"DO you believe in any conspiracy theories?” one friend asks another.

“Why?” comes the ­response. “Who are you working for?”

But disinformation is no joke. In fact, SNP defence spokesperson Stewart McDonald says: “We don’t take it seriously enough.”

Disinformation (a deliberate lie) and its close ­cousin misinformation (an accidental one) are ­ubiquitous in Scottish politics, feeding into a whirlwind of conspiracies affecting everyone across the political spectrum.

Far from being confined to obscure online ­forums, these have begun to have real-world impacts. Just last weekend, police were forced to respond to an unauthorised anti-lockdown protest in Glasgow, while a group aiming to take action to prevent the “forced vaccination” of children is planning to hold a “bootcamp” in the city in the near future.

The brother of former Labour leader Jeremy ­Corbyn, conspiracy theorist Piers Corbyn, was ­arrested on suspicion of encouraging people to “burn down MPs’ offices” in December, and a man was ­arrested on Wednesday after allegedly taking a ­hammer to a statue on the BBC’s London office which QAnon believers had campaigned against for years.

The National: Piers CorbynPiers Corbyn

Falsehoods and conspiracies have real-world ­consequences. They can, assistant professor ­Christian Baden explains, make us distrust one another and prevent any middle ground being found between believers and non-believers.

Bader, along with his colleague at the Hebrew ­University of Jerusalem Tzlil Sharon, published a 2020 paper entitled Blinded By The Lies which looked at moving towards a unified definition of a conspiracy theory.

“It is not what people believe,” Baden says, “but how exactly they believe it.”

According to their paper, it’s not all about New World Orders and 9/11 inside jobs. Anything can be a conspiracy if it ticks three boxes.

The first of these is the idea of “pervasive ­potency”. This says that the things are as they are because ­someone has willed it to be that way, and their ­agenda has agents everywhere.

The second is the “Manichean binary”. Everything can be ordered into true and false, good and evil. There is no space for grey shade, and no space for discussion between the two sides.

And the third – Baden calls it “the famous one” – is that “people believe things because they ­believe things”. What someone thinks is set in stone. ­Evidence is discounted if it disagrees with their prior conclusion and accepted if it matches it.

While one US study found nine in 10 people rate themselves as “above average” in their ability to spot such disinformation and conspiratorial thinking, it also found those more confident in their abilities were more likely to be duped.

And given a chance, disinformation has legs, sometimes such fast ones that falsehoods can make it all the way to the very top.

In one example, the Tory leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, repeated claims of a “missing” £600,000 from SNP accounts. Despite the party clarifying that the funds were “accounted for minutely”, the cat had been let out of the bag.

“What a massive coup to get your conspiracy ­theory read out by a member of the ­British ­Cabinet of the British ­Parliament,” ­McDonald says.

The SNP MP has looked in depth at the issue on an international scale, including defence strategies from Finland and ­Sweden, and disinformation emanating from China, Iran and Russia. “It doesn’t matter who started it,” he says, “the fact it has got to the despatch box, what a coup!”

Whether or not there is any truth to the allegations is of little consequence to Rees-Mogg. Protected by parliamentary privilege he can say anything without ­repercussions, and it serves to damage his political opponents.

Once it has been said in parliament, it can be reported widely – and who is to say that “concerns” aren’t legitimate? This was, as Jared Stacy says, all about plausibility.

Stacy, an American who moved to Scotland after his community became overrun with QAnon believers, is now conducting a phd in evangelicalism and conspiracies at Aberdeen University. Such conspiracies aren’t “just some national news story”, for him and his community, the impacts were felt “very, very personally”.

Stacy says that sometimes ­conspiracies can spread because people legitimise the possibility of falsehoods being true. He talks of people who would “signal a sympathy for conspiratorial beliefs”.

“People who just say ‘we don’t really know’, ‘this is probably plausible’, they do create a sense of respectability to these claims. They are responsible [to an extent].”

