Catalonia’s Attempted Independence Infiltrated by Russian Hackers on Social Media

Russian groups are suspected of influencing Catalonia’s vote for independence from Spain through social media. The United States experienced a similar issue during the 2016 general election, where Russian hackers used multiple digital methods to promote President Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency.  Now, world leaders believe the same is being done in Catalonia to disrupt the stability of the European Union (EU) and other western-based democratic organizations.

“These are groups that, public and private, are trying to influence the situation and create instability in Europe,” said Spanish Defence Minister Maria Dolores de Cospedal to Reuters at an EU meeting in Brussels.

According to Reuters, Spain’s defense and foreign ministers found evidence that groups in Russia and Venezuela used platforms like Twitter and Facebook to spread massive amounts of pro-separatist content in the effort to swing public opinion for the referendum that took place Oct. 1, 2017.

The Guardian reports the EU’s counter-propaganda unit has detected an upsurge in pro-Kremlin disinformation, including false claims––published online in both Russian and Spanish––about why Catalonia was seeking independence. The East StratCom Task Force, created in March 2015 to “address Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaigns,” has seen an increase of fake news concerning the Catalan referendum as well as a burst of media coverage that followed.

“We have to wake up and be aware that what we see on the screen and on the front page and in the street is not always genuinely associated with human aspirations for freedom, for dignity, for social results,” said Romanian socialist Member of the European Parliament, Victor Boştinaru.

While Catalonia’s separatist leaders have denied that Russian interference provided any aid to their cause, The Guardian reports that Cospedal confirmed that there was definitive mass messaging on social media that came from Russian territory during the Catalan crisis. In addition, Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis stated that intelligence reports concluded that Russian hackers were targeting the European Union.

According to Reuters, NATO believes Moscow is engaging in information warfare “to try to divide the West and break its unity over economic sanctions imposed on Russia following its 2014 annexation of Crimea.”

False content regarding Catalonia’s independence and the following referendum spread to online platforms, television and various news outlets. According to Business Insider, the Kremlin-backed news agency, Sputnik, posted 220 stories about the Catalan independence movement between Sept. 11 and 27 based on findings from The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.

These articles boasted exaggerated and misleading headlines such as “Independence movements: a contagious timebomb in a state that does not listen.” According to Hamilton 68, a digital site dedicated to tracking Russian influence operations on Twitter, “#Catalan” was the third highest-trending hashtag for Russian-linked accounts.

It is unclear how many of the social media accounts that shared content about Catalonia’s attempted secession were bots. However, many non-anonymous voices have commented on the potential independence.

For instance, there have been comparisons made on Russian state TV, such as Russia-1, between Catalonia and Crimea, a Ukrainian territory which was annexed in 2014 by the Russian Federation. According to The Guardian, one guest on the show asked, “Is Spain repeating Ukraine’s mistakes?” In addition, Moldovan politician, Bogdan Ţîrdea, posted on Facebook that “EU officials supported the violence in Catalonia.”

Ben Nimmo, an expert on disinformation from the Atlantic Council told The Guardian that he believes “the coverage on Russian state TV dwells on the failures of Europe’s democracy,” creating a politically favorable public opinion before the Russian presidential election in March 2018.

“The one thing that Putin wants to avoid is a repeat of the street protests in 2012, so they are pushing out this argument now that there is no such thing as real democracy,” Nimmo said.  

Wikileaks Founder Julian Assange, intentionally or not, also has played a big role in propelling content useful for growing a pro-separatist social media agenda.

According to Business Insider, Russian news outlet Sputnik shared more content produced by Assange than they did from either Catalan separatist leader Carles Puigdemont or Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy––basing approximately 11 stories off of Assange’s tweets in September which promoted Catalonia’s “self-determination” against Spain’s “repression.”

Assange has also called Madrid a “banana monarchy” and claimed that the referendum was a “war” between “an occupying power” and “a liberation struggle.” Though Assange’s tweets are based off of real incidents––such as arrests made in Madrid and the closing of airspace over Catalonia––his rhetoric has been peddled by Russian hackers seeking to hyperbolize the situation

Mark Kramer, the program director of the Project on Cold War Studies at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, said that WikiLeaks has become “a convenient propaganda tool for the Russian government.”

Kramer goes on to say that “[Assange] and the Russian authorities share a deep animosity toward the democratic capitalist West, and Assange has become a reliable mouthpiece for Kremlin propaganda and disinformation.”

Though Catalonia did not successfully secede from Spain, the EU East StratCom Task Force will continue to investigate the depth of influence Russian hackers were able to achieve through social media and other platforms.

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