Something unintentionally funny keeps happening on the politically feverish fringes of Scottish social media.

Day after day some of the most passionate online outriders of the independence cause somehow manage to both fete the SNP and accuse some within it of plotting to jail their former leader, Alex Salmond – possibly even as part of some “deep state” conspiracy.

Scrolling through the Twitter and Facebook feeds of so-called cybernats can feel like an archaeology dig into the digital rubble of the 2014 referendum.

Yet here, buried under layers of saltire avatars, ageing Yes campaign logos and tired old memes, you’ll find everything you need to know about the faultlines running right through the independence movement apart, surprisingly often, from an acknowledgement that they exist.

READ MORE: SNP's Joanna Cherry comes under Unionist fire for 'unbelievable' focus on independence during pandemic

It is six weeks or so since Alex Salmond, freshly cleared of a raft of alleged sex crime, stood outside the High Court in Edinburgh and warned that he had unspecified “certain evidence” he wished to bring to light about his prosecution. But not, he said, just yet.

The old party boss, once again wearing tie emblazoned with a St Andrew’s Cross, declared a truce. His “evidence”, he said, could wait until Covid-19 was defeated.

However, Salmond’s proxies – or at least those wishing to be seen as his proxies – have been busting the self-declared armistice.

They are, to varying degrees, hinting that Salmond has some kind of proof that his opponents – usually in the SNP – tried to fit him up, that his prosecution is political, rather than based on a perspective of behaviour the politician’s own defence sometimes admitted was inappropriate, if not criminally so. SNP veteran and long-time Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill talked of “dark forces” afoot.

THOUGH the roots of this unrest are widely regarded to be a struggle for control of the party and the direction it is going in, most Salmond supporters have shied away from openly attacking leader Nicola Sturgeon, as she enjoys approval ratings far more consistently high than those of her predecessor.

Instead, outriders for the Salmond camp have harried their hero’s legally anonymous accusers, or those they regard as “careerist” politicians on Sturgeon’s mainstream wing of the party, or youth activists they believe are more interested in social issues like trans rights than independence.

This is why some cybernats – rarely typical of wider Yes voters or supporters – can live with the logical nonsense of supporting Sturgeon and Salmond: they haven’t quite twigged the pair are in conflict and continue to like them both. They see no need to pick sides.

Doing so, said one source, would be “akin to family trauma”. Denial is easier.

Marco Biagi, a former SNP minister turned political analyst, says independence supporters will have to choose.

“I don’t think they are going to have an option,” he said, suggesting some kind of showdown was inevitable. “It’s like a dormant volcano,” he added. “There has been a bit of a rumble but the eruption has been postponed.”

Welcome to the SNP’s phoney civil war.

Why “phoney”? Well, for some, because the conflict isn’t real, or because its scale has been exaggerated, or because one side is so much weaker than the other it just cannot put up a fight.

For others, the SNP civil war is “phoney” because, like the Second World War, it has started with a lull. Whatever kind of phoney it is, this war, like all others, is shrouded in fog.

The Herald on Sunday has spoken to party insiders and observers – most of whom did want to be named – to try to cut through this confusion. This is how they answered our questions.

Is there a ‘war’ or not?

For Biagi, the first shots have already been fired. And, crucially, in public. That means a conflict, at least of sorts, has been declared.

“For some time there has been debate between some of the outriders for the Salmond and Sturgeon camps within the party structures.

“We are now seeing open conflict between Salmond and Sturgeon.”

James Mitchell, however, reckons it’s too early to say whether it is all-out war.

A professor at Edinburgh University, he has been studying the attitudes of SNP members since the party first came to power a decade ago. And he has been a scholar of Scottish politics for even longer.

He said: “There are certainly tensions, as you’d expect in any party, but nothing comparable to the internal divisions of the SNP in the early 1980s or anything we have seen in recent years in the Labour Party.”

Mitchell stressed “tensions” between Sturgeon and Salmond were “certainly real” but he said he believed party members, so far, found this “more perplexing than anything else”.

For Mitchell, the party members may be frustrated with progress to independence but they are loyal and don’t want conflict, not least with important elections on the horizon.

This tallies with another reason some party insiders deny there is a real civil war: they just don’t think Salmond, or any of his proxies or allies, are strong enough to wage one.

