THE parent company of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp have identified more than 100 fake social media accounts attempting to influence the debate around Scottish independence.

Meta removed eight Facebook and 126 Instagram accounts in an Iran-based network that violated its “co-ordinated inauthentic behaviour policy”, attempting to gain political influence by posing as locals in Scotland and England in December.

The accounts had amassed a following of around 77,000 people.

The revelations, first reported in The Scotsman, were published in the social media giant’s 2021 recap into fake accounts, with top-level officials stunned by “how hand-crafted” the operation was.

 Among the posts included individuals having posted images of Yes Scotland campaign signs and memes of Boris Johnson with the caption “liar for ever”.

The National Wales: An example of the posts from the fake accountsAn example of the posts from the fake accounts

The report reads: “This network posted photos and memes in English about current events in the UK, including supportive commentary about Scottish independence and criticism of the UK government.”

“The individuals behind this activity organized their content around common hashtags promoting Scottish independence, at times misspelling them.

“These accounts also posted about hobbies, football and the UK cities they claimed to be based in, likely to make these fictitious personas appear more authentic.”

Other instances included the fake-accounts posing as locals on Instagram to contact policymakers, meanwhile others used fake accounts to criticise the UK Government and pledge support for an independent Scotland.

The Meta report added that some accounts had profile images "likely generated using artificial intelligence techniques". 

The National Wales: A post from another Iran-bases fake accountA post from another Iran-bases fake account

Ben Nimmo, global influence operation threat intel lead at Meta, said: “It’s not the first time for an Iranian op to pose as supporters of Scottish independence.

"In the past, Facebook found a page that copied and posted political cartoons about independence as far back as 2013.

“This time again, this activity didn’t get much traction. The most successful IG account had just over 4K followers, and only about half of those were in the UK.

“What’s remarkable is how hand-crafted the operation was.”

READ MORE: Melin Drafod heads up Welsh Independence Convention

Globally, Meta say they removed around 52 different influence operations targeting a range of different subjects across 34 countries.

Ali Ansari, professor of Iranian history at St Andrew’s University and founding director of the University’s Institute of Iranian Studies, told The Scotsman that motivations behind such influence operations may be to “weaken and disrupt the UK”.

"For many Iranians in political circles, the UK has long been regarded as a malevolent force in Iranian history and this is a means by which they feel they can get their own back,” he said.

"In this sense they have a historical view of ‘Britain’ that would be no doubt be shared by many nationalists.”

Sharing the findings on Twitter, SNP MP Stewart McDonald, who previously assessed Iranian disinformation in a report titled "Disinformation in Scottish Public Life", said networks behind the faker accounts will continue to develop "more sophisticated techniques". 

He said: "This is definitely one to keep an eye on - particularly as the debate on the next referendum heats up over the coming time and political activity increases.

"There is no doubt in my mind that disinformation actors - particularly foreign ones - will ramp up activity and techniques.

"I would add that it would be wrong to assume that all foreign disinformation activity will target just pro-independence sentiment - a mistake many of my opponents make.

"Sowing chaos in a democratic society - the aim here - isn’t achieved by going after one side alone."

 

He added: "In politics and across society more broadly, we need a much more serious, less tribal and reactionary discussion on disinformation, with a national strategy to help our fellow citizens build up information resilience. 

"Disinformation in Scotland is not going away. We will continue to see it expand its interests, develop more sophisticated techniques in how it manifests and targets key audiences, and it’ll be backed up by more and more money."

This article originally featured in our sister title, The Herald. 

If you value The National's journalism, help grow our team of reporters by becoming a subscriber.