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Play it again, Salmond

Time and again, Scotland’s First Minister has taken on the naysayers and won. He is a keen gambler b

Late on the evening of 6 May, Alex Salmond took to the stage of a nightclub in Edinburgh's New Town and performed the kind of routine of which a professional stand-up comic would have been proud. A few hours earlier he had learned that he'd been re-elected First Minister of Scotland. That in itself was cause aplenty for celebration. But Salmond's and the crowd's unconfined jubilation was enhanced because the Scottish National Party (SNP) had not only gained the most MSPs, it now had an overall majority. Under the byzantine electoral system promoted by the Labour Party this was never supposed to happen. Now, amazingly, it had. In a parliament of 129 MSPs, the Nationalists had 69. Salmond's joy was overflowing.

Salmond was introduced by Angus Robertson, the SNP's leader at Westminster. As he drove that morning from Glasgow to Edinburgh across the Central Belt, it had occurred to Robertson that every constituency he was passing through was now held by the Nationalists. But, as ever, Salmond was able to trump his campaign director. Affecting a broad Scottish accent, which comes and goes depending on who he is talking to, Salmond said that a similar thought had occurred to him as he flew south from his own count in Aberdeen. "I was thinking that a' the seats I flew o'er in ma helicopter were yellow."

He had also realised, he added, that every seat in which Ed Miliband had campaigned had been lost by Labour. To raucous cheering, he said: "If you chart every stop on the trail of doom of Ed Miliband's individual constituency visits to inspire Labour activists who were somewhere on the streets of Scotland, the SNP won every one of the seats. Mind you, we won all the seats that weren't paid visits as well."

No one does hubris with more barefaced cheek than Salmond. When things are going well, his confidence, of which he has a surfeit, overflows. It is not blood that courses through his veins, a pundit once opined, but optimism. Keen gambler that he is, Salmond exudes hope, but it is born of pragmatism, not delusion. As a backer of horses, he studies form with the same intensity as he does the ramifications of the Barnett formula. Once upon a time, he and the late Robin Cook were rival newspaper tipsters. Cook may have known how to groom horses, Salmond claimed, but he knew better - as the racing records apparently showed - how to spot a winner.

His competitiveness is legendary. The only election he has ever lost occurred in the late 1970s, when he stood for the student presidency of St Andrews University - then, as now, as Conservative-inclined as the Monday Club. Ask Salmond by how many votes he was defeated and he reels the figure off with the chagrin of someone whose grief knows no bounds. His main opponent was called Bainbridge and throughout the campaign Salmond could not resist calling him Braindamage, something which, he later conceded, may not have helped his cause. Nor was he a generous loser When this was pointed out to him he quoted the racing driver Jackie Stewart: "Show me a gracious loser, and I'll show you a loser."

Some view his pugnaciousness as arrogance, others as archetypically Scottish. It is probably a mixture of both. In person, he is affable, engaged, witty, feisty, occasionally peppery, always eager to offer an anecdote. The worst a recent biographer could find to say about him was that he sometimes shouted at civil servants. His memory of facts and statistics is geekish. As a fan of Heart of Midlothian FC (Hearts), he can reel off the names of who played in what cup tie back to the days when footballs were made of leather and Bovril was the half-time drink of choice. As a golfer, he knows not only who won the Open championship where and in which year, but what they scored in each round. It is odd, therefore, that one of the criticisms levelled at him is his lack of attention to detail. Like Winston Churchill, he has a desire to win arguments and swat opponents with rhetoric and that tends to obscure his interest in the nitty-gritty of policy.

Fight on three fronts

What cannot be gainsaid, however, is that Sal­mond is - as much as any other political leader in a western democracy - the unchallenged and acknowledged star of his bailiwick. Moreover, he is popular. Polls consistently put him ahead of his party in terms of public approval and he is far more popular than the Nats' avowed aim of independence. Love him or loathe him, he cannot be ignored.

Opponents in other parties attempt to use his ubiquity to the SNP's detriment. Salmond, they insist, is a one-man band, the only soloist in the orchestra. A few years ago this was perhaps true. Today it smacks of desperation or, worse, complacency and denial. Were Salmond to fall under a bus, those lining up to become his successor might not be legion, but they would be several and serious, and would include his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, and others such as Michael Russell, the education secretary, and the justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill - on whose say-so Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, the only person to have been convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, was released from prison in 2009.

