- The Washington Times - Monday, October 2, 2017

Russian propagandists scored a victory in Spain this weekend after “boldly injecting fake news and disinformation” into the debate over Catalonian independence and seemingly influencing the election results, according to U.S. information warfare experts.

The divisive nature of Sunday’s chaotic poll, in which voters backed the Catalonia regional government’s disputed referendum to declare independence from Spain, featured Russian state-backed news outlets and social network robotic accounts leveraging the mayhem to push the Kremlin’s larger anti-Western and anti-democracy themes.

“What is so troubling is that the Russians used the same playbook and nobody seems to care,” U.S. information warfare expert Molly K. McKew told The Washington Times. “It’s the constant drumbeat; minorities are disadvantaged, the West has nothing to offer, democracy doesn’t work.”

On Capitol Hill, multiple congressional probes currently investigating the extent of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election have zeroed in on a similar pattern of Kremlin-backed propaganda seemingly amplifying divisive social issues across Facebook and Twitter last year.

Experts say the Kremlin has perfected not promoting a single candidate but instead finding divisive social issues including race, gun control, religion or gay rights to amplify. Eastern European, or Russian, troll farms and robotic accounts then use algorithms to make “emotional hot-button topics” trend across a country’s Internet space.

Ms. McKew, who has written about Russia’s ‘Hybrid Information Warfare’ techniques and advised the Georgian and Moldovan governments, spoke to The Times from Estonia. In the Catalonian independence election, she said, Moscow appeared to pull from a playbook it has perfected in recent years.

“The Kremlin can’t create these societal divisions,” she said. “But they can find them and turn the volume way up. They did it in the U.S. — find a bitter partisan divide and exploit it. Brexit (the UK vote to leave the European Union) was similar.”

Recent Ukrainian and Estonian fake news episodes regarding Russian military action have also shown earmarks of Kremlin misinformation operations.

“Moscow fights a subtle war of subversion rather than domination,” Ms. McKew said, adding that last month’s Iraqi Kurdish independence referendum saw Russian efforts to influence the debate. In recent Dutch and German elections, however, there was less-overt Russian propaganda, experts say, because the divisive issues were not as clear cut.

In the Catalonian referendum, the warnings signs that a “hidden Russian hand” was attempting an influence campaign were clear, but local officials seemed unable to fight back.

In the lead up to the election, the Madrid-based Spanish daily El Pais provided coverage of a report warning of Russian interference, especially from what has been called the Kremlin’s propaganda mouthpiece — the government-funded TV broadcaster Russia Today, or RT.

The station was accused of pushing fake referendum news from its Spanish-language portal. Tweets on the issue from NSA contractor and leaker Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange also gained heavy traffic just before the vote.

Ms. McKew called Mr. Assange and Mr. Snowden regular players in the Kremlin influence drama. “The sad part is,” she said, “people know they have no credibility, but when a local issue comes from their mouth, people don’t care about the source, they just react.”

Reactions were strong all across the northeastern Catalonia region of Spain on Sunday, with ugly scenes of violence and more than 800 people injured when riot police attacked civilians gathering to cast ballots in raids aimed at stopping the vote.

Before the vote, according to Politico Europe, Russia’s ambassador to Spain denied Moscow had any role in the independence debate.

“Russia is in no way connected to these processes and has no interest in being connected to them,” Yuri Korchagin told Sputnik, a Russian-backed news outlet known to have published multiple fake news stories about Catalonia’s referendum.

• Dan Boylan can be reached at dboylan@washingtontimes.com.

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