READ MORE: SNP MP accused of capitalising on virus crisis following 'brazenly disloyal' remarks at virtual meeting

For them, Salmond, his reputation shredded by the nature of his own court defence and his show on Russian state broadcaster RT, is too politically weak to challenge Sturgeon. But that, they stress, does not mean he cannot cause damage to his old cause with an attempted insurgency they see as doomed to fail.

Is this personal?

That is how it looks to most inside the SNP – and out. Salmond feels personally maligned by the accusations made against him.

Two of his most prominent supporters, MacAskill and another former Cabinet secretary, Alex Neil, were both sidelined by Sturgeon.

Another ally, the MP Joanna Cherry, who set out her stall for a more “radical” direction for the party earlier this week, does not hide her own leadership ambitions.

The Salmond insurgency is personal, all sides agree on that. But it also has a political backdrop.

What is the big dividing line?

First, the basics. The national question means Scottish politics is three-dimensional. So is the SNP’s. That means the party has members and politicians who can plot their politics on three lines – left to right on state control of the economy; progressive to conservative on social issues; and fundamentalist or gradualist on the path to independence.

The SNP in modern times has largely been centre-left, progressive and gradualist. Sturgeon embodies all those stances. So too, broadly, has Salmond, his friends and critics agree.

SNP watchers argue Salmond has been notably more nationalistic, less progressive and less left-wing than Sturgeon. And, for independence, he has been more willing to be flexible on other policies.

Yet Alex Salmond is relatively new to this fundamentalist camp, insiders stress. Indeed, some of those championing him now used to loathe his gradualism.

“There is very clearly a division over the emphasis on independence. That is the master cleavage,” Biagi said. “Beyond that it starts getting awkward to pin down the ideological faultlines.” Salmond also appears to be courting socially conservative and economically left elements. This does not necessarily make for a plausible winning coalition.

Mitchell, in monitoring the SNP mood, has picked up on fundamentalist grumbles.

“There is some frustration that while support for the SNP remains remarkably high, support for independence has stalled,” he said. “That is leading to suggestions that leadership is more interested in staying in office than furthering the cause of independence.”

What forces can the two sides muster?

Sturgeon and Salmond are not evenly matched. The current leader controls the bulk of the party’s apparatus and has the support of most of its elected members and, most watchers think, the wider party.

Salmond’s backing seems strongest among activists. And this – all sides agree – appears to be particularly the case for what Biagi refers to as “The Extremely Online”.

Last week, there was one early signal about attitudes to Salmond among SNP voters, if not members.

One of the key influencers of the Extremely Online, blogger Stuart Campbell of Wings Over Scotland, published a poll suggesting one in five Scots thought Salmond was a victim of a plot. That figure rose to fully 30% of the SNP voters sampled in the survey.

For Mitchell, there are two kinds of critics inside the SNP: those who want a change of course or emphasis but are still ultimately supportive of the leadership (the “vast bulk”, he says), and those who want a change of leadership and direction. The second group, he stresses, “remains a small but vocal element and appears to be growing, but at this stage is not a danger to Nicola Sturgeon”.

He added: “I suspect the leadership would like it be thought that criticism all stems from former leaders but that is clearly not the case.”

What are the war aims of each side?

The Salmond side wants “regime change”, says Marco Biagi. But that doesn’t mean they have a realistic prospect of achieving it.

Despite fringe talk of a Salmond return to power and more credible discussion of a Cherry leadership, it is far from clear that insurgents care who replaces the current FM, as long as she goes.

Outside commentators have bigged up a battle to select a Holyrood candidate for Edinburgh Central as a proxy for the Sturgeon versus Salmond war.

After all, Salmond ally Cherry, currently an MP, wants to stand in the seat, currently held by former Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson.

So does Angus Robertson, a former leader of the SNP group in Westminster who is widely seen as a Sturgeon loyalist. Both are talked about as future leaders.

The popular wisdom is that Salmond – currently not even a member of the SNP – would back Cherry. Signals from his camp, however, suggest it is not as simple as that. He might be content to see Robertson replace Sturgeon. His campaign, said one source, is “anyone but Sturgeon”.

Who is winning the war?

It is hard to judge a conflict by its early skirmishes. But Sturgeon supporters think Salmond has started badly.

The former First Minister may appear at the head of a rag-tag insurgency. But, in the current climate, he is unable to lead or even articulate his arguments, or present his “evidence”.

