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Russian meddling machine sets sights on Catalonia

The global network that acted in favor of Donald Trump and Brexit turns attention to Spain

The network of fake-news producers that Russia has employed to weaken the United States and the European Union is now operating at full speed on Catalonia, according to detailed analyses of pro-Kremlin websites and social media profiles by this newspaper.

One of the news stories about the Catalan crisis, illustrated with a picture of Franco.
One of the news stories about the Catalan crisis, illustrated with a picture of Franco.

After undercover campaigns in favor of Brexit and the leader of the French right-wing party National Front, Marine Le Pen, as well as the far-right in Germany, the Kremlin is using the Catalan crisis as a way to deepen divisions within Europe and consolidate its international influence. It appears in the form of websites that publish hoax stories, the activity of activists such as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and a legion of bots – millions of automated social media accounts that can turn lies into trending topics.

An inaccurate news story published by RT.
An inaccurate news story published by RT.

It is no coincidence that RT, a news outlet financed by the Russian government that functions as a propaganda organ for the Kremlin, is using its Spanish-language portal to spread stories on the Catalan crisis with a bias against constitutional legality. Since August 28, it has published 42 articles on the crisis in Catalonia with inaccurate headlines such as “The European Union will respect the independence of Catalonia but it will have to pass through an adhesion process.” RT usually publishes information and analysis that transmits the view of the Russian government on the war in Syria, and provocations from North Korea or Donald Trump. It also usually echoes the message of activists such as Julian Assange that align with the interests of Moscow.

On October 12, RT published a story including a tweet from Assange in which the Australian predicted “Europe will birth a new 7.5m nation or a civil war,” and which, according to analytical tools was shared by 1,700 people on Facebook and Twitter. Assange has, in fact, become the principal international agitator in the Catalan crisis, sharing opinions and half-truths as if they were news. Data from Audiense, which analyzes social media, shows Assange has been mentioned 940,000 times in Twitter in September alone, the vast majority of those mentions containing hashtags  on the independence issue including Catalonia, 1oct (the date of the planned vote on independence in the region), Cataloniareferendum, 1o, and Rajoy – the latter a reference to Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

An army of bots

In a week in which the Spanish judiciary and the government disarmed the logistics of the illegal referendum, the most influential tweet on the issue, according to media monitor NewsWhip, was published by Assange on September 15 at 6.46pm. “I ask everyone to support Catalonia’s right to self-determination. Spain cannot be permitted to normalize repressive acts to stop the vote,” the tweet read. The message was retweeted more than 12,000 times and received 16,000 likes.

Messages on social media usually go viral over the course of several days because the act of sharing a message depends on the decision of followers in several countries. But in the case of the tweet from Assange, as with many of his messages on the social media platform, it received 2,000 retweets in an hour and obtained its maximum reach – 12,000 retweets, in less than a day. The fact that the tweet went viral so quickly is evidence of the intervention of bots, or false social media profiles, programmed simply to automatically echo certain messages. A detailed analysis of 5,000 of Assange’s followers on Twitter provided by TwitterAudit, reveals that 59% are false profiles.

This week, former CIA analyst Edward Snowden, currently in exile in Russia, joined Assange in his cause. Washington is certain that Snowden, who participates in videoconferences on security and electronic espionage, collaborates on a regular basis with Russia’s secret services. On September 21, Snowden tweeted “The Spanish crackdown on inconvenient speech, politics, and assembly in #Catalonia is a violation of human rights.” This message was retweeted almost 8,000 times in less than 24 hours and received 8,000 likes.

Barcelona and Tiananmen Square

One of Assange’s tweets to have the greatest impact in the last seven days (2,200 retweets and 2,000 likes) included a screenshot and a link to article by a firm ally of the Russian view in the United States – Justin Raimondo, director of the website AntiWar, and an anti-globalization activist who has supported Trump. The article – headlined “In Catalonia: A Spanish Tiananmen Square?” – compared the protests in Barcelona with the Chinese repression in 1989, which lead to the death of hundreds, if not thousands, of people.

“What the West is facing is the prospect of a Tiananmen Square incident taking place in its very midst – an act of violence that, far from ensuring the legitimacy of the authorities in Madrid, would quickly delegitimize them in the eyes not only of their own countrymen but of the entire world. Catalonia would become the collective embodiment of “Tank Man,” with the Madrid authorities taking the role of the despots of Beijing,” Raimondo wrote.

It was Assange who, on September 10, used the famous image of the Chinese protests of 1989 of a lone figure facing up to a line of tanks in the streets of Beijing. “Spain, this won’t work in Catalonia,” wrote the activist. Assange tweeted and retweeted the Raimondo article four times, achieving 4,078 retweets almost immediately.

