There are many reasons for news and images from the historic and tumultuous Catalan day of voting on independence going viral. Yet it seems that “Russian meddling” has become an all-but-reflexive explanation for both embarrassing underlying events and their viral coverage.
While the chorus of voices accusing Russia of meddling in other nations’ affairs has been largely concentrated in the U.S., on occasion the Russians have also been used as convenient scapegoats for the resurgence of populism and other “anti-establishment” positions in the European Union. For instance, France’s recent election and the rise of Marine Le Pen were blamed on Russia without evidence, as was the increased popularity of the right-wing German political party Alternative for Germany (AfD).
Now the secession crisis in Spanish Catalonia and the chaos that enveloped the region’s recent independence referendum have become the latest headache for a Western government. Predictably, this has resulted in yet more accusations leveled against the Russian government by Spain’s establishment press, despite the fact the Russian government took no position on the referendum.
Russian “meddling” stories pop up like mushrooms
A few days prior to Sunday’s chaotic but successful referendum, the Spanish newspaper-of-renown El País published several stories about the role of Russian “meddling” in the Catalan referendum crisis. One story asserted, for example, that Russian “hackers” were responsible for keeping a Catalan referendum census site online by hosting a site mirror (a copy of the site, hosted at a different URL) after the domain was seized by the Spanish government. However, the article later noted that only a small fraction of the 144 total site mirrors were based in Russia and its “satellite states.”
Another story, headlined “Russian meddling machine sets sights on Catalonia,” purported to be a detailed analysis of “pro-Kremlin websites and social media profiles,” but not in fact any website or social media account with a direct association to the Russian government.
— Ruthen (@RutheniaRus) September 25, 2017
Indeed, one of the social media accounts figuring prominently in the article, that of Wikileaks’ founder Julian Assange, was claimed to be pro-Kremlin because Assange’s message and interests “align with the interests of Moscow.” Assange’s tweets on the Catalan crisis were further said to have gone viral solely due to the “intervention of bots, or false social media profiles” — not as a result of the tweets’ content.
Justin Raimondo, director of AntiWar, and Edward Snowden were also used as proof in the article that the Kremlin was involved in reporting on non-establishment opinions regarding the Catalan referendum. Even European academic Richard Wellings was treated as a Kremlin agent — for having appeared as a commentator on the Russia Today network.
Beyond that, the only other “proof” offered for the article’s wild accusations is the “Hamilton68 tool,” which was funded by the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a thoroughly debunked neoconservative operation led by Bill Kristol (notorious war hawk and journalist, and Project for the New American Century signatory), Michael Chertoff (former head of the Department of Homeland Security) and Michael Morell (former CIA director). The article argues that because one of the most used hashtags by allegedly “pro-Kremlin” accounts was #Catalonia in the week prior the referendum, this proved that the Russian government plotted to “exacerbate [the] crisis and create division within the United States and Europe.”
A second article titled “There’s fake news in Catalonia too,” published the day of the referendum, also used the Hamilton68 tool as “evidence” that social media “accounts that less diplomatically promote the Russian government’s interests” had tweeted about the police violence against voters in Catalonia. The article essentially asserts that social media users or media outlets that chose to cover the police violence in a way that was not flattering to the Spanish state were spreading “fake news” in order to benefit the Russian government.
Interestingly, both articles were penned by David Alandete, managing editor of El País with deep connections to the U.S. corporate press and political establishment. His author’s biography notes that he is a credentialed correspondent at the U.S. Pentagon and Congress, was embedded with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan, and covered the 2008 and 2012 U.S. presidential election as a member of the traveling press with the Clinton, Obama, McCain and Romney campaigns.
However, Spanish establishment media were not the only forces claiming that the Russians were behind the international outrage at the police violence against voters in Catalonia. Ian Bremmer, a columnist at Time magazine, and Jim Sciutto, CNN national security correspondent, asserted via Twitter that Assange, Snowden, RT, and Wikileaks were aiding Russia’s bid to cause “internal division” in the West, citing last year’s U.S. election as well as Brexit as previous examples.
— Jim Sciutto (@jimsciutto) September 27, 2017
Ignoring the obvious
Though the “Russian meddling” narrative has come apart at the seams in the U.S. and everywhere else it has been propagated, the fact that it has been resurrected yet again to explain the Catalan referendum crisis only underlines the major concerns regarding its legitimacy.
The purported link between Russian government “meddlers” and the Catalan independence referendum ignores the 95-year-old independence movement in Catalonia, as well as the fact that the region’s unique language and culture have long fostered feelings of separateness from Spain among its people.
Also troubling is the assertion by proponents of the Russian-link theory that the criticisms of two Western dissidents — Assange and Snowden — regarding the Spanish government’s censorship and repression prior to and during the referendum were the result of Russian activity. Many tweets regarding the Catalan referendum expressed horror and outrage at the footage showing Spanish state police savagely beating peaceful voters.
This is truly unheard of for a modern day democracy!
— Thomas van Linge (@ThomasVLinge) October 1, 2017
This, along with the fact that several world leaders and political figures condemned the violence specifically, suggests that it was the brutal repression of the vote that understandably led to their viral spread across social media, not a “bot” campaign led by the Russian government for which no convincing evidence exists.
Thus, the use of the “Russian meddling” narrative seems to work as a distraction from the wrongdoing of a foreign government, providing a convenient scapegoat to help the Spanish government avoid taking responsibility for its mishandling of the vote. Indeed, such a narrative is turning out in many such situations to be much easier than taking responsibility for unpopular actions or engaging in meaningful political dialogue.
Top photo | People confronts Spanish riot police near a voting site at a school assigned to be a polling station by the Catalan government in Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, 1 Oct. 2017.(AP/Felipe Dana)
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