For most of us, it was just an election, albeit a damned important one.

For Alex Stamos, last year’s presidential poll was so much more.

"This is the most intense online disinformation event in US history,” the former head of security at Facebook concluded the day after Americans voted. 

Stamos was reacting to defeated Donald Trump’s outrageous and transparent lies about electoral fraud - and the way they were rippling through his country’s often insanely hyper-partisan social media eco-system.

He was right to be worried. We all know where Trump’s twisted and self-serving propaganda led: to the assault on the Capitol on January 6.

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Here in Scotland, we don’t tend to talk about ‘disinformation events’. I think we should. Because we are living through one right now: the maelstrom of falsehoods - some great, some small - swirling around the Alex Salmond saga.

There are facts which are beyond dispute about the former first minister and allegations made against him of sexual harassment. 

First, that the Scottish Government botched an inquiry into claims by civil servants. Second, that a jury cleared the ex-politician of any crime.

But amid these facts, there are also the myths, myths that are like chum for the sharks of disinformation.

One is that Nicola Sturgeon or others tried to frame her predecessor.  The current first minister describes this is a “conspiracy theory”. 

Amid all the political noise about whether Sturgeon broke the ministerial code to mislead parliament, little attention has been given to just how flimsy this “theory” was.


Salmond and his allies had claimed messages between complainers and others would prove a plot. He had wanted to use them in his criminal defence but they were excluded from the jury by trial judge, Lady Dorrian. 

MSPs investigating how the original harassment inquiry went wrong obtained these messages from the Crown. One anonymous source told The Scotsman that they ‘turned out to be mince”.

The final report from the MSP committee, published yesterday did not include them.  They were “personal messages showing individuals supporting each other”, it concluded.

So in the real world, of parliament or criminal court, the idea of an anti-Salmond plot has not got very far. 

But in the virtual reality of the internet, it has thrived, evolved, multiplied.

Why? Because, just as in America, we have a polarised and polarising online political culture. 

Most of us think of this social media environment as toxic.  But for a whole cast of actors who profit - politically or financially - from online fantasies and fanaticism, it is the perfect habitat.

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These actors include the propaganda machinery of authoritarian states. Salmond has a weekly TV show on one of these, RT,  the main international mouthpiece of Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

Another Kremlin TV host - arch-unionist George Galloway - has appeared on the channel to declare Salmond was ‘framed”. 

Back in 2019, the station’s editor in chief has riffed on why this might be. Margarita Simonyan took to Telegram to announce with a flurry of exclamation marks that Mr Salmond had been arrested. “It’s dangerous to be an RT presenter,” she declared. 

Yet most Salmond conspiracism is home-grown.  Twitter and Facebook are laced with posts from Salmond supporters who think the intelligence services are behind recent events.  

Shriller unionists are no better, seeing Sturgeon’s minority devolved administration as a “one-party state”. 

It is almost as if, thanks to the Salmond saga, the extremes of both sides of Scotland’s constitutional divide are now forming their own “nat-yoon” incarnation of the old red-brown horseshoe when Fascists and Stalinists started to look the same. 

There is an ugliness, a visceral misogyny, propping up the disinformation. That’s why it works, it appeals to the worst of us. All over the blogosphere, you can read a poisonous myth: that Salmond being not guilty means that complaining witnesses in his trial - without even being charged with such a crime - are guilty of perjury. This is false, it is also cruel. Conspiracism is not some victimless internet lark: real women are being hurt. 

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There will be consequences for a few of those spreading such nonsense, especially where their theories clash with legal constraints on court reporting. One man has been jailed for naming Salmond complainers on Twitter; another has been cleared of threatening them online. A blogger is waiting to hear a verdict on contempt of court charges. 

For most, there is no personal cost. But there could be a societal one. As with Trump 2020, Scotland’s biggest modern disinformation event is not staying online. It’s spreading, eating away into our politics.

Nobody has stormed Holyrood. But a wider culture of conspiracism around the Salmond story is bleeding into the mainstream.

Earlier this week a Wiki page for James Hamilton, the Irish lawyer who cleared Sturgeon of breaching the ministerial code, was altered to say, falsely, that he was SNP.  At least one conservative media commentator appeared to take this crude feint seriously. Now that is scary.