By Ben Nimmo

As the results of the independence referendum came in on September 19, 2014, many voters took to Twitter to express relief, disappointment or anger.

Among them, a cluster of anonymous accounts began pushing the claim that the vote had been rigged, that it should be re-run.

Some of those accounts had a very Russian leaning. A few mostly shared posts in Russian, and focused on the conflict in Ukraine. Others mainly posted in English, but shared pro-Kremlin messages on Ukraine, the shooting-down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, Turkey’s downing of a Russian aircraft in November 2015, and the conflict in Syria.

Some looked like bots: automated accounts, pre-programmed to amplify other people’s posts. More, however, resembled trolls: anonymous human operators who use the cloak of anonymity to spread a particular political view, or set of views.

We cannot tell through open-source research where those accounts were operated from. But their behaviour was consistent with the anonymous accounts operated from the Russian “troll factory” in St Petersburg - accounts which posed as American citizens to spread divisive and hyper-partisan messages in the 2016 US election.

Ben Nimmo

The Herald:

The content they shared was pro-Kremlin. Only a proper investigation, supported by the social networks themselves, will be able to reveal whether any were Kremlin-linked.

Simultaneously, a Russian official who had been observing the referendum claimed that the vote had “not met international standards”. A pro-independence Facebook page picked up on the comment, and launched a petition for a re-vote.

Despite reassurances and explanations from the electoral commission, and despite the SNP’s acceptance, with good grace, of the result, the petition gained over 100,000 signatures.

How many of those signatures came from Scotland? We cannot tell, because the petition platform does not verify its signatures. For comparison, a petition to the UK Parliament, which does verify its signatures, gathered just over 23,000.

Right now, we have more questions than answers. We know that some genuine voters had genuine concerns about the result. We know that a Russian official fuelled those concerns, and pro-Kremlin accounts amplified them.

We need more data, and more analysis, to show how much influence the Russian and pro-Russian comments had inside Scotland’s debate.

Beyond that, we need to increase society’s resilience to online propaganda. Russia’s interference in the US was effective because the US online environment was already driven by anonymous, hyper-partisan accounts. Some of the pro-Kremlin accounts which challenged the referendum’s credibility were just as anonymous and partisan. Accounts like that still flourish in online debates today. Who is behind them? There is often no way of knowing.

As long as such accounts remain the norm, we will remain vulnerable to online manipulation - as America was in 2016.

Ben Nimmo is Senior Fellow for Information Defense at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.