Bitten by the Cybernat – Unionism awakens to the internet

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By G.A.Ponsonby 

Scottish Unionists have finally woken up to the power of the internet.  They hit the internet snooze button pre-May’s election but with Labour’s disastrous loss they now realise that they have slept in.

The internet revolution has changed everything.

By G.A.Ponsonby 

Scottish Unionists have finally woken up to the power of the internet.  They hit the internet snooze button pre-May’s election but with Labour’s disastrous loss they now realise that they have slept in.

The internet revolution has changed everything.

Previously one could only participate in political debate if one had access to considerable financial resources or was fortunate enough to be employed as a media commentator.  Now all that is required is a laptop computer and an internet connection.

Ordinary Scots can comment, pontificate, debate, argue and report in a way never before seen.  It’s free speech taken to another level and boy has it ruffled feathers.

The SNP used the power of the internet throughout the election campaign to get its message across.  The party were ahead of the curve and embraced the opportunities the new technology offered.

Twitter and Facebook allowed real time punchy messages to be posted to an internet savvy electorate and online blogs provided a constant antidote to a Unionist dominated media.  Scottish online activists played an important role in securing the SNP’s historic win.

The ability to publish, with ease, one’s views and opinions is not without its downside.  Intolerance can be found lurking in all corners of the internet, extreme views and inappropriate language abound in cyberspace.

However a rather insidious little campaign is currently underway, the aim of which is to suggest that extreme views is the exclusive preserve of independence supporters.  A term has been coined that is supposed shorthand for repellent, ignorant and abusive online commentators – the cybernat.

The thrust of this campaign is to marginalise and demonise the online independence movement by suggesting that they, and they alone, are an online menace spreading smears and lies about Unionist (especially Labour) politicians.

The claim extends to suggestions that these ‘smears’ are co-ordinated by an SNP cyber-HQ who issue commands to their online Nat-drones.

That abuse and lies are a problem for both Nationalist and Unionist online bloggers and posters alike is ignored.  The aim is to demonise the growing and increasingly influential independence supporting online community.

Last night Labour MSP and contender to replace Iain Gray, Johann Lamont appeared on our TV screens making the now predictable claims that the SNP had to do something about these internet critics of Labour who apparently smear and lie.

This would be the same Johann Lamont who only weeks ago tried to attack the Scottish government by using a fabricated story of a rape victim’s court ordeal.

Ms Lamont’s outgoing leader Iain Gray claimed over a week ago that journalists came under attack for nothing more than giving the Labour party a “fair hearing”.

Could this be the same journalists who totally ignored Ms Lamont’s fabricated rape question and then provided high profile coverage of Mr Salmond’s mistake when he attributed comments to a Dr Matt Qvortrup that the academic had not made?

As an aside, there was one other person who attributed views to Professor Qvortrup that he hadn’t in fact expressed.  That person was BBC Scotland’s Shereen Nanjiani who claimed on her show on 30th October that Dr Qvortrup had complained that he had been “nobbled”.  The person who made the “nobbled” claim was in fact Lib Dem MSP Willie Rennie.

Unionists never explain just why journalists like Iain Macwhirter (a Unionist) are widely respected by Nationalists whilst journalists like Magnus Gardham (a regular guest on Ms Nanjiani’s show) are widely ridiculed.

Why for example Isabel Fraser is held in high esteem by most independence supporters but Glenn Campbell is not.

Why it is that Derek Bateman is considered one of the best BBC Scotland journalists by a country mile by the independence community but Gary Robertson isn’t rated much.

The answer is simple – professionalism, balance, respect for interviewees and an ability to inform and educate.  Not all newspaper journalists are vilified and not every BBC Scotland presenter and reporter is treated with suspicion.

The anger felt by so many Nationalists and other non SNP online commentators arises specifically because of the hypocritical approach by so many in the Scottish media.  The frustration manifests itself in passionate exchanges on forums and, yes the occasional use of intemperate language.

But trying to pass this off, as Unionists are, as evidence of a co-ordinated smear campaign and a generic intolerance on the part of non-Labour supporters is a simplistic cop-out.  In fact some of the worst examples of intolerance have come from Scottish Labour MPs who drag the political debate through the sewer.

Scottish Labour MPs have compared Alex Salmond to Hitler, Mussolini and Robert Mugabe.  Labour MP Ian Davidson described the SNP as “Neo Fascists” and threatened Dr Eilidh Whiteford with a ‘doing’.  Dr Whiteford explicitly stated this weekend that Davidson had not used the term, as he claimed, in the past tense but had very clearly threatened her with “a doing”.

The latest example of intemperate language came from another Labour MP, Jim McGovern who has idiotically claimed that charging students from outwith Scotland a fee to attend a Scottish University smacked of ‘anti-English racism’.

Where one might expect fringe elements from both sides to adopt less than polite terms during heated exchanges, surely someone elected to serve his constituents should be more circumspect when attacking political opponents.

Contrast the lack of media coverage given to Mr McGovern’s politically bigoted remarks compared to the coverage afforded a reserve footballer from one half of the old firm who is accused of making sectarian remarks outside a Glasgow nightclub.

By focusing on the intolerant online fringes of Nationalists and implying that Unionists are always mild mannered, informative and gracious the Unionists are seeking to silence real debate.  This attack on the online community is an attack on free speech and should be countered.

Yes, there are fringe elements within the independence supporting community, but such elements exist throughout the political sphere both here, south of the border and indeed worldwide.  Witness some of the comments on the Unionist Scotsman newspaper, the right wing Daily Mail and even some of the commentary beneath articles by Telegraph journalist Alan Cochrane.  Read commentary between republicans and democrats in the US and marvel at the lack of respect.

However, to ignore the role of the Scottish media (in particular the BBC) in creating the online community that Unionists so clearly despise is to bury one’s head in the sand.  The profile afforded the now widely discredited Citigroup attack on Scottish renewables was yet another example of how ‘stories’ helpful to the Unionist cause are amplified whereas similar stories, such as the reports that countered Citigroup, are played down.

As long as Labour blunders such as the Montenegro ‘ethnic cleansing’ slur by Iain Gray and the Rami Okasha ‘smear email’ are suppressed then the online community will persist.  So long as the BBC continue to flood political shows with Unionist leaning commentators and journalists then critics will continue to highlight such practices.

The cybernat won’t disappear simply because Unionists try to demonise the entity.  The choice for Unionists is to demonise critics or to engage in debate – at the moment they are opting for the former.