And while those who entertain such ­disinformation may bear some responsibility, more falls on the ­shoulders of those who create it, using it to their own political ends. Such disinformation might take the form of attacks on ­minorities, on politicians, or on the judiciary.

These may be open, like the Daily Mail’s now infamous “enemies of the people” front page claiming high court judges were deliberately blocking Brexit, or they may be a more subtle undermining of the rule of law.

In one example, former diplomat Craig Murray was jailed for contempt of court after a judge ruled his reporting on Alex Salmond’s trial – which saw the former first minister fully acquitted – could have led to the identification of the ­complainants.

Murray’s case shows it is not only the Unionist side which can become transfixed on ideas of conspiracy. The blogger was jailed for contempt of court in a case within the independent legal system. Yet, rumours on social media spread that he was a political prisoner, jailed for ­daring to report what the Government had ­wanted hidden.

Both cannot have been true. He ­cannot have reported what the law said must ­remain secret, and at the same time not have been in contempt of court. The ­elusive nature of the claims that he did manage both at once are echoed in the third aspect of Baden and Sharon’s ­definition of a conspiracy.

Other examples of disinformation don’t require the luxury of being afforded legitimacy by prominent figures or ­papers. A falsehood planted in fertile ground, where the people are willing to believe anything that seems to confirm what they hold to be true, can flourish unaided.

Take one social media rumour which spread like wildfire over the festive ­period. Without basis, people have claimed that the First Minister went to Portugal on holiday.

Screenshots were shared of flights from Glasgow to the Algarve, people claimed the “mainstream media” was sitting on the story and even, incredibly, that there could be a super-injunction preventing ­reporting of the holiday.

One news site put out a call for ­information, and when the Scottish Government denied it all, suggested that the statement’s purpose had been to ­mislead.

Labour peer George Foulkes tweeted: “We shouldn’t object if @NicolaSturgeon has taken a few days off. But we might wonder why it is apparently so secret.”

The National: George FoulkesGeorge Foulkes

It got to the point that when putting “Nicola Sturgeon” into Twitter’s search bar, the words “holiday” and “Portugal” were the top suggestions.

Elsewhere, Scottish Conservative chief whip Stephen Kerr was forced into an ­embarrassing climbdown after he ­tweeted unsourced claims which had been circling on social media that the Scottish Government had set aside £350 million for indyref2.

In another example, ahead of the first Covid lockdown in March 2020, Richard Lyle, the now retired SNP MSP, raised unsubstantiated online rumours of secret army bases being built around Glasgow to put the city into lockdown with the First Minister.

He asked Nicola Sturgeon about ­“unconfirmed reports that army units are setting up in Strathclyde park” on March 19, 2020 – the same day the UK Defence Journal published its first fact check ­rubbishing the claims.

Rumours such as these which start on social media often find fertile ground easily thanks to algorithms designed to increase engagement. “Liking” a post ­encourages platforms to show us more of the same. Ignoring one may lead to the algorithm keeping similar ones off our screens altogether.

This is how echo chambers grow on platforms like Twitter and Facebook, despite having billions of diverse users across the globe. And these echo chambers can be ­manufactured.

After Twitter banned Donald Trump in the wake of the January 6 riots, the ­disgraced president declared he would sue them, and Facebook and Google for good measure, alleging a culture of ­“shadow banning” and anti-Conservative bias.

The National: Donald TrumpDonald Trump

His tactics clearly mirror Baden and Sharon’s three facets of conspiracy. The enemy is pervasive, having infiltrated all of the biggest of the big tech firms. It is firmly evil, positioned against “American freedom and at the same time, freedom of speech”. And it is elusive. It ignores the fact that, as a “massive-scale” study involving Twitter’s own team established late last year, right-wing voices ­actually enjoy greater amplification on the ­platform than their opponents.

Nevertheless, Trump is using the ­language of conspiracy to push ­towards his own ends, causing an exodus of ­certain people from Twitter on to platforms such as Gettr, which was founded by his ­former aide Jason Miller.

