#ElectionWatch: Russia and Referendums in Catalonia?

Assessing claims of Russian propaganda in Spain

Tensions are growing in Spain over plans by the north-eastern region of Catalonia to hold an independence referendum on October 1. The Spanish government opposes the move and has vowed to prevent any vote.

In the run-up to the vote, Spanish media have reported that Russia is trying to interfere in the democratic debate through a combination of propaganda and social-media “bots”, in a manner similar to that used in the United States in 2016 and France in 2017.

What are the claims and how accurate are they?

The claims

The main source for the claims is leading Spanish daily El País. On September 22, the paper ran a long report (translated into English on September 26), which claimed:

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.
(Source: El País)

The lengthy report made four key allegations:

  • Kremlin broadcaster RT “is using its Spanish-language portal to spread stories on the Catalan crisis with a bias against constitutional legality”, including by misstating the European Union’s view on independence;
  • Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has “become the principal international agitator in the Catalan crisis, sharing opinions and half-truths as if they were news”;
  • Automated “bots”, including Russian propaganda ones, amplified tweets by Assange and former United States National Security Agency (NSA) contractor-turned-leaker Edward Snowden;
  • Pro-Kremlin websites including Disobedient Media, News-Front, and Russia News Now spread fake or biased news about the situation in Catalonia.

RT, Sputnik, and the EU

All references to RT and Sputnik throughout this article are to the Spanish services, unless otherwise stated. The first point raised by El País concerns an RT article headlined, “The EU will ‘respect’ the independence of Catalonia, but it will have to go through an ‘accession process’”.

(Source: RT)

El País criticized this as an “inaccurate headline.” The article concerned a comment by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on the Catalan issue. The comment, in English, ran:

If there were to be a ‘yes’ vote in favor of Catalan independence, then we will respect that opinion. But Catalonia will not be able to be an EU member state on the day after such a vote.

Technically, the RT headline was incorrect: Juncker said that the EU would respect a “yes” vote, rather than independence itself. However, RT did provide an accurate translation of Juncker’s comment in the second paragraph:

Está claro que si se diera un ‘sí’ a la independencia de Cataluña, bueno, pues respetaremos esa elección. Pero al día siguiente, tras ese referéndum, Cataluña no se puede convertir en miembro de Europa.
(Source: RT)

An archive of the article from the day of publication shows the text has not been changed since. Thus, despite the misleading headline, the RT article accurately reports the substance of Juncker’s remarks.

The same cannot be said for RT’s sister service, Sputnik. The Kremlin’s online outlet also referenced the Juncker statement, but it misquoted it as:

If Catalonia achieves independence, we will respect that choice, but Catalonia cannot turn itself into an EU member the day after the vote.
Left, the RT version. Right, the Sputnik version of the same quote. Archived on September 27, 2017. (Sources: RT, Sputnik)

Far more than the RT article, the Sputnik equivalent can fairly be termed inaccurate, and indeed deceptive, misstating Juncker’s comment as accepting Catalan independence, rather than the outcome of the vote. This is nuance, but in an atmosphere as heated as Catalonia’s, nuance matters.

Moreover, it is an error which cannot be excused as a translator’s mistake: the difference between “If there were to be a ‘yes’ vote in favor of independence” and “If Catalonia becomes independent” is too wide.

This appears to be either a major failure of translation, proof-reading and editing, or a deliberate misreporting of Juncker’s words to make them seem more welcoming than they, in fact, were.

RT and Sputnik — activity and balance

In general, RT’s reporting has not displayed the bias and violations of journalistic standards which the RT English service showed in its reporting on Ukraine, Turkey, and NATO.

Individual pieces have criticized the government — notably an editorial comparing it with the fascist dictatorship of General Francisco Franco —but others have reported comments from pro-government figures calling the planned referendum a “coup”, and have presented both sides of the debate.

