Russia Accused of Meddling in Catalonia Independence Vote With Fake News

Allegations against Moscow follow similar claims about intervention in elections in the United States, France and Germany

People clash with Spanish Guardia Civil guards outside a polling station in Catalonia
People clash with Spanish Guardia Civil guards outside a polling station in Sant Julia de Ramis on October 1, 2017 in Catalonia's independence referendum. Raymond Roig/AFP

Amid the drama over efforts by the Spanish government to halt the Catalonia region's vote for independence on Sunday, the unlikely winner could be Moscow, Politico Europe website reported.

Russian state-backed news outlets and automated social network accounts – bots, as they are known – have been pushing misinformation and total fabrications about the Catalan referendum, the report said, citing a study by the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensics Lab. The allegations suggest that Russia is seeking to meddle in support of Catalan independence and to discredit the Spanish central government's position that the referendum is illegal.

If in fact the allegations are borne out, they come on top of charges that Russia intervened in last year's U.S. presidential election in support of Republican candidate Donald Trump, as well as other allegations of meddling in this year's elections in France and Germany.

According to the Madrid-based Spanish daily El Pais, cited in the Atlantic Council's study, the allegations against Russia in Spain include the following: that Russian government-funded broadcaster RT has been using its Spanish-language portal is spreading disinformation about the referendum; that Wikileaks founder Julian Assange "has become the principle international agitator in the Catalan crisis, sharing opinions and half-truths as if they were news"; that automated bots, including bots spreading Russian propaganda, have spread Assange's tweets and those by former U.S. National Security Agency renegade Edward Snowden; and that pro-Kremlin websites have been disseminating fake news on the Catalan issue.

A senior Spanish official told Politico Europe he had not seen proof of Russian influence in the independence referendum, although he did not rule it out. "Yuri Korchagin, Russia’s ambassador to Spain, denied the country’s involvement in the upcoming vote in an interview with Sputnik, a state-backed news outlet that has published several inaccurate articles about the referendum process in Catalonia," Politico Europe also noted, citing the ambassador in the interview as saying: “Russia is in no way connected to these processes and has no interest in being connected to them.