THE conspiracy theories spread so quickly even seasoned Twitter commentators were surprised.

As soon as allegations of sexual misconduct emerged against Alex Salmond there came an instant response: Westminster must lie behind them.

But - as you might have expected - often those making such claims are not who or what they appear to be.

This weekend on Twitter I started a thread breaking down how to spot a bot. I used an example of an account which said the allegations against Salmond were part of a unionist plot.

I then started comparing profiles that were sharing this account. They all shared and exhibited the same characteristics and tactics: a non-identifying profile picture, a bio that refers to the fact they are a parents or a spouse, and a quote about wanting a better future for Scotland.

The majority of their feed would be made up retweets of other similar accounts. They appear to semi-automate, until something happens. Like being accused of being a bot.

To begin, they were tweeting replies slightly out of context in response to my thread, mainly about Salmond’s innocence, which wasn’t the topic of discussion.

But once they realised that I was looking and discussing these accounts, the responses were picked up by the humans behind the account. If you search through my twitter handle @jennifermjones, you can see I am now in the middle my own twitter pile-on.

These accounts claim that they must be anonymous to protect their political views from their employer. Although I don’t imagine it is unusual or a sackable offence to possess a pro-independence stance these days.

I do, however, imagine that their anonymity allows them to use their account as a harassment tool for what I am now experiencing first hand. The same tactics were used against SNP member Prof Tanja Bueltmann experienced around the People’s Vote campaign and SNP Councillor Rhiannon Spear encountered when she questioned the lack of non-male speakers at - and the very basis of - a “BBC bias” protest at Pacific Quay.

What is going on? These types of online interactions are designed to muddy the water, and attempt to discredit an individual. The irony is not lost that the women targeted were all pro-independence and were active during the original 2014 campaign.

We should not behave like the online equivalent of a faded Yes car sticker, lacking the same impact and enthusiasm that it would have four years ago.

What we are seeing here is a mix of bots, sock puppets and real users with multiple accounts. They are acting like a pack, ready to pounce on anybody who questions them.

Toxic Twitter Culture can make you feel as if the world is burning. How should we deal with this? Well, we need to look out for the tell-tale signs of a Bot. We need to learn to differentiate such accounts from real people we can trust. And, I think, we have to appreciate that bots and users with multiple accounts can make the attitudes they push seem so much bigger than they are in the real world.

Some of these accounts are motivated by concerns over “media bias”. Some must benefit from the feeling of being part of a movement, of having common purpose. But when does that tip into being part of a baying, bullying mob?

Dr Jennifer Jones is an independent media researcher.