“Marches in Barcelona in favor of, and against, the referendum.” Note the Spanish flag with the text, “Catalonia is Spain.” (Source: RT)

Sputnik has been considerably more active, and more questionable in its reporting. Between September 11 and 27, Sputnik posted 220 stories on the Catalan crisis, compared with 85 from RT.

Assessing Sputnik’s overall balance is problematic, because the wire’s usual style is to post stand-alone, short articles on individual comments without including balancing comments from significant alternative voices. In the Catalan case, this includes articles reporting both pro-referendum and anti-referendum statements without giving either balance.

However, taking this into account, some individual articles nevertheless betrayed a one-sided approach, as they quoted multiple pro-independence voices, without providing significant alternative quotes.

For example, an article on Catalonia’s national day included interviews with two commentators, one of whom called the Spanish government “full of corruption,” and the other accused it of “repression”. The article did not include any comments that supported Madrid’s position.

“Catalans defend that the independence movement is more than a nationalist movement.” (Source: Sputnik)

A second article invoked the suffering of individual Catalans during Spain’s civil war as a further justification for independence. Its opening paragraph read:

Four days from the referendum on Catalonia’s independence, Sputnik gathered testimonies from some people who, beyond feeling that there are economic reasons behind independence, hark back to a past marked by war and injustice.
(Source: Sputnik)

Other pieces were unusual for the commentators they chose. One article quoted the “special delegate for North Korea for cultural relations with foreign countries” as calling for a communist revolution in Spain to solve the crisis.

“The ‘voice’ of Pyongyang in the West, on Catalonia: ‘The solution is a Communist revolution in the Spanish state.” (Source: Sputnik)

Another quoted the leader of Russia’s National Bolshevik Party, Eduard Limonov, as predicting that a vote for Catalan independence would trigger a wave of further secessions in Spain. The article was based on a Russian-language blog post which was, in turn, published by RT’s Russian service, but not its Spanish one.

Thus Sputnik’s coverage appears significantly more biased than that of RT, although not every piece was unbalanced or pro-independence.

Assange, RT and Sputnik

The most striking feature of Sputnik’s coverage — again distinct from that of RT — is the attention it paid to Assange’s tweets.

El País said that Assange had become the principal international commentator on Catalonia. This is correct, at least in terms of Twitter. Two machine scans of Twitter traffic using the word “Catalonia” on September 20 and September 24, revealed the Wikileaks founder was the most-mentioned user, with more retweets than any other.

The ten most-retweeted posts to use the word “Catalonia” on September 20, per machine scan. Note that Assange tweets occupy first and third place, while Wikileaks is fourth.
The same scan for September 24. Note Assange’s tweets in the first, second, sixth and tenth places.

Assange is strongly critical of the Spanish government’s actions. On September 20, for example, when Spanish police raided Catalan official buildings, he said that it was acting “like a banana monarchy” and accused the police of “bragging” about their actions.

On the same date, Wikileaks tweeted a link to a Reuters article on the raids. The Reuters piece headlined that the raids were conducted “to halt banned referendum”; Wikileaks editorialized this as an “attempt to crush Oct 1 vote.”

Wikileaks tweet. Compare the text of the tweet with the text of the embedded headline. (Source: Twitter)

Throughout the pre-referendum period, Assange repeatedly criticized the Spanish government. He accused it, for example, of “crushing democracy,” “repression and censorship,” and even a “war against Catalonia’s independence referendum.”

This is both one-sided and exaggerated (“war”); however, the relationship between Assange, Wikileaks, and the Kremlin is murky. Both Assange and Wikileaks insist that they are independent; however, Assange formerly hosted a talk show on RT and has spoken at Sputnik conferences, while the U.S. intelligence community concluded that “Russian military intelligence… relayed material to Wikileaks” during the U.S. election campaign. The question of the extent to which Assange and Wikileaks fit into the broader pattern of Russian state messaging requires further analysis.