Nor is Salmond unaware of this. At the outset of this year's election campaign, he said that the SNP proposed to fight it on three fronts: its record in government, its vision for Scotland and the quality of its "team". It was a gauntlet the other parties, most notably Labour, chose to disregard. Instead, the Scottish Labour leader, Iain Gray, preferred to concentrate his attack on the Tories at Westminster and the Cameron-Clegg coalition, even though it was pointed out repeatedly that they were not standing for election in Scotland. It was a huge tactical error. As the six-week-long campaign unfolded, the Nats moved from a distant second in the polls to command an insurmountable lead.

Time and again, it appeared it was Salmond, as much as his party, that the public supported; he was a gilt-edged asset in whom countless Scots were prepared to place their faith. In contrast to other party leaders in Scotland, he has the notable advantage of not having to look over his shoulder whenever he wants to say or do anything. When Labour is in need of ­succour in Scotland it sends for so-called big beasts such as Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling and Douglas Alexander. If Annabel Goldie, the erstwhile Conservative leader, wanted a shoulder to cry on, she could always depend on David Cam­eron, who is even less appealing to Scots than Margaret Thatcher. Meanwhile, the Lib Dem leader, Tavish Scott, tried desperately to distance himself from Nick Clegg, but to no avail. For his pains and for the loss of 11 of his 16 MSPs, he had no option but to resign. Was he, like Gray and Goldie, told by his southern masters that enough was enough?

For Scots, who perceive such interference as patronising, the signals that these moves send out are not reassuring. Salmond is far too savvy not to use this to his advantage. On BBC2's Newsnight recently, he asked Jeremy Paxman to allow him to finish his answer, after which Paxman would be free to patronise him. Such quick thinking endears him to Scots, who are constantly told they are not capable of managing their own affairs though other, even smaller nations appear perfectly able to do.

Similarly, the sight of expat Scots, such as the novelist Andrew O'Hagan, the historian Niall Ferguson or the professor of media Tim Luckhurst, denouncing the SNP and bemoaning the idea of independence only plays to Salmond's advantage. As he is well aware, nothing irks Scots so much as compatriots who've gone elsewhere telling those who stayed at home how they must vote. Salmond is happy with such adversaries, knowing that their influence achieves the opposite of what they intend.

Politics has been a way of life for Alex Salmond virtually since he was born nearly 57 years ago in Linlithgow, West Lothian - where, as he once told me, his putative biographer, "much of Scottish history was made and unmade". His parents were both civil servants, but the chief influence on his childhood was his grandfather, the town's plumber, who took him on tours spiced with tales from Walter Scott and Blind Harry. "For example, he showed me the ground where Edward I had camped before the Battle of Falkirk; he showed me the window from where the Regent Moray [James Stewart, 1st Earl of Moray] was shot dead in the street."

At primary school he savoured his first election victory after promising a free ice cream to those who voted for him. It is, say his critics, the kind of carrot he continues to offer without explaining fully how he intends to pay for it. As a schoolboy, he was unable to participate as much as he would have liked in sport because he was asthmatic. He made his biggest impact as a boy soprano. Singing the title role in Gian Carlo Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors, he received a warm review in the local newspaper and, had his voice not broken at the wrong moment, might have gone on to pursue a professional singing career. A novelty CD, released in 1999 to raise funds for the SNP, shows what a loss he was to the performing arts.

It was at St Andrews - long the most anglicised of the Scottish universities - where he studied medieval history and economics, that he joined the SNP after having an argument with a Labour-supporting girlfriend. On leaving university, he joined the department for agriculture and fisheries for Scotland and then worked for the Royal Bank of Scotland as an assistant to its chief economist. In 1981, he married Moira, who is 17 years his senior and who had been his boss in the civil service; the couple have no children. Then, in 1987, he ousted the incumbent Conservative MP for Banff and Buchan, Albert McQuarrie.

Back to Holyrood

It was the beginning of an enduring love affair with Westminster that he has never disguised, while attempting to disengage his country from it. Three years later he became SNP leader and a decade thereafter, having seen Scotland's parliament reconvened following a hiatus of 300 years, he stood down. At the time the decision was viewed with suspicion and fed rumours, which he revelled in acknowledging. He was, he told me on the day he announced his resignation, supposed to be terminally ill or have accumulated mountainous gambling debts or be having an affair with Sturgeon.

None was true. Salmond had always vowed to serve ten years as leader and, having done that, he intended to spend time reducing his golf handicap. In 2004, however, following John Swinney's resignation from the SNP leadership, he was back and determined to make the SNP the party of government. First, however, he had to win a seat that was far down the Nats' winnable list. His victory in Gordon, in north-east Scotland, with just over 2,000 votes to spare was symbolic, inspiring and typical, coming from behind in the polls to ease ahead in the final straight and romp lengths clear as the finishing line drew near.

