A FEW years ago, a once influential Scottish blogger declared Russia to be a democracy.

Stuart Campbell, better known by his online handle Wings over Scotland, was coming to the defence of his hero, Alex Salmond.

The former first minister had announced he was going to make a show for RT, Vladimir Putin’s premier international mouthpiece.

Critics of Mr Salmond, not least inside the SNP, were seething. Then nationalist MEP Alyn Smith – for the record – used the F-word.

Some unionists, such as Lord Foulkes, suggested making a programme for the propaganda network was “close to treason”.

Mr Campbell was having none of this. RT, he claimed, was “Russia’s equivalent of the BBC”. Criticism of Mr Salmond, he added, amounted to a “hysterical brouhaha”.

Then came a line that that made me gasp.

“Nobody,” wrote Mr Campbell, “disputes that RT is an arm of the Russian government – which in the interests of accuracy it perhaps needs to be pointed out is a democratically-elected one, as is the Russian presidency."

It is hard to overstate how outlandish this claim was.

Mr Campbell was writing in 2017. That was three years after Putin had first invaded Ukraine, annexing Crimea. It was four years after the State Duma had outlawed separatism, meaning, as an example, tweeting or blogging in favour of independence for one of the Russian Federation’s republics could get you up to five years in jail.

Even then, elections were sham and the state media a diet of endless propaganda and disinformation, and nothing, even remotely, like the BBC.

Mr Campbell, to be fair, also said that the Russian government “were pretty bad guys” before indulging in some whataboutery about real or alleged wrongdoing by the West.

Things are even worse in Russia now. The last facade of constitutionalism has been demolished, the last remnants of a free press and broadcasting shut down.

But Russia has not been a properly functioning democracy for some time, if ever. Thirty years after the collapse of Communism, it has still to have peaceful electoral transition of power.

I keep thinking back to the days when Salmond began his misadventure on Putin TV, and when an even shriller part of his disinformation machinery, Sputnik, opened up shop in Edinburgh.

I have plucked out this one example from Mr Campbell, who has been banned by Twitter and suspended his blog, which at one time was a key source of (usually counter-productive) attack lines for pro-independence “cybernats”.

But he was not alone in echoing a core postmodern Kremlin talking point, that everything is propaganda, that every government is capable of bloody deceit, that truth is all relative.

Take Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp, of pro-independence lobby Business for Scotland.

He published a column in The Herald’s sister paper The National. “If Sputnik News is propaganda then so is the BBC,” it said.

This article proved so popular for Putin’s actual propagandists they translated and republished it across Europe.

RT is gone, banned in the EU and off the air in the UK after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Sputnik pulled out of Edinburgh last year, citing a “hostile environment”.

Scotland – and its independence movement – has proved relatively resilient to nonsense from the Putin regime.

Indeed, the SNP has been described, most recently in the New Statesman magazine, as the most anti-Putin party in the UK.

Now Nicola Sturgeon takes flak for being hawkish on Ukraine.

This is not surprising: mainstream nationalists have long seen the current Russian Federation as a “prison of nations” and been understandably nervous about its government’s stance to its independent neighbours.

Pro-independence voters turned up their noses at Mr Salmond after he left the SNP and set up a rival party, Alba, while still appearing, weekly, on Putin’s propaganda.

Mainstream Scottish unionists too – despite some Tory complacency on dirty money from Russia – have had little actual time for Putin regime nonsense.

Last year they rejected a fervently pro-UK political party, All4Unity, which tried to get a key face from RT, George Galloway, elected to the Scottish Parliament.

But I still keep thinking about those voices, mostly online, who declared Russia a democracy, who pushed Russian propaganda. How did that happen?

I do not think for a minute that many of the very online activists were actual Putinists.

So why did they end up echoing Kremlin propaganda talking points? We need to think about this a lot more: but I think there are three basic factors:

The first is a Trump-style distrust in journalism.

The second is just how shallow, how unserious, online Scottish constitutional politics has become. Some hyper-partisans for years have been locked in to what amounts to permanent Twitter spats, an endless round of trolling and counter-trolling, of wind-ups and windbags.

Talking rubbish about Russia, or Putin, or propaganda had no consequences for such social media activists.

Sure, their words could be laundered and resold around the world as evidence of support for Kremlin positions. But Scotland’s cyberwarriors did not have to worry about that.

That is because of a third factor: they were, by and largely, not paying attention to foreign affairs.

Putin has now mostly lost his information war, at least outside Russia. It is now very hard to imagine even the most hardened Scottish online warrior declaring his regime to be democratic. Or asserting that his TV stations are the same as the BBC. Or trying to get one of its TV people elected to Holyrood.

His war on Ukraine has made such nonsense universally unacceptable, even on the internet fringes.

My view: it always should have been.

But to avoid the same mistakes being made again, we really are going to have to find ways to make discourse less infantile and less insular, especially online. And that will not be easy at all.

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