While the nature of their relationship remains unclear, the Russian propaganda machine clearly used Assange’s comments on Catalonia to further their own agenda.

RT provided some coverage, but was relatively balanced. The station ran four articles on the subject (not counting articles rebutting the El País accusations), on September 10, 12, 20, and 21. Two of these were straightforward reports on Assange’s comments, and could thus be seen as detrimental to the Spanish government. However, the third concerned a Twitter row with Spanish writer Arturo Pérez-Reverte, and headlined the Spaniard’s comment, “You are a perfect idiot.”

“‘You are a perfect idiot’: Pérez-Reverte attacks Assange for a tweet about Catalonia.” (Source: RT)

The fourth singled out a tweet in which Assange had responded angrily to a post from satirical site El Mundo Today, confusing it with daily paper El Mundo. Assange later defended himself by saying that El Mundo “is often ferociously stupid,” but RT concluded that his comments “did not save him from tweeters’ many jokes.”

Sputnik’s Spanish service treated Assange’s tweets very differently. Between September 11 — Catalonia’s national day — and September 27, Sputnik headlined no fewer than eleven stories with Assange comments, on September 11 (two stories), 12, 13, 14, 15, 18, 21, 22 (two stories), and 27.

(Source: Sputnik)

By comparison, the President of the Catalan Assembly, Carles Puigdemont, was headlined ten times over the same period; Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was mentioned five times. No other commentator from outside government even came close to the number of mentions given Assange.

This is remarkable. Sputnik’s headlines give more prominence to Assange than either of the chief actors in the Spanish drama; and Assange’s comments are fiercely one-sided. Yet Assange is not an expert on Spanish constitutional affairs, nor does he appear to have a history of commenting on Catalonia. A date-limited Twitter search showed the first time he mentioned the province on his Twitter feed was September 9.

Results of Twitter search for posts from Assange mentioning Catalonia before September 10, 2017. (Source: Twitter)

Thus Sputnik cannot have chosen to amplify him because of any expertise or local knowledge. The most likely conclusion is that the wire gave him such extraordinary coverage precisely because he is both high-profile and partisan.

Bot amplification

El País pointed out that traffic on Assange’s tweets grew at very high rates, “evidence of the intervention of bots.” The speed of traffic supports this claim.

For example, Assange’s best-performing tweet on Catalonia, calling for international support for Catalonia’s right to self-determination, was posted (according to a machine scan) at 16:46:57 UTC. Within one minute, it was being retweeted at a rate of slightly more than one tweet a second.

Traffic on Assange’s appeal for support, from machine scan. Note that at 16:48, just over a minute after Assange posted, the rate had reached 66 tweets per second, the highest rate over the entire period.

This was the highest rate of tweeting on the post at any time in its existence. From that peak, the tweet had downward trend. This is an unusual pattern: it would be more normal, perhaps organic, to see the rate accelerate in the first few minutes (or hours) and peak further into its life, as can be seen in this timeline of tweets on the separatist hashtag #FreePiolin:

Traffic on #FreePiolin, September 24.

Judging by this traffic, a significant part of the early amplification of this post came from automated bots.

Machine scans of further tweets by Assange revealed similar patterns. Some of the accounts which retweeted him appeared automated; a number were definitely Russian; they were political bots, which mainly amplify messages supporting the Kremlin or the separatists in Ukraine. It should be pointed out that these were a minority, compared with the many apparently Catalan and American accounts, both bot and human, which retweeted Assange.

For example, @DYGq72pblsGauqv (screen name Магаданец Р.Ф.) retweeted a post from Assange comparing events in Catalonia with those on Tiananmen Square in Beijing. This account posts almost exclusively in Russian, and focuses on propaganda accounts, including from the self-proclaimed territory of “Novorossiya” in Ukraine. The great majority of its posts are retweets, marking it as a probable bot.