It was a gamble that might have ended his career, had it not paid off. But it is at the root of Salmond's success, and those opposed to independence overlook it at their peril. These are the same people with the same tired and negative arguments who said a Scottish parliament would never work and that, if it did, there would never be a Nationalist government and that, if ever that came to pass, it would never in its wildest dreams have a majority of MSPs.

One by one, Salmond has overcome the odds to make all of these a reality. Who, four or five years hence and irrespective of what the pollscurrently predict, would bet against him delivering independence?

Alan Taylor edits the Scottish Review of Books

This article first appeared in the 23 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Obama 2.0

@Didn'tHappenUk
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Hate crimes, social media, and the rise of the “hoax hoax”

When hate crimes rise, so do the number of people trying to discredit them.

The first thing 16-year-old Kiaira Manuel did when she saw a bold, underlined sign reading “COLORS ONLY” over one of her high school’s hallway water fountains was go to her school administrators.

“They said they were going to handle it, but so many things go unnoticed at this school and they just don’t care,” says the now 17-year-old, explaining her decision to post a picture of the sign on social media that night. “So this was taped above the water fountains at my school...” she innocuously captioned the image, which has now been shared over 1,500 times.

It took a day for someone to call her a liar. Twitter user @iH8Thots tweeted Manuel a message, which was then also shared hundreds of times on the site. “We go to the same school,” he wrote. “I watched you put that piece of paper up there and take the picture.” Manuel blocked the user, which was then seen as “proof” that his accusation was true.

These tweets were first posted in January – when the sign was stuck over the water fountain – but over the last few days, Manuel has fended off a fresh flood of people taking to social media to call her a liar. The timing is no accident. Since Donald Trump won the United States presidential election, there has reportedly been an increase in hate crime in America – with the Southern Poverty Law Center receiving 200 complaints in the last week. There has also, in turn, been a surge in people trying to discredit hate crimes, by loudly labelling them hoaxes on social media.

It doesn’t take a lot of research to unravel @iH8Thots’ claims. Less than a week after the incident, he and Manuel appeared on the comedy podcast Pod Awful to talk about their viral tweets. “You’re clearly a fucking troll,” says the host within a few minutes of speaking to @iH8Thots, even though he initially believed his story. @iH8Thots refuses to explain his side of events, is unsure of his own age, and calls his lawyer – who has, in the host’s words, “the voice of a child” – to defend him on air. When I asked – over Twitter’s direct messaging service – whether he would like to speak to me for this piece, he replied: “lol. fuck the media. journalists can go to hell”.

Before all of this, however, a cursory glance at the profile of @iH8Thots – a username that, translated from internet slang, seems to mean “I hate That Hoe Over There” – was enough to disprove his accusations. Manuel claims that when he first posted the tweet, his account said he was based in California, nearly 3,000 miles from her high school in Florida. His feed was full of similar trolling messages, and if you click on his account today, you will see a man in a gas mask holding a gun staring out from his profile picture, a design for a fascist flag of America as his header, and a timeline full of pro-Trump and anti-liberal tweets. Few people, however – both when the tweet first blew up and now it has reappeared – think to check.

Manuel’s experiences are part of a current trend on social media that I will tentatively call a “hoax hoax”. It goes like this. Someone posts evidence of a hate crime on social media. Someone else uses false evidence to out their post as a hoax. This, however, is the actual hoax. It is a lie claiming someone else lied – a hoax hoax.

This is happening on fake news websites and across social media. A Twitter account @DidntHappenUk was set up last month to expose people they believe to be lying on the social network. Despite offering no evidence for who is or isn’t telling the truth in any scenario, they have over 2,000 followers – with half of these gained over the last week since the election. “A nice display of left hand writing here,” they wrote above a picture of a swastika-laden racist message that was allegedly left on a Facebook user’s car.

“People think that, after the election, people are making up hoaxes to prove that there is hate in the world. It’s so stupid. People don’t do their research on these things and now I’m being used as a prime example for it,” Manuel says.

The problem is being exacerbated by police forces using social media to encourage victims to come forward. Twitter users jumped on the journalist Sarah Harvard when she claimed her friend’s Muslim sister had “a knife pulled on her” at her university and the campus police replied saying: “This has not been reported to police. If you are in contact with anyone involved, please encourage them to give us a call.” Though they meant well, their tweet was used as evidence that the event never happened at all. This is a problem because police reports are not the be-all and end-all of proving a claim’s veracity.

