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US Senate addresses Russian interference in Catalonia on social media

Intelligence Committee questions Twitter, Facebook and Google on Moscow’s agitation in favor of secessionism

The Kremlin has set its sights on Catalonia. The gigantic strategy of digital destabilization undertaken by Moscow, and which reached its zenith at the last US elections, has now made its mark on the secessionist conflict in Spain. That’s according to two members of the Intelligence Committee of the United States Senate, who addressed this interference at hearings with representatives from Facebook, Twitter and Google.

Testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee, from left to right: Vice-president and legal representative for Facebook, Colin Stretch; Twitter representative, Sean Edgett; and Google representative, Kent Walker.
Testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee, from left to right: Vice-president and legal representative for Facebook, Colin Stretch; Twitter representative, Sean Edgett; and Google representative, Kent Walker. AFP

“We know the Russians were involved in the French election. We know that they were involved in the German elections. We are now learning they were involved in the separation of Spain,” said the independent senator from Maine, Angus S. King.

We know the Russians were involved in the French and German elections. We are now learning they were involved in the separation of Spain

US Senator Angus S. King

The machinery of Russian interference has no limits. The investigations opened in the United States as a result of the Kremlin campaign against Hillary Clinton are uncovering a global game of intoxication and chaos. The best-known case to date was the US elections in 2016. The ICA 2017-01D report from the National Intelligence Council established that Vladimir Putin had ordered a strategy to “undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton and harm her electability and potential presidency.” To this end, according to the report signed by the CIA, the NSA and the FBI, Moscow orchestrated “covert intelligence operations – such as cyber activity – with overt efforts by Russian government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media users, or ‘trolls’.”

This meddling machine was seen in the German elections, Brexit, the French elections and also, as revealed by an EL PAÍS investigation, in Catalonia. Russia denies any involvement. But the Russian machine encouraged the independence movement and stirred discord through a complex network of biased content.

The effects of this operation fuel radical discontent, both inside and outside the affected country. Platforms as aggressive and conspiratorial as the American sties Infowars or Breitbart, the latter headed up by the former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon, have not been reluctant to join the campaign and publish articles with a high degree of distortion. “EU attacks brutalized Catalan voters for mounting ‘nationalist coup against Europe’,” read one of its headlines.

The controversy has now reached Facebook, Google and Twitter. The Senate Intelligence Committee, led by Senator King and Senator Martin Heinrich from New Mexico, looked at where their responsibilities lie and what measures have been taken to stop the dissemination of information about the Catalan operation.

The effects of this operation fuel radical discontent, both in the affected country and outside it

“You operate global platforms and there are reliable sources that report that similar operations [to the US] may be happening, for example, in Catalonia. What are you doing, right now, to ensure that your platforms are not used to generate division around the world to weaken Western democracies? And in particular, with the case of Catalonia, are you aware of what happened there?” asked Democratic Senator Heinrich.

As was the case throughout the hearing, only general responses were received. The legal representative for Facebook said that they focus on preventing this kind of abuse on their platform, particularly with elections, including in Catalonia. The spokesman for Twitter did not go any further, by answering affirmatively but asking for time to collect data. Google said it lacked the data to answer as well. Queried yesterday by this newspaper, none of the companies offered any more details.

The senators expressed their displeasure at the representatives who had been sent by the companies to the hearing, and stressed that they wished to speak with the actual decision-makers. “I would like to ask you who takes the decisions,” said Senator King.

The calm responses from the social network firms contrasts with the magnitude of the problem detected. The Russian network, according to the companies themselves, has managed to publish more than a thousand videos on YouTube, control 2,752 Twitter accounts and reach 126 million Facebook users in the US. And it is an active operation. Their involvement has been seen in the recent controversy over the protests by African American players in the NFL.

Russia uses all kinds of conflicts to achieve its goal of weakening Western democracies

The exposed operation is enormous. The Alliance for Ensuring Democracy, a platform from the German Marshall Fund, follows the phenomenon closely by tracking Twitter accounts, and has presented a report to the Senate detailing how Moscow has developed a system of comprehensive intervention.

The report references Russian interference on various online platforms. It discovered links between some YouTube and Facebook accounts but maintains that unless they share their data it will be impossible to understand the extent and impact of this meddling machine.

The material used in this strategy is not just political. The spokesman for the Alliance, Brett Schafer, says that all kinds of conflicts are used to achieve its goal of weakening Western democracies.

English version by Debora Almeida.

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