" and being "rapists". Unionist trolls have made racist comments to SNP minister Humza Yousaf. One also even suggested ISIS should have targeted a pro-independence demonstration.

A number of offenders, when it comes to such online abuse, are followed, engaged with, or retweeted by prominent unionists and elected unionists politicians.