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First Minister’s Questions in the Scottish parliament is generally a heated affair but it hit an unusual level when the leader of the opposition Labour party suggested that Alex Salmond might be responsible for orchestrating internet abuse of people opposed to independence.
An email from one of Mr Salmond’s senior aides had unleashed a “torrent” of vile online attacks, said Johann Lamont, the Scottish Labour leader, at the session on Thursday. The email had questioned the credentials of someone who supported the campaign to keep Scotland in the UK.
If the first minister would not sack his aide, Ms Lamont continued, the only possible conclusion would be that “all the bullying that goes on, wherever it comes [from], is done by order, by design, by him”.
Few even among Ms Lamont’s allies in the cross-party Better Together campaign against independence might go so far. But the accusation highlighted a bitter dispute over online conduct that has for days dominated Scotland’s independence debate with just three months to go until the September 18 referendum.
Pro-union campaigners accuse online nationalists – dubbed “ cybernats” – of seeking to intimidate opponents into silence with organised attacks. They cite the hostile, and often highly offensive, comments directed via social media against supporters of the UK, ranging from the Harry Potter author JK Rowling to pro-union company bosses.
But independence activists say both sides of the referendum debate feature an abusive fringe and the No camp is seizing on the misconduct of a tiny minority to discredit the wider nationalist cause. Much crude abuse, they point out, has also been aimed at supporters of independence such Chris and Colin Weir, who have funded the Yes campaign from their EuroMillions lottery winnings.
Iain Macwhirter, a columnist for the Sunday Herald newspaper, says some pro-union campaigners have, in effect, connived in the dissemination of abuse by picking up the worst comments from minor social media users and exposing them to a much larger audience.
“[The] internet is a cesspit,” Mr Macwhirter tweeted. “Trawling it for offensive remarks, and recycling them, is like trawling in a sewer and being shocked by human waste.”
For his part, Mr Salmond has waved aside calls to fire his adviser Campbell Gunn, – who emailed The Daily Telegraph last week, questioning the description of Clare Lally as an “ordinary mum” when she appeared at a Better Together rally this month.
Mr Gunn pointed out that Ms Lally actually served on Labour’s shadow cabinet and wrongly stated she was a daughter-in-law of a former Labour lord provost of Glasgow – but neither comment constituted “vile and disgusting abuse”, the first minister said.
Nor have Ms Lamont or her allies come up with any evidence that Mr Salmond or Mr Gunn, who has apologised unreservedly for his emai, were involved in orchestrating abuse of Ms Lally or anyone else.
Indeed, Yes campaigners insist that nationalist abuse can only undermine their campaign by generating sympathy for its victims and making it harder to win over the undecided.
“If you were being paid by the No side to be cyber louts bringing the Yes side into public disrepute, you could not do a better job,” the veteran nationalist Jim Sillars told the “cybernats” in an open letter.
Mark Shephard of Strathclyde university, who is researching how the independence debate plays out on the internet, says it is extremely difficult to gauge the extent of abuse and who is most responsible.
“Both campaigns need to do more to communicate what is and what is not acceptable online,” Mr Shephard says. “I just want people to calm down . . . we’ve all got to live together at the end of this.”
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