IT was Winston Churchill who remarked that ‘the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter’.

Gordon Brown would probably agree — he was caught calling voter Gillian Duffy a ‘bigoted woman’ after she challenged him on immigration during the 2010 election.

This was so damaging that ever since, many politicians have tried to insulate themselves from the electorate with stage-managed walkabouts: they want your vote but would rather not talk to you…

Nicola Sturgeon was subjected to a similar ordeal during Sunday night’s TV leaders’ debate, when nurse Claire Austin tackled the First Minister about nurses’ low wages, which she said had forced her to use food banks.

The SNP’s ruthless spin operation swung into operation.

Joanna Cherry — a QC, no less, who is running for re-election as an Nationalist MP — briefed journalists in the BBC ‘spin room’ that Miss Austin was, in fact, the wife of a Tory councillor.

In the parallel universe of the SNP, this alone would be enough to discredit her, and the comment was gleefully retweeted by a number of the party’s senior politicians, including MSPs and election candidates.

But it turned out to be false — her only crime was sitting next to a Tory councillor on Question Time last week, which is not yet an indictable offence.

Message

Jeane Freeman, the SNP’s Social Security Minister — who had tweeted a selfie of her alongside Miss Cherry with the unfortunate message ‘Spin girls ready to always set the record straight’ — was said by Tory MSP Murdo Fraser to be ‘urging’ her QC colleague to convey the false information to the BBC.

If nothing else, the episode might have provided some material for the writers of political satire The Thick Of It, should another series ever be made.

Also lurking in the spin room on Sunday was former SNP special adviser Campbell Gunn, who faced calls for his resignation in June 2014 after he wrongly briefed a news-paper that ‘ordinary mum’ Clare Lally, who spoke in favour of the Union, was in fact the daughter-in-law of Pat Lally, the former Labour provost of Glasgow.

Predictably, there was a social media firestorm as Miss Austin’s life was picked over by the ravenous pack of online Nationalists — the SNP’s useful idiots — who launched a smear campaign to discredit her.

‘Spin girl’: Joanna Cherry QC

Not since the heady days of the 2014 referendum had quite so many Neanderthal keyboard warriors been roused to action, and in such numbers.

Among the more intellectual of the online responses was that Miss Austin looked as though she could do with losing some weight.

Somewhere in the midst of this unsavoury barrage, Miss Cherry quietly apologised to Miss Austin, but the damage was done.

Quite what any floating voter who could bear to watch this unedifying nonsense on Sunday night, or follow it on Twitter — that crucible of ill-informed vitriol — would make of it all, is anyone’s guess.

On Saturday, the Mail broke the story of the exorbitant £40,000 cost of Miss Sturgeon’s stateside jolly over the Easter recess with two advisers — a taxpayer-funded trip that she exploited to drum up support for independence.

The intervention of Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham on Twitter ensured that a hoard of angry Nats clogged my timeline.

One suggested that if I lived in Scotland, I should be ashamed of myself for having the temerity to raise questions about the worth of Miss Sturgeon’s jaunt.

Social media has provided another medium for the permanently aggrieved to vent their hatred and prejudice — and it has never been easier to do so.

But the Claire Austin story shows the potential for political abuse of Twitter and other social media platforms — in this case two politicians, no doubt picking up on ill-advised tweets from their online acolytes, fed the ‘fake news’ about Miss Austin to the BBC, who dutifully tweeted the suggestion (then withdrew it).

This is important because 28 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds cite social media as their main news source, compared with 24 per cent for TV.

Facebook is, whether we like it or not, an important source of news but it is also unregulated (unlike newspapers in the UK), allowing ‘fake news’ to flourish.

Thousands of ‘moderators’ are now in place attempting to stamp out the hate speech and child porn images that are rife on the social network.

But they face a never-ending battle against a tidal wave of filth, distortion and lies.

The lawlessness of that virtual realm matters because many public bodies are keen to bypass conventional media (which ask awkward questions about how much taxpayers’ money they are wasting).

Medium

Police Scotland routinely reports on the number of Twitter ‘followers’ it has, and pays social media operatives to trumpet its achievements.

Politicians and celebrities love the idea of an unfiltered medium to reach the general public — again, without actually having to meet them.

And unfiltered mediums are prone to get things wrong — in March, Wikipedia (and Channel 4) were in the dock after both blundered spectacularly by naming the wrong man as the Westminster attacker.

Notorious hate preacher Trevor Brooks was falsely identified by the online encyclopaedia as the maniac who murdered three people in a savage assault on Parliament. Much is made of ‘citizen journalism’ — all too often a euphemism for bone-headed bloggers. But the irony underlying all of this is that newspapers are still the most potent antidote to fake news of the kind championed so enthusiastically by the ‘spin girls’ (‘smear girls’?) on Sunday.

For all the doom-laden talk of their diminishing influence, newspapers still shape TV news and political agendas.

Social media and indeed television — with some exceptions — are largely bereft of their own exclusive material.

In the US, it is the much-maligned Press that has dug up the most damaging information about the disaster-prone Trump presidency.

The President once boasted he had ‘close to 100million people watching me on Twitter, including Facebook… I have my own form of media’.

But the gap between the promises made for social media — that it would facilitate communication and debate — and the grim reality, has grown into a yawning chasm.

Indeed, Twitter co-founder Evan Williams has apologised for any part the website may have played in helping Mr Trump into office.

‘I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place,’ he said. ‘I was wrong.’

No doubt this assessment would be backed by Miss Austin — and the other casualties of the social media machine politicians and their army of supporters have hijacked.

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Graham Grant.

Home Affairs Editor, columnist, leader writer, Scottish Daily Mail. Twitter: @GrahamGGrant Columns on MailPlus https://www.mailplus.co.uk/authors/graham-grant