That leaves a void to fill, especially on social media. While Salmond is silent, his supporters have spluttered a variety of conspiracy theories all over the internet – up to and including a grand plot by the security services to take over the SNP. This does not resonate with a wider membership characterised by Mitchell’s research as pragmatic and moderate.

Moreover, even some of the most passionate Salmond outriders have looked afraid to go after Sturgeon directly. They have chosen proxies instead. And chosen, say their critics, very unwisely indeed.

When Rape Crisis, the charity which supports victims of sex crimes, issued a statement on behalf of the complainers in the Salmond case, it found itself at the centre of conspiracy theories and social media bile.

“We couldn’t believe that the Salmond camp ended up looking like it was attacking Rape Crisis rather than Sturgeon,” said one fan of the First Minister. “They are not very good at politics.”

This reflects a reappraisal of Salmond’s performance in office among some in the Sturgeon camp. There are those who now think Salmond let them down when he was in Bute House. His trial revealed he had been drunk and that he had tried it on with younger colleagues.

That has not gone down well with some of the activists who were wearing out shoe leather delivering leaflets and chapping doors in 2014.

READ MORE: Herald on Sunday letters: what readers are talking about this week

His critics have pointed to his lack of attention to detail on issues like currency, and his poor performance in the crucial first 2014 debate with Better Together leader Alistair Darling.

Salmond, this new analysis of the referendum concludes, failed to address fundamental fears of economic risk. Could he have done better with clearer, more detailed policies on the future of the pound? Or were public concerns on currency just a manifestation of wider risk aversion no leader could have overcome?

This is largely moot, say most pro-Sturgeon insiders. What has happened to Salmond after he lost his Westminster seat in 2017 is more important.

“He’s destroyed,” said one veteran activist who shares some of the wider criticism of the current leadership, including on trans issues.

“He has tried to put together an alliance and has failed,” she said. “Are feminists, for example, really going to support him? Are we going to support anybody who backed him? No.”

The Salmond camp has another practical problem: the electoral timetable.

Their aim might be to unseat Sturgeon. But when, technically, can they attempt to do that? SNP leaders are re-elected every year. The immediate formal chance will be at this autumn’s party conference. Will Salmond or Cherry put up a challenge, even a stalking horse, over a summer to be dominated by the health crisis? The next opportunity would be a year later, in the fall of 2021, in the immediate aftermath of Holyrood general elections which the SNP, if polls are anything to go by, is heading to win by a landslide.

Mitchell added: “There is a core who want to change the leader but if this was a serious threat then they would have coalesced around an alternative by now. Under the 2004 reforms to the SNP constitution, it is now difficult for an incumbent leader to be replaced so there seems little prospect of that happening at the moment.”

Can Sturgeon keep critical but loyal members on side?

This might just be the battleground for the future of the SNP: whether Sturgeon can hold on to supporters who are frustrated by slow progress to independence and feel unheard on some policy issues, but who remain loyal to her.

“Critics are healthy and to be expected in any party,” said Mitchell. “How the leadership handles them is key. The danger for Nicola Sturgeon is she treats those who remain loyal but critical of policy and strategy as if they are the same as the hard core who want rid of her.

“Some criticise the leadership for failing to harness the energy [of the independent campaign] beyond 2015. Many of the harshest critics focus on the SNP headquarters rather than on Nicola Sturgeon.”

Is SNP HQ a proxy for the leader? Would changes there quell unrest?

Mitchell added: “I suspect if the leadership was more confident, less controlling and allowed proper debate, then many of the critics would be content.”

What does all of this mean for the SNP and independence?

The fear inside the SNP mainstream is not so much that an insurgency will topple Sturgeon but that it will throw up dirt that will hurt the independence cause.

There are leadership loyalists, however, who relish a fight with their internal opponents, those some openly refer to as the “bampot” wing.

Some have told The Herald on Sunday they take heart that some online activists, such as Campbell of Wings Over Scotland and other more pro-Salmond cybernats, are now overtly hostile to the party. That helps the SNP distance itself from people who the party mainstream believe put off swing voters.

Mitchell, however, reiterated that many Scots and SNP supporters remained genuinely “puzzled” by the Salmond court saga and its aftermath.

For him, it is just too soon to say how the story will play out in the party and wider politics.

He summed up: “It appears that this matter has had little, if any, impact on party support or support for independence.

“Whether that changes will depend on what emerges and how this is perceived by the public.

“I’d simply be very cautious about any claims about impact on public opinion at this stage.”