In recent days, anonymous Twitter profiles with thousands of followers and dedicated to promoting Russian propaganda have used this same comparison between Barcelona and Tiananmen. Examples include @Ian56789 with 30,300 followers, or @UncleRuthless with 5,179 followers, both of which are suspect because they usually retweet stories or contain links to articles published by public and private Russian media outlets such as RT or Sputnik.

The comparison between Barcelona and Tiananmen was also made by European academics in the Russian orbit such as Richard Wellings (@RichardWellings has 16,100 followers), a regular commentator on RT and Sputnik. Wellings, who works at the Institute of Economic Affairs think tank in London, has traditionally been very critical of the sanctions imposed on Russia as a result of its intervention in Ukraine and has argued at various conferences that are readily available on YouTube that the West is now entered a period of decadence. Wellings retweeted the message of Assange and later shared an article from the UK daily The Independent with the headline: “The scale of repression over Catalonia is exposing the crisis of the Spanish state.”

Catalonia, alongside Ukraine and Syria

The definitive proof that those who mobilize the army of pro-Russian bots have chosen to focus on the Catalan independence movement can be seen in the fact that Catalonia has begun to appear in the list of regular topics on social media alongside Syria, Russia, Ukraine, Trump, Hillary Clinton and the so-called Islamic State (ISIS).

Hashtag analysis from Hamilton 68.
Hashtag analysis from Hamilton 68.

This is reflected by the results of the Hamilton 68 tool developed by the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a project of the German Marshall Fund created in the wake of Russian meddling in the US elections. This tool permanently monitors 600 pro-Kremlin accounts, both real and false. In 48 hours from Wednesday to Friday last week, one of the most-used hashtags employed by these profiles was #Catalonia, behind others including #HerpesHillary and #Trump.

According to this tool, one of the media outlets most widely shared by these pro-Russian profiles was AntiWar, home to the opinion article comparing Barcelona and Tiananmen. Other articles shared by the same social media profiles included “Jews provoked the wars in America” or “Hillary Clinton is like Herpes.”

The digital armies of the Kremlin aim to make news stories with exaggerated or fake claims go viral to exacerbate a crisis and create division within the United States and Europe, something that ends up benefiting Moscow. These online warriors make use of websites that resemble serious news outlets that they create or use to house content that they later share.

One of the most popular is DisobedientMedia.com, which claims to be an investigative news site but is actually dedicated to promoting conspiracy theories, including one linking Hillary Clinton to a pedophile ring. According to the US thinktank Atlantic Council, the employees of this alleged media outlet have also published fake news stories related to the German election campaign including articles alleging German Chancellor Angela Merkel allowed ISIS fighters to enter Europe to gain more military power.

Now this site has used the same means and the same people to spread information about the crisis in Catalonia, interacting on many occasions with Assange himself. On September 15, it published a fake news story including claims that the cancellation of the Catalan referendum had put in doubt Spain’s membership of the European Union, that Spain had curtailed liberty of the press and that Amnesty International had condemned the fact the region could not celebrate the illegal referendum. The story concluded with a photo of the former Spanish dictator Francisco Franco on his horse and with the piece’s author, Elizabeth Lea Vos, noting “the lasting influence of Franco in Spanish politics.”

In another example of pro-Russian sites spreading fake news, Russia News Now, a portal that resembles a real news site, ran a story titled: “EU: Catalonia can, Crimea cannot.” Under a photo of the European parliament, the article claimed that the EU had given the go-ahead for the secession of Catalonia from Spain but opposed Crimea breaking with Russia.

The article stated: “The inhabitants of Catalonia have the right to determine their future by democratic means – as stated today in a statement by the deputies of the European Parliament.” However, that wording came from a press statement from the parliament’s European United Left-Nordic Green Left, which holds 52 seats of a total of 761 in the chamber. The statement, which was limited to criticism of the Spanish government’s law enforcement measures in the face of the illegal referendum, was also published by other pro-Kremlin sites such as Fort Russ and News Front.

Official version: “This is an internal matter”

Officially, the Kremlin maintains that the independence crisis in Catalonia is a matter for Spain, as stated recently by Russian government spokesperson Dmitri Peskov.

“This is an internal matter for Spain and we do not see any possible involvement in any way,” said Peskov, according to Spanish news agency EFE.

In June, after meeting with Spanish Foreign Affairs Minister Alfonso Dastis, Russian Foreign Minister Serguéi Lavrov said: “There is national legislation and there are a number of international commitments.

“We accept that the internal processes of Spain must be based on these principles,” he added in response to a question on the issue.

Traditionally the Kremlin has avoided making any controversial statements regarding these types of crisis, although it works in parallel in a discrete manner in favor of its interests. In recent months it has promoted the UK’s breakaway from the EU, the electoral campaign of Le Pen in France and the rise of the new right-wing German party Alternative for Germany, which picked up 12% of the vote in Sunday’s election in that country, thus entering parliament for the first time.

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