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Kremlin media 'sought to discredit Spain' during Catalunya referendum, claim US researchers
KREMLIN-CONTROLLED media channels used social networks to diffuse 'a negative image of Spain' in the run-up to and just after Catalunya's disputed referendum on October 1, according to a study of over five million Facebook and Twitter messages by the USA's George Washington University.
Using big data software, visiting researcher at the School of Media and Public Affairs in the university, Javier Lesaca analysed nearly 5.03 million posts using the terms 'Catalunya', 'Cataluña' and 'Catalonia' between September 29 and October 5.
“What's most surprising about the investigation is the discovery of a whole army of perfectly-coordinated 'zombie' accounts set up exclusively for sharing content from Russia Today [RT] and Sputnik in online conversations from everywhere from Syria and the USA to Catalunya itself,” Lesaca revealed, according to a report published today (Saturday) in Spanish national daily broadsheet El País.
“There's circumstantial evidence that leads us to believe that the pattern of online disruption found in internet debates about the USA elections and the Brexit referendum also occurred in Catalunya – and that the authors of this disruption are one and the same.”
Spain's Council of Ministers admitted yesterday (Friday) that the government had 'proof' that during the peak moments of the crisis in Catalunya, disruptive messages from sources 'based on Russian territory' had been detected, and also from 'other places'.
Sources close to the government later confirmed that 'other places' meant Venezuela.
The social media accounts which were most prolific in their broadcasting of RT and Sputnik content were, in 32% of cases, websites held by pro-Chávez activists or sympathisers, Lesaca says.
A high number of the anonymous accounts analysed were linked to sites or profiles based in Venezuela or which were 'clearly' supportive of current president Nicolás Maduro's régime, his United Socialist Party of Venezuela and of its late leader Hugo Chávez, reveals Lesaca.
In many cases, the same content was published at the same time, strongly hinting at the presence of 'robots', or 'bots'.
Clickbait such as 'fake news' is distributed by bots on discussion fora, social networks and other sites, and shared on Facebook and Twitter by 'zombie' accounts or false profiles – again, automatically by the rogue programme – which makes them 'trending topics' that pop up even more frequently as digital algorithms detect their widespread posting and access.
Around 30% of the profiles on which the RT and Sputnik information about Catalunya was shared were anonymous, another 15% fake, with only 3% being genuine accounts and just 10% being the Russian media channels' official profiles.
Hashtags ensured Catalunya messages cropped up with other, unrelated words on searches – such as #VenezuelaSaludaACataluña ('Venezuela says hi to Catalunya'), which was one of the most-used.
The second-most shared 'tag' on social media was Sputnik's headline, “Maduro: Rajoy needs to answer to the world for what he has done in Catalunya.”
About half the news diffused by RT in the days immediately before and after the disputed referendum were about the alleged police violence, with headlines such as: “Strong footage: The brutal police repression against voters in the Catalunya referendum,” or “Catalunya elects its future path in the midst of truncheons and rubber bullets.”
The George Washington University analysis appears to reveal that the two Russian media, both of which are financed by the Kremlin, managed to get their own links and stories to go event more viral and 'trending' than those published by news agencies such as EFE, TV channels like RTVE in Spain and the CNN in the USA, and the international press.
“Russia's media conglomerates RT and Sputnik took part in a deliberate strategy of disrupting online global conversation about Catalunya,” concludes Lesaca.
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