Manuel says her school administrators, for example, were reluctant to act when she reported the water fountain incident, and she felt they were dismissive of her concerns. “When I put it on social media it was forcing them to actually pay attention and actually do something about it,” she says. Contrary to what many might expect, then, some people – especially those who are disenfranchised – are compelled to turn to social media over the authorities.

“That’s why we put stuff as ‘Unproven’,” says Brooke Binkowski, the managing editor of the internet’s oldest fact-checking website, Snopes, which uses “True”, “False”, "Mixture", and "Unproven" buttons to label stories. They recently labelled a story about a Muslim woman told to hang herself with her hijab in Walmart as “Unproven” after the police said they had not heard about the attack.

“We didn’t want to say ‘False’ because there’s not much we can do if two people were involved and neither of them are talking and nobody saw it. Maybe she didn’t want to go to the police. All sorts of creepy people will start threatening people who do so. And the people who are doing it certainly aren’t going to say ‘We told her to hang herself by her hijab’.”

Snopes are a non-partisan site, and investigate claims based on how many people email them to ask about a story. “Inherently, fact-checking hate crime accusations is certainly sticky,” says Kim LaCapria, a content manager and political fact-checker at Snopes, when I ask whether there are any moral considerations around investigating hate crimes. “There's definitely the idea out there it's wrong to question people who we agree with that have been purportedly attacked, but folks on the other side of the aisle clamour for a look into claims' veracity.”

It is important to note that there are undeniably hate crime hoaxes – something the right often calls “false flags” – occurring, though Binkowski says they are “extremely rare”. The conservative news website Breitbart – which has found fans among white supremacists – concludes that there have been 100 in the last ten years, a remarkably low rate of ten a year (especially considering the site’s agenda) and nothing compared to the 2,241 racially or religiously aggravated offences that occurred in the UK in the two weeks after the EU referendum. The right is also guilty of false flags, recently purporting a man was attacked because he was a Trump supporter when the incident actually stemmed from a traffic altercation.

Still, when false flag hate crimes do happen, they are seized by the right as evidence that no hate crimes are happening at all. Who can forget when, earlier this year, an openly gay pastor was forced to admit he had iced the word “Fag” onto a cake himself, and had lied that it was done by a Whole Foods employee? Just last week, a student at the University of Louisiana admitted to fabricating a story about having her hijab ripped off by two Trump supporters (it is worth noting, however, that some people may recant their stories out of fear).

It is crucial that we, as social media users, fact-check things before we share them so they can’t be used for another agenda. Just because fake hate crimes are rare doesn’t mean it’s wrong to scrutinise things you see on social media. Questioning one particular post that seems a little off is not the same as denying that hate crimes are happening.

“Even if it feels uncharitable to consider the veracity of a claim, it's important for information to be credible and not to add to the spread of bad information inside a political bubble of one's own making,” says LaCapria. “Liberals are most definitely not immune to spreading bad information or getting angry when their claims get debunked, but it doesn't help anyone's cause when a popular story inevitably proves false.”

It can be very distressing, however, for a victim to be accused of carrying out a hoax, and Manuel ended up blocking over 600 people on Twitter. “People started attacking me and calling me ‘n****r’ and all of these derogatory terms,” she says. “Two days ago, after this all blew back up, I got 50 messages in a row from one person who said he was watching me, and said my first name and last name and said my information had been leaked. That’s really frightening.”

While fact-checking, it is crucial to not cause unnecessary distress. But how?

“Even a simple ‘I haven’t verified this yet’ or ‘If this is true, it’s worth paying attention to’ marks the story as unvetted but allows people to share,” says LaCapria. “Critical thinking is important; if something sounds completely implausible, it probably didn't happen the way the person is telling social media it did. There are two good subreddits – r/thathappened and r/quityourbullshit – that just take a second (sometimes mocking) look at viral social media claims. Although users aren't always kind, they can be very good at pinpointing holes in stories.” Another, r/hatecrimehoaxes has also become popular after the election. 

Binkowski also points out that many hoaxes fall apart at the first sign of scrutiny. “They usually make it easy because they can’t handle the pressure and feel guilty so come out and recant,” she says. “Everyone should read from a variety of sources, even ones you don’t agree with. A lot of people yell at us because they think we are trying to be the be-all and end-all but we just want to be the starting point."

For Manuel, everyone being better at fact-checking would have saved her a lot of pain. At the time of writing, her Twitter mentions are still being flooded with offensive messages. In order to combat both hoaxes and hoax hoaxes, then, everyone must attempt to be non-partisan in scrutinising social media claims. 

"Even if you don’t have much time, if you read something on some site that doesn’t quite ring true or seems too perfect, then Google it, just Google it,” says Binkowski. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.