Often people may find themselves pushed on to such platforms by a single issue, such as fear of “censorship”, and once there find themselves exposed to ever more extreme ideologies.

Other times, certain social media ­bubbles may have been created for the explicit purpose of radicalisation.

“Most people’s connection to ­reality is mediated through our devices, our algorithmic choices, and choices that are made for us,” says Stacy.

In an example McDonald highlights, the biggest BLM Facebook page in the US at one point was run by the St Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency, the “Trolls from Olgino”.

The National: Stewart McDonaldStewart McDonald

Slowly, the page began to distribute content which had nothing to do with BLM at all, but had the aim of discrediting Trump’s opponents and spreading hate.

“Disinformation has always been a gateway to radicalisation,” McDonald says.

However, Baden argues that it is not ­social media to blame. “It is a facilitation, not a cause,” he says. “What works on a global platform also works in the pub on the corner.”

People will always find others who share their viewpoint, “it is just a lot easier to find them thanks to these ­algorithms, and it is a lot easier to delude yourself that this is all there is”.

And when rumours spread through such communities, it can be near impossible to shut them down. This is especially true in the case of the “missing £600k”, Twitter’s anti-Conservative bias, or Nicola Sturgeon’s holiday, because the very people who have the authority and knowledge to debunk the claims are, in the eyes of the conspiracy, in on it.

Conspiracy theorists will find ­themselves paraphrasing Mandy Rice-Davies’s famous comment during the Profumo Affair: “Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?”

Stacy says that when trying to convince people who have bought in to disinformation it’s key to take account of their ­dignity, and give them the tools they need to come to their senses.

“The stakes are really high but they’re human stakes. You are talking about ­taking someone’s reality apart, and how do you do that?

“The first thing is recognising that ­basically what you’re attempting to do is bring someone’s world crashing down.”

Confidence tricksters have long ­relied on someone not wanting to admit to themselves that they may have been fooled. To have the truth revealed may be a painful and embarrassing experience. A person is unlikely to be converted by a single conversation.

Stacy says you must look at it as if you’re “putting pebbles in their shoes”. Make walking the path of the conspiracy uncomfortable enough that they research sources outside of that online bubble.

Talking people out of the “rabbit hole” takes time, and, McDonald says, any ­effort to fight disinformation which ­involves the government alone would be “spectacularly unsuccessful”.

He says that there needs to be a focus on teaching young people how to spot fake news from an early age, and a programme which brings in “as many parts of society as possible, different languages, different cultures, people using different media across different age groups”.

Such an effort would go some way to combating the first aspect of a conspiracy, the idea that the malevolent forces are pervasive. While it might seem plausible that the revolving door between government and media has led to a shared agenda, ­involving faith groups, trade unions, education institutions, charities, to name but a few, would go some way to ­debunking that idea.

But, McDonald says, there is an opportunity for Scotland in all this. Like many other nations, the UK Government’s ­approach to combating disinformation is, he says, “a muddle”.

Depending on its origins and ­categorisation, a falsehood may fall ­under the remit of the MoD, the ­Cabinet Office, the DCMS, Mi6, or multiple ­departments at once. McDonald says these ­diverse ­bodies struggle to communicate ­effectively enough to combat the “scourge of disinformation”.

The SNP MP suggests that Scotland could host annual, worldwide “clean information” summits to help build a ­nation which is well protected against such threats, and well placed to help ­others going forward.

But there may be a need to repair ­discourse in politics first.

In the US, Stacy says: “There’s something about the rhetoric in our politics and our public square that is making us prone to seeing the worst in each other.”

He adds: “Looking at the independence debate as an outsider it would not be hard to imagine further retrenchment into these ideological ghettos.”

The polarised nature of the constitutional debate has only gotten more extreme since 2014, and where there is ­division, bad faith actors see opportunity.

“They don’t create the division,” ­McDonald explains, “they work out where it is and exploit it”.

“So long as we don’t take it seriously, and weaponisers of disinformation do take their role seriously, we will always be the poorer for it.”