In Catalonia, Is Russia Trying to Influence Another Vote?

Police stand in front of demonstrators waving Spanish flags at city hall in Madrid, Spain, September 30. Sergio Perez/Reuters

As the Spanish region of Catalonia prepares to stage a referendum on its independence, fears are growing on the anti-independence side of Russian interference in favor of the Catalans.

Ahead of the planned vote Sunday, which Spain's government has banned, the Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFR) at the Atlantic Council has assessed claims of Russian interference outlined in a story in Spain's El Pais newspaper, and found some evidence to support a role for the Russian propaganda machine in playing up the tensions in the region.

El Pais had sparked fears that Russian bots had employed similar tactics reported during the U.S. election to flood social media with controversial posts, with the Spanish newspaper fearing influence in favor of the Catalans.

In their separate analysis, the DFR team found that Julian Assange had become the "principal international commentator" on the issue on 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," it said.

"Assange is strongly critical of the Spanish government's actions," the researchers said, citing as an example his description of the Madrid administration as "like a banana monarchy."

Assange himself is not a formal part of the Russian propaganda apparatus, and has always denied any link to the Kremlin. But what is undeniable is that pro-Kremlin digital organizations and individuals have been significantly boosting his contributions to the debate.

Sputnik, the Kremlin-backed digital news outlet, has paid particular attention to Assange. According to DFR, "Between September 11 — Catalonia's national day — and September 27, Sputnik headlined no fewer than 11 stories with Assange comments."

That was more than the 10 headlines granted to Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, and the five granted to Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

"The most likely conclusion is that the wire gave him such extraordinary coverage precisely because he is both high-profile and partisan," the researchers say.

The DFR also found that Assange's tweets were boosted by "political bots, which mainly amplify messages supporting the Kremlin or the separatists in Ukraine," though the researchers added that these were a minority compared with Catalan or American accounts.

However, the researchers caution that there is no uniform narrative across the pro-Kremlin media landscape. It highlights that RT, another major international pro-Kremlin outlet, is significantly more balanced in its coverage of the referendum than Sputnik, for example.

In their conclusion the researchers point out that where Russian coverage has not taken the Catalan side as such, it has sometimes "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," the researchers said.

"This may reflect a desire not to antagonize Madrid with too blatant a bias."