Screenshots of retweets posted by @DYGq72pblsGauqv. (Source: Twitter)

The same can be said for another amplifier of the same tweet, @ValeryDemet (screen name Валерия), which also shares from pro-Kremlin propaganda accounts, including RT’s Russian service.

Screenshots of retweets posted by @ValeryDemet. (Source: Twitter)

This was not the only tweet to have such extra amplification. Assange’s tweet on the “banana monarchy” was boosted by Russian accounts such as @Zarde2006 (screen name Наталья Комлева), which shares pro-Kremlin propaganda in both Russian and English, including self-proclaimed “pro-Russia media sniper” Marcel Sardo.

Screenshots of retweets by @Zarde2006. (Source: Twitter)

These are a minority of the bots involved, but they show that at least some of Assange’s amplification came from pro-Kremlin accounts — revealing once again an interest in spreading and supporting his message in pro-Kremlin circles.

Russian online warriors?

A final claim from El País was that websites Russia News Now, News Front, and Disobedient Media are part of the “digital armies of the Kremlin”, which “make news stories with exaggerated or fake claims go viral to exacerbate a crisis and create division within the United States and Europe.”

Both News Front and Russia News Now can legitimately be termed a part of the pro-Kremlin online propaganda effort. News Front routinely posts pro-Kremlin stories, and is, according to a whistle-blower interviewed by Die Zeit, funded by Russian intelligence. Russia News Now also regularly amplifies pro-Kremlin and anti-Western messaging, and it has repeatedly shared fake news stories which @DFRLab has exposed (such as here and here).

However, Disobedient Media does not belong in the same category. We have already written of the role of the Disobedient Media team in spreading fake and biased news, most notably an article claiming that Angela Merkel was intentionally allowing ISIS to operate in Europe, largely based on a leaked document written four years before Merkel was elected Chancellor.

However, there is no indication that Disobedient Media is part of any type of command and control structure of the Kremlin propaganda machine. The vast majority of its content concerns U.S. politics; its founder, William Craddick, first achieved notoriety under the username PleadingTheYiff on Reddit, where he specialized in posting on far-right conspiracy theories, largely to do with U.S. politics.

Post by “PleadingTheYiff” on /r/the_donald, identifying himself as Craddick. Archived on January 16, 2017. (Source: Reddit)

The Disobedient Media team can legitimately be called producers of fake and partisan news; however, there is no compelling reason to call them part of the Kremlin’s “digital army.” Indeed, to do so obscures the role of other fringe actors and countries in spreading disinformation. The Russian propaganda machine is one key element in disinformation flows, but it is not the only one.

Conclusion

The Russian propaganda machine’s approach to the Catalan question is not uniform. RT’s coverage appears more balanced than that of Sputnik; Assange’s tweets were boosted by some probable pro-Kremlin bots, but these do not appear to have been the majority. Part of the coverage has criticized both sides in the debate, and portrayed the situation as symptomatic of a broader decline in the West — very much in line with Kremlin narratives.

This approach differs from the far more systematically hostile coverage which the Kremlin’s outlets devote to issues which are more central to Russian interests, such as the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, and Russia’s relationship with NATO. This may reflect a desire not to antagonize Madrid with too blatant a bias, or a simple lack of a unifying narrative between the different elements of the network.

At the same time, while most of the claims made by El País can be confirmed independently, not all can: the reference to Disobedient Media, in particular, misstates its role, while the focus on RT misses the more biased and inaccurate coverage evident in Spuntik.

Perhaps the key lesson of this series of events is the importance of distinguishing between different actors in the flows of online disinformation. There is a difference between RT and Sputnik in their coverage of Catalonia. There is a difference between Kremlin-run outlets, pro-Kremlin or aligned outlets, and outlets and individuals whose comments are useful for the Kremlin. Any approach which does not recognize those differences is likely to further muddy an already turbid information flow.


Ben Nimmo is Senior Fellow for Information Defense at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).

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