Europe is at war and our very own Europa United Facebook page was under attack for 10 days during the so called Catalonia crisis. And after we have spoken to our partners at various European pages we found that they experienced the same.
We are in the middle of a Cyber troll war.
And it’s very much the same fight that has taken place in the United States in that social media is facing an attack which is meant to sow distrust, heighten divisions, and undermine established democratic processes.
Here are the chilling facts
At the height of the Catalan separatist crisis, analysis of more than 5 million messages about Catalonia posted on social networks between September 29th and October 5th shows that only 3 percent come from real profiles outside Russian and Venezuelan cybernetworks. These are the conclusions of a report prepared by Javier Lesaca, visiting scholar at the School of Media and Public Affairs at the George Washington University. And there’s more – thirty two percent of the messages investigated came from Venezuelan accounts linked to the Chavista regime of Nicolás Maduro. Thirty percent originated from anonymous accounts exclusively dedicated to contents of the Russian state media Russia Today and Sputnik while twnety five percent came from bots and ten percent from the official accounts of the two Russian media agencies mentioned.
On the same dates, the geolocation data offered by social networks such as Twitter and Facebook show similar results. Excluding Spain, thirteen percent of those who shared Russia Today’s information about the illegal referendum in Catalonia were in Venezuela.
Based on these data, the newspaper El País concluded on November the 11th that the “Russian network used Venezuelan accounts to deepen the Catalan crisis.” Hours later the government of Spain claimed it had well founded information that confirmed a large number of messages with a Catalan secessionist bias in social networks came from “Russian territory.” The possibility of Venezuelan involvement was left open.
What sort of fake news items are we talking about?
Sputnik and Russia Today played up the confrontations in Barcelona on the day of the referendum that Madrid declared illegal with soundbites such as “Police violence against peaceful voters.” But the website EUvsDisinfo.eu, created by Brussels to monitor “fake news” of Russian origin and to respond to it, registered such propagandist (and implausible) headlines as “Catalonia will recognise Crimea as part of Russia,” “Spanish is studied as a foreign language in Catalonia,” “European officials supported the violence in Catalonia,” or “Also the Balearic Islands in Spain ask for independence”. All penned by the Russian agency, Sputnik.
The propaganda campaign of Russian origin has not ceased, even though it has been weeks since the referendum and the Spanish government’s response applying Article 155 of the Spanish constitution, which partially suspended the Catalan self-government, in order to call new regional elections in December.
The manipulative drift of Russia Today led to the truly hysterical headline on October 28th that pronounced “Tanks in the streets of Barcelona: Spain and Catalonia on the verge of a violent outcome.”
There was no tank on any street in Barcelona, nor any violent outcome of any kind.
According to Spanish counterintelligence sources consulted by the investigative website El Confidencial Digital, the detailed analysis of information on Spain and Catalonia published on Russian media platforms in recent months shows that Russian disinformation is “shameless.” The newspaper adds that “in the moments of greatest activity,” up to 50 false or biased stories about the Catalan convert appeared each day.
On Thursday, November 23rd, an expert from the Elcano Royal Institute, Mira Milosevic-Juaristi, appeared in the Spanish Parliament to analyse the results of her investigations into Russian interference in Spain’s affairs. According to the institute’s data, the presence of Catalonia in social networks increased by two thousand percent in September, while some messages from Julian Assange—suddenly converted to a leader favouring Catalan independence—were re-tweeted up to sixty times per second, which is only possibly using bots.
Milosevic-Juaristi believes that the “complexity of the technological means used” rules out the possibility that the messages may come “from an isolated individual or a patriot” and is inclined to see a “planned strategy” that has the “support of agencies close to the [Russian] government.”
Why would Russia want to interfere in Spanish territorial problems?
Milosevic-Juaristi concludes that the Russian objective has not been the independence of Catalonia, as such. Rather, the Kremlin found in the secessionist cause, an opportunity to “weaken” the European Union and “discredit” the European democracies. Finally, Milosevic-Juaristi recalled that since 2014, Russia has included the “information war” in its official military doctrine. A war financed by the Kremlin has as propaganda generators, Russia Today or Sputnik, which rely on its intelligence services, and that can spread its message through thousands of false profiles on social networks.
The war, of course, is not only about “information.” According to the most recent data from Spain’s National Cryptological Center (CNI), after the application of Article 155 of the constitution to stop the secessionists, hackers allied to or hired by Catalan separatists carried out over seventy cyberattacks against websites of the central administration, judicial organs, political parties, and some private entities in the context of what they baptised as “Operation Catalonia,” allegedly backed by Anonymous.
The campaign lasted ten days and the CNI reported that it detected and stopped those attacks in most cases, and thwarted all attempts to steal information.
We are now in a new kind of cold war where digital fallout has replaced the concept of the big bomb as the most destructive thing on the planet and just like our days living under the fear of nuclear war, we need to be vigilant and cautious about what we read and share because the ramifications can be immensely destructive.