I WAS recently in Washington DC in my role as the SNP’s shadow foreign secretary. This gave me a chance to speak to US senators as well as delegates from the UN. The UK is attempting to negotiate trade deals for the first time in around half a century, including with Trump’s America. Representing Scotland’s interests with elected representatives in countries that the UK is looking to do business with is crucial.

There are a lot of (not entirely baseless) concerns around what a trade deal between the US and the UK would mean for our farming sector, food standards and the public nature of services like the NHS.

I was there thanks to the Woodrow Wilson Centre and attended a series of meetings that focused on disinformation in our politics. It gave me an insight into the sheer scale of disinformation in US political campaigning.

The National: Donald Trump

The Trump 2020 Campaign (with a headquarters jokingly referred to as The Death Star) is spending more than $1 billion on the most extensive disinformation campaign in the country’s history, utilising a great many online platforms in order to do so.

READ MORE: Why this SNP stalwart was the lynchpin of the party’s success

A cornerstone of any democracy, the freedom of the press, is belittled through the weakening of the institution by the White House since 2016. A recent poll found that just 11% of Trump voters trusted the media. More frighteningly, 91% of them turned to the president himself for accurate, trusted information.

The Pew Research Centre reports that 62% of US adults get their news from social media. Facebook is one of the biggest social media platforms in the world. Hardly considered to be a guardian of accurate information, it holds vast amounts of data on billions of people, and, as has been revealed in recent years, this data is for sale.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal began to lift the lid on this – but it demonstrated the extent to which aggressive disinformation tactics, used in the Trump 2016 campaign, were impacting UK politics, and were notoriously deployed by the Vote Leave campaign during the EU referendum.

The National: Brexit supporter

There needs to be a real attempt to address this. Social media companies themselves are not just aware of it, they make a lot of money out selling our data and through organisations advertising whatever they like to us.

READ MORE: Scotland is international ... we must not let the world forget that

The ability to legislate on matters relating to online content is largely reserved to the Westminster parliament. It needs ambition and a determination to right a wrong in our politics. Achieving it is no easy feat; particularly within an institution that thrives on political spin and where the governing party seeks to “control the narrative” no matter what.

The UK Government has announced plans to strengthen Ofcom’s role in making social media websites more responsible for the harmful content that some users might publish on their platform. But this does not attempt to tackle the chaotic spread of disinformation and the use of people’s personal data in order to do it.

This from a governing Tory Party that was found by an independent fact checking organisation (First Draft) to have misled voters in around 90% of its adverts over the General Election campaign.

READ MORE: This is just the beginning ... Scotland must stay positive

This included false claims about the NHS, income tax and misleading online content about political rivals. A report from the Coalition on Reform for Political Advertising found that many of the adverts published by the Tory party in the GE 2019 campaign would have been banned if they were commercial advertising. This is an astonishing find, especially when applied to the governing party of the United Kingdom.

Disinformation is a major industry, and has a serious detrimental impact on the integrity of our democracy. Recent decades have seen trust in politics and governments in the UK plummet as people now expect politicians to lie to them in order to advance their cause or personal career.

And it’s not just politicians. A British Social Attitudes survey has found a sharp drop in trust towards the press and banks over the past few decades.

Public institutions like the BBC have also seen a drop in trust. In a maze of “alternative facts” and “fake news”, it’s often difficult to sift out the truth.

This downward spiral is bound to continue unless governments get serious about tackling disinformation in our politics – not just in the form of blatant lies on the side of a bus, but in the relentless bombardment of targeted and emotive ads and messages on platforms like Facebook.

Our legal system is outdated in tackling this and ever-advancing technology leaves a lot of room for it to catch up. However, it is, without a doubt, one of the great internal threats to a free and fair democratic system.