Catalan independence: EU experts detect rise in pro-Kremlin false claims

Fake news-debunking East Stratcom unit saw upsurge in false information published in Russian and Spanish about independence referendum.

The European Union’s counter-propaganda unit has detected an upsurge in pro-Kremlin disinformation and false claims about the political crisis in Catalonia.

In the run-up to and aftermath of the bitterly contested Catalan independence referendum, EU officials have seen an increase in false information published in Russian and Spanish.

“World powers prepare for war in Europe,” proclaimed the headline of the Russian-language site Polit Ekspert on the day of the Catalan parliament’s declaration of independence. A Moldovan politician, Bogdan Ţîrdea, claimed in a Facebook post: “EU officials supported the violence in Catalonia.”

An article for the Kremlin-backed news agency Sputnik about a minor secessionist appeal on the Balearic Islands was given the headline “Independence movements: a contagious timebomb in a state that does not listen”.

Officials working at the East Stratcom taskforce in Brussels say they have seen an increase in disinformation linked to the Catalan referendum, in line with the explosion of media interest in the story. The unit started work in September 2015 as part of an attempt to debunk fake news and improve understanding of EU policies in eastern Europe.

The findings emerged after Spain’s foreign minister, Alfonso Dastis, said intelligence suggested Russian hackers were targeting the European Union.

Spain raised the issue on Monday at a meeting of EU foreign and defence ministers in Brussels.

Defence Minister Dolores de Cospedal said it was clear that a lot the messaging on social media around the Catalan crisis came from Russian territory, though a definitive link to the government had not been proved.

“It is important that we know that there are certain entities, which may be public or private, that try to interfere in national politics, that try to affect and create unstable situations in Europe,” De Cospedal said at a meeting of EU foreign and defence ministers on Monday.

“We have the obligation to declare openly, that public opinion knows about it and to fight against it.”

Last week the commander of Nato forces in Europe, US Gen Curtis Scaparrotti, called on Russia to “stop meddling” in European elections.

Ben Nimmo, an expert in disinformation at the Atlantic Council, told the Guardian that “the Russian propaganda machine’s approach to the Catalan question varied”, with the Kremlin-backed news agency Sputnik taking a far more outspoken editorial line than the TV station RT.

Sputnik put “an astonishing emphasis” on the tweets of the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in its reporting before the independence vote, he said. During a three-week period in September, the analyst found that Sputnik based 11 stories on Catalonia on tweets by Assange, compared with 10 based on comments by Catalonia’s president, Carles Puigdemont, and five on the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy.

“Until September this year [Assange] had never tweeted on Catalonia. The decision to give him that prominence can’t be justified on his expertise, so the only logical reason for them to give him such prominence is because he was criticising Spain,” Nimmo said.

RT was “a lot more balanced than Sputnik on Catalonia”, Nimmo said, which suggested there had been no central direction on how to treat the story. “Russia divides the world into friendly and unfriendly countries and Spain tends to be seen as one of the friendlier ones,” he said, contrasting the Spanish government’s approach with that of London, which has taken a tougher line. “The Russian government does not have the same strategic interest in destabilising Spain as it does with the UK.”

EU experts who monitor Russia’s domestic media have noted the comparisons that state TV draws between Catalonia and Crimea, annexed by Vladimir Putin in 2014. “Is Spain repeating Ukraine’s mistakes?” asked a guest on Rossiya 1. Russian commentators have also described the wealthy Catalan region as Europe’s Donbass, arguing that “for the first time since 1945 a real civil war and real violence could break out”.

The coverage on Russian state TV dwells on the failures of Europe’s democracy, a message that is likely to intensify ahead of the Russia presidential election in March 2018, Nimmo believes. “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.”

Sean Kanuck, director of future conflict and cybersecurity at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said Russia’s strategy was to question the legitimacy of western democracies. “Raising questions about the rule of law or the legitimacy of any particular election would actually be to Russia’s benefit, even if they aren’t influencing the actual outcome of the result. It is a distraction, it is a confusion, it is destabilising.”

Victor Boştinaru, a Romanian socialist MEP, said genuine protests and democratic movements in Europe were vulnerable to manipulation. “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.”

The MEP, who sits on the European parliament’s foreign affairs committee, is pressing for the EU to devote more resources to East Stratcom, which currently employs 14 full-time staff in Brussels. In 2016, EU member states, which control the purse strings and set the direction of EU foreign policy, rejected a proposal by MEPs to give the unit a larger budget.