The wave of bots invading Welsh politics are a sure sign that the far-right are coming for devolution
Mabon ap Gwynfor, Plaid Cymru Senedd candidate in Dwyfor Meirionnydd
This weekend saw Welsh Twitter explode with outrage following the Welsh Government’s policy not to allow non-essential shopping in supermarkets during the ‘fire break’ lockdown, designed to help tackle the exponential rise in Coronavirus cases and ultimately save lives.
Many had legitimate concerns regarding such things as children’s clothes and bedding, which might be needed in cases of emergency.
However, these concerns were drowned out by new voices.
Because it wasn’t just Welsh Twitter that exploded.
Suddenly people from across the UK were expressing disbelief at a policy which stopped people from buying books and kettles (all of which were on sale, but that’s another story).
Davina McCall was aghast. Both Arron Banks and Nigel Farage were disgusted. And the UK media were lapping it all up.
It all created a sense of frenzy, egged on by right-wing commentators and a bullish Conservative party in Wales, who have shifted more and more towards a Trumpian pro-Abolish position in recent months.
The legitimacy of our Parliament was called into question. Petitions were making the rounds calling for the First Minister to be sacked. And tasteless comparisons were being made to tyrannical states under bloodthirsty totalitarians. Even some Tory MSs used the hashtag #SovietWales.
This fevered hysteria drowned out any legitimate concerns. But there was something more sinister at play.
Many of these social media commentators had several common denominators. No genuine avatar; random names; Low following/follower count. Classic signs of bots and fake accounts.
Now, the point of a bot is not to change opinion directly themselves, but rather to create chaos and destabilise. The cacophony of noise drowns out valid debate, creates confusions, spreads mistruths and sows discontent.
Fake accounts on the other hand are humans trying to push an agenda.
We need to be careful. I’m guilty of responding to these accounts, either by replying or quote tweeting them.
Like Covid-19, they too are a virus. They can only do their damage if they are shared, and by responding or quote tweeting them we multiply their reach and help sow their message. We help create the division for them.
Twitter and other social media sites should, and could, do more.
But, until they bring in more stringent controls, we need to learn to identify bots and fake accounts and control our instinct to react. By interacting we bring them and their agenda into our spheres, and we let them set the narrative.
Politics can be mean enough at the best of times, without letting fake accounts and bots with nefarious agendas make things worse.
The fact that we are seeing them involved in the Welsh political arena is a real concern.
These fake accounts were either explicitly or implicitly questioning the right of the Senedd to exist, and the bots simply echoed those comments.
It should come as no surprise that both Arron Banks and Nigel Farage were tweeting about it. It comes directly from the Brexit playbook, and is part of the British right’s grand project.
I remember warning of this back in 2016 following the referendum that Brexit was not going to be the culmination of their project. After Brexit it was devolution. That’s exactly what we are seeing at work right now.
The pro-Brexit anti-devolutionist far-right are purposefully chipping away at our devolution settlement. The Internal Market Bill is merely the acceptable face of what they are doing. The front line is on-line.
This was an outright attempt to interfere in our democratic discourse. With less than 200 days to go until our general election, we can expect to see more of this online under-the-radar attacks on our nation. And it’s brutally effective, as we saw in 2016 with both Brexit and Trump.
The national movement had previously settled for a gradual, incremental, even piecemeal moves towards independence. But the status quo will no longer hold and tinkering around the edges of the devolution settlement will not be enough either.
In the current climate, at least, the choice for us in Wales is now stark – do we wish to exist as a nation in our own right, which means independence, or do we want to be a Wales-shire on the western fringes of England?
The Conservatives have made their choice. Plaid Cymru is clear.
The choice is now Labour’s. For all our sakes, let’s hope they choose Wales.