Burning tires in the streets, aggressive police beating up peaceful protesters, political prisoners in jail, and a country on the verge of falling apart. A nation whose fundamental right, self-determination has been denied. And the European Union is standing by helplessly, watching the atrocious injustice and the attack on democracy.
Any clue where this is happening? Yes, this is the Spanish-Catalonian conflict, how it was portrayed by the Russian media.
Officially, the Russian government stands at Madrid’s side and declared the conflict as Spanish internal affair, but the propaganda machinery immediately seized the opportunity to disseminate misinformation, stir up emotions and undermine faith in Western (Spanish and European) institutions.
As any complex international issue, the Catalonian situation is a fertile ground for propaganda and misinformation. The question whether – and under which conditions - a nation or a national minority has the right to declare independence and is allowed to secede is debated by international legal experts. As the topic is legally extremely complicated and politically very sensitive, public discussions are therefore often dominated by simplified and emotional arguments. The Spanish Supreme Court is currently holding an unprecedented trial in Madrid and is about to decide about the fate of pro-independence Catalan politicians, who are accused of rebellion and sedition. The landmark trial is also referred to as the “stress test of Spanish democracy”.
Russian media has been following the developments closely from the beginning. Russia Today and Sputnik seem to give the Catalan issue high priority, publishing videos, on-the-spot features and exclusive interviews with pro-independence politicians and experts regularly.
Biased stories or poorly documented articles are unfortunately present in today’s fast and superficial media, but the reporting here is not only unbalanced but clearly tendentious. When referring to the 2017 referendum on independence, RT and Sputnik write consistently about a “landslide victory” of the pro-independence side.
This is only partially true: 97% of the participants voted for independence, but the turnout was only 43%, since the Spanish parties asked their voters to stay away from the “illegal election”. Hence, more than half of the society abstained, which would hardly qualify as “landslide victory”. It is almost never mentioned that the issue of independence is a divisive topic even in Catalonia, cutting the society almost in half, and not just a struggle between the “repressive” Madrid and the rebellious Catalans. Neither is the Spanish Constitution of 1979 mentioned, which was supported by 90% of the Catalans and established the frameworks of the current Estado de Autonomías (State of Autonomous Provinces), nor the fact that Catalonia enjoys a wide autonomy, comparable only to the federal states (Länder) of Germany.
Clearly and deliberately misleading was the suggestion that an independent Catalonia could enter the EU easily and maintain the euro, as common currency.
Fact is however, that an independent Catalonia would find itself automatically outside the EU and its accession would require unanimous support by all member states – chances are slim that Spain would consent to it. This was a very clear and consciously used misleading argument which rallied many Catalonian who would vote for independence but stick to the EU membership. It took time for Madrid and Brussels to effectively deny this information.
Even more interesting than biased reporting are the comments and the discussions triggered in the online sphere. The current trial against the Catalan politicians is used to demonstrate that Spain is not a real democracy as there are “political prisoners” in the country.
Monarchy is used as the opposite of democracy, regardless of Spain being a constitutional monarchy, where the political power is in the hands of the parliament and of the elected politicians. According to many comments, the conflict is highlighting how human and minority rights are not respected in a European country, which implies that the EU is not able to guarantee fundamental rights for its citizens. The Catalan case is also used to demonstrate that people inside the EU are fundamentally dissatisfied and how the EU is incapable of solving its internal problems.
Brussels is also criticized for not defending the Catalans who were “brutally beaten by the police and even shot at”. This is false: the European Commission published a statement in which they reiterated that it is an internal matter of Spain, under the current constitution the independence vote was not legal, however, all parties should refrain from violence.
as in other cases in Europe, e.g. before the 2016 Dutch referendum on the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement or the Brexit Vote. Russia’s digital activity related to Catalonia increased by 2000% in September, 2017.
Misinformation by Moscow-controlled news outlets like Russia Today and Sputnik (in the Catalan case more of the latter) deliberately spread misleading or false information. Sputnik even reported that the Balearic Island would also like to secede from Spain, and that an independent Catalonia would recognise Crimea’s annexation by Russia.
The two biggest influencers tweeting under #Catalonia were Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, and Edward Snowden, the former CIA analyst, now living in Moscow: both openly campaigned for Catalan independence and warned of a civil war. Their tweets have been widely published, shared and retweeted, some at the speed of 66 times per second, partially by trolls, partially by automated bots. Surprisingly, the social media activity favouring pro-independence forces originated mainly from Russia (50%) and Venezuela (30%). It is a typical instrument of both RT and Sputnik to feature well-known Western intellectuals as conveyors of their message, to create more credibility. According to Professor Javier Lesaca of George Washington University, who analysed social media messages from Russia Today and Sputnik around the time of the Catalan independence referendum, an “entire army of zombie accounts were spreading contents from RT and Sputnik.”
The clear Russian involvement during the Catalan referendum convinced the Spanish government to recognize the dangers of this new hybrid war. Previously, South European countries, focusing mostly the information wars with the Islamic state, tended to dismiss the concerns of East Europeans about the dangers of a Russian threat. The heavy Russian propaganda war launched before and since the Catalan independence referendum proved to be a gamechanger and since 2017, the Spanish National Security Strategy also identifies misinformation campaigns as a threat – however, it still stops short of linking those to Russia.
Edit Inotai is Senior Fellow of the Budapest-based independent think-tank, the Centre for Euro-Atlantic Integration and Democracy (CEID). She is currently the correspondent of the German public TV ARD. She holds a PhD in International Relations with a thesis on Spanish democratic transition.