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.
I agree broadly speaking Martina, your political science and history give you the perfect foundation on which to base those views. Yet you fall victim of the tendency of playing the blame game that points to one bully in the playground. I am not as convinced that bully is the only one, he/she is the one everybody talks about but the ones that are unseen are probably worse.
In political theory the world should always be prepared. Niccolò Machiavelli prepared us with his ‘Il Principe’ back in 1513. Yet somehow naively we have drifted through the centuries to five hundred years on still being imprudent despite his main theme of accepting that the aims and intents of ‘princes’, modern politicians in our context, that include their self-aggrandisement and political survival can justify the use of ‘immoral’ means to achieve their ends. That message is as valid today as ever, if not even more.
We then have the ‘enforcers’ who make this all possible, especially in this cyber propaganda war. If Machiavelli warned us about the ruling class, then Josef Goebbels should also have warned us about the use of untruths as truth which is what we are looking at. However, there we need to look at what supports such propaganda. In Hitler’s time he had Himmler as his ‘enforcer’ who used fear and far more bloody methods to control the population. In Stalin’s Soviet Union Beria did that with even greater effect. Their instilled fear over-spilled into the rest of the world, predicting what would happen to those who fell under the spell of such regimes or worse if conquered thus taken over and absorbed into them. Propaganda requires fear to give the enforcers their licence to deliberately destroy what even they probably know is good and just in order to maximise control. One of their most effective tools was by use of subversion by planting ‘cuckoos’, spies, informers and various other agents of fear who would identify what had to be targeted for removal and eradication. We are looking at the playground bully we think has the power to conquer all right now, but overlooking the propaganda that makes his/her reputation unassailable which is spread by agents of not only that bully but those who are using the obvious person as a subterfuge to allow other, perhaps bigger bullies, to step out of the shadows to take over.
Having said that, where I am going is that a nicely Machiavellian plot that diverts us from a bigger but as yet unknown truth has taken hold. I too wondered what the hell was happening with the amount of trollery around Catalunya. I found it diversionary in the end, it simply emphasised a political situation that was smaller than several others in a way that distracted a vast part of the European public who were drawn into taking sides in a situation that did not directly concern them. Meanwhile much more was happening in the world that received less attention. As somebody very overtly speaking out and actively opposing Brexit I find myself head on against trolls day in, day out. I challenge them consistently, but they are very well prepared for any confrontation, so inevitably they act out a boredom with me that legitimates them moving on to the next ‘victim’ or replaced by my next troll. It is so systematic that if we watch the patterns we also begin to see different strategies that sometimes see trolls fighting among themselves before our eyes. They are perhaps what the German speaking world calls a ‘Buhmanm’, that ‘Kinderschreckfigur’ who we see as someone like Nosferatu but is actually just flesh and blood like the rest of us, but they are sometimes just too mortal.
So, in their cyber world we have Putin and Russia the playground bully we can point to at any given moment, yet we avert our eyes from the others and tend not to try to look into the shadows to see who they are. Obvious candidates are, as ever, the USA and China, but perhaps we should cast our cyber net further and accept that there is far more to this than meets the eye. My gut instinct is that there is a super Goebbels out there somewhere who is using lies to make truths behind the subterfuge of Russians are doing it all, at least most. That same instinct tells me that there are corporations and individuals so hungry for greater power and wealth that they can afford the price of driving a propaganda war through the cyber trollery to distract attention away from where they wish to steer us.
In short, we can see the Russian bear but beware the pack of wolves behind us.