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19th Jan 2019

Spain joins call for EU action on propaganda

  • Signs that Russia may have meddled in the Catalonia crisis have emerged (Photo: Sasha Popovic)

EU foreign ministers are not expected to take new decisions on Russian disinformation despite signs that the Kremlin meddled in the Catalan crisis.

The ministers will discuss the issue in Brussels on Monday (13 November) after the EU foreign service sent out a questionnaire, seen by EUobserver, to EU capitals.

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  • RT was more balanced than Sputnik, experts said (Photo: Asteris Masouras)

It asked: "How can the EU response to disinformation be further enhanced (building on the work done by East Stratcom Task Force) and what needs to be done at EU and national level respectively?".

It also asked: "How can we best combine these activities with a more long term focus on resilience and the objective to strengthen independent media and journalism?".

The debate comes after eight member states urged EU foreign service chief Federica Mogherini to build up the counter-propaganda cell in her service.

The team of 20 seconded diplomats and officials in her East, Western Balkans, and South Stratcom offices, which has no budget of its own, is tasked with pushing back against Russia's €1.2 billion propaganda machine as well as against Islamist radicalisation.

The call for more resources came from the foreign ministers of Croatia, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Sweden, and the UK.

But Spanish foreign minister Alfonso Dastis also planned to raise the alarm at Monday's EU talks.

Referring to signs of Russian interference in the Catalan crisis, his, spokesman, Inigo Mendez de Vigo, told Spanish media on Friday that "Europe has to take this issue very seriously. It can't be that foreign forces, outsiders … want to change the constitutional order".

A Spanish defence ministry spokeswoman said the same day the Spanish government had "corroborated the fact that many messages and operations [on the Catalan crisis] that were seen via social networks came from Russian territory".

The spokeswoman, Maria Dolores de Cospedal, added: "That's not to say necessarily that we have determined that it is the Russian government. As such, we must act with extreme caution".

The Spanish intervention is new, following years in which southern EU states ignored eastern EU countries' calls for action on Russian influence operations.

But EU sources told EUobserver that Mogherini personally and Russia-wary countries such as Germany and Italy continued to oppose any scale-up of EU activity in the field.

"I believe that they [EU foreign ministers] would just agree on some conclusions how important it is, but without any concrete and practical outputs," one EU diplomat said.

"That group of eight EU member states is too small and politically weak," the diplomat added.

Another diplomat said there would be no formal EU conclusions on the subject on Monday.

A third EU source said: "Stronger states do not want to do anything that could even theoretically be translated as something that the Kremlin would not love (which is basically anything, the Kremlin pretends to be offended by our 'aggression' all the time)".

Catalonia meddling

The Catalan independence referendum, on 20 October, marked the fifth Russian attempt to sow division in the EU following its media campaigns in the Brexit vote, in the Dutch referendum on Ukraine relations, and in the French and German elections.

Mogherini's service found that Russian state media RT and Sputnik's Spanish-language services boosted coverage of the crisis from about four stories per week, to more than 200, in the run-up to the vote.

Some of these were designed to legitimise Russia-controlled secessionist entities in Ukraine by comparing them to Catalonia, but many others were designed to delegitimise the Spanish government and to inflame tensions in Spain.

According to analysis carried out by the Atlantic Council, a US think tank, RT's coverage was "more balanced" than that of Sputnik, which was "biased and inaccurate" - such as a story on 21 September saying that the Balearic islands had also called for independence from Spain.

Sputink also gave a big platform to Julian Assange, the Kremlin-linked Wikileaks founder who campaigned for Catalan secession.

The Atlantic Council found that pro-Kremlin Twitter accounts, including automated accounts, promoted anti-Spanish content.

One of Assange's tweets, calling for international support for Catalonia's "self-determination" was being re-tweeted 66 times per second just one minute after he had posted it.

Other Russian state media, such as Channel One, Vesti, and Izvestia, as well as Kremlin-linked websites Russia News Now and News Front also circulated fake or inflammatory content.

A Vesti story on 17 September falsely said Spanish had been designated as a foreign language in Catalan schools. An Izvestia article on 28 September said Catalonia was to recognise Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

RT tactics?

The EU source cited above told EUobserver the fact that RT, Russia's main foreign propaganda outlet, had provided "balanced" coverage may have been tactical.

The Kremlin might have thought that "going too aggressively against the central government [in Spain] might harm some Russian interests there" or it might have been "an effort by RT to win new readers who are annoyed by the too polarised reporting of Spanish and Catalonian outlets", the source said.

The EU source said that any future votes in Europe would likely face similar Russian media attacks.

"If your aim is to divide and weaken [the West], you simply wait for these opportunities," the EU source said.

"Whenever there is a similarly dividing topic, I would think it would be wise to expect that such a risk is there," the source added.

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