- WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is seen on the balcony of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, Britain
- Thomson Reuters
Wikileaks’ founder Julian Assange has been actively supporting Catalonia’s push for independence The Kremlin has seized on Assange’s support for Catalonia in an effort to destabilize the EU Edward Snowden, along with other anti-globalization groups, also support Catalonia’s independence
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has seized on a historic independence referendum set for Sunday in the Spanish region of Catalonia, using his Twitter account to pump out a pro-separatist narrative aimed at villainizing the Spanish central government and celebrating Catalan nationalism.
Assange, for all intents and purposes, has become the independence movement’s chief international spokesman. The vast majority of his tweets this month, in many cases written in Spanish and Catalan, have centered around promoting Catalan secessionism and “self-determination” as a bulwark against Madrid’s “repression.”
Russian news agency Sputnik has helped, too – and has taken notice of Assange’s tweets.
The outlet posted 220 stories about the Catalan independence movement between September 11 and 27, according to The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, most with false or misleading headlines and a clear pro-independence bias. The outlet’s headlines gave “more prominence to Assange” than either Catalan separatist leader Carles Puigdemont or Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
“Catalan” was the third highest-trending hashtag among Twitter accounts linked to Russian influence operations as of this article’s publication, according to Hamilton 68, a digital platform that aims to track Russian propaganda in real time.
It is unclear how many of those users are bots. But a swarm of these automated accounts has also been promoting and parroting Assange’s accusations of misconduct and oppression by the Spanish central government.
“A significant part of the early amplification” of Assange’s most popular tweet about Catalonia came from automated accounts, The Atlantic Council reported. The pattern has extended to his other Catalonia-related tweets, including one where he compared events in Catalonia with those on Tiananmen Square in Beijing and another where he referred to Madrid as a “banana monarchy.”
- Students attend a demonstration in favor of the banned October 1 independence referendum in Barcelona, Spain September 28, 2017.
- Juan Medina/Reuters
The narrative Assange has been peddling is not, at its core, too far off-base: Madrid has declared the referendum illegal, and federal police raided a dozen Catalan regional government offices last week – and arrested fourteen regional officials – in an attempt to stall the vote. And while Catalan voters have never approved secession in past referendums, Madrid’s crackdown may make them think twice.
But Assange’s exaggerated characterizations of Madrid as a “banana monarchy” and the referendum itself as a “war” between “an occupying power” and “a liberation struggle” have created the kind of hysteria and division that risks fracturing not only Spain but the entire European Union – and that Russia, watching from a distance, thrives on.
“The fate of president Rajoy, PP (Spain’s ruling party), Spain’s security services and judiciary hangs in the balance over Catalonia,” Assange tweeted on Friday. “A shock wave is coming and no trick is too dirty, no lie is too bold and no escalation is too much for a deep state to save itself. Watch.”
National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden has also rallied to the cause, framing Catalonia’s independence movement as a human rights struggle. He tweeted a link last week to an op-ed written by the leader of Catalonia’s separatist movement, writing that “the Spanish crackdown on inconvenient speech, politics, and assembly in #Catalonia is a violation of human rights.”
Wikileaks, too, has been weaponized: Its Twitter account, which many believe to be operated by Assange, alleged last week that Madrid was trying to “crush” the October 1 vote.
A convenient propaganda tool
Mark Kramer, the program director of the Project on Cold War Studies at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, said that WikiLeaks has become “a convenient propaganda tool for the Russian government” in its effort to wreak havoc among NATO states and the European Union.
“Julian Assange founded Wikileaks because of his virulent hostility toward the United States and other Western democracies, and he has increasingly converted himself into a Kremlin stooge to help undermine NATO and the EU,” Kramer said. “He and the Russian authorities share a deep animosity toward the democratic capitalist West, and Assange has become a reliable mouthpiece for Kremlin propaganda and disinformation.”
On Friday, Assange appeared to echo a Sputnik report published that morning that said Spain had closed the airspace over Catalonia to prevent small aircraft from taking photos of the referendum turnout.
The government did decide to restrict the airspace over the region in preparation for Sunday’s vote, but not for the reasons Assange or Sputnik would have their readers believe. Restricting low-flying aircraft from hovering over large crowds has long been standard procedure in Spain, which has implemented the rules ahead of large sporting events in the past.
- Catalonia’s regional President Carles Puigdemont and former regional President Artur Mas salute the crowd in Barcelona
- Thomson Reuters
Spanish newspaper El Pais reported on Thursday that the Kremlin was “using the Catalan crisis as a way to deepen divisions within Europe and consolidate its international influence…in the form of websites that publish hoax stories, the activity of activists such as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and a legion of bots – millions of automated social media accounts that can turn lies into trending topics.”
The link between Assange, WikiLeaks, and Russia has always been murky. The US intelligence community believes the three worked together to undermine Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election, while Assange has staunchly denied that Russia was its source for hacked Democratic National Committee emails.
But as journalist and Russia researcher Casey Michel noted this week, the Kremlin has not exactly been an unbiased observer of Spain’s recent political turmoil.
“Catalonian independence advocates are among those who’ve flown to Moscow to meet with a group that, as of 2016, received Kremlin funding to help network Western separatist groups,” Michel noted.
“This group, the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia, issued a statement last week supporting the secession push, comparing Catalonia to Crimea – the latter of which continues to be widely regarded in the international community as a constituent part of Ukraine.”
The Anti-Globalization Movement, which partnered with California separatist group Yes California late last year, aims to promote “traditional moral values” and “supports countries and peoples who are … seeking an alternative agenda” to the “monopolization of the world system of relations and governance” by the United States, according to its website.
The movement’s first Dialogue of Nations conference, held in Moscow in 2015, was attended by separatist leaders from Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and the Uhuru black nationalist movement. Its second conference, partially funded by a Kremlin grant of $54,000, brought together “representatives of national liberation movements from all over the world.”
Kramer, of Harvard, said that Russia’s support for western secessionist movements has little if anything to do with “wanting to uphold the principle of sovereignty.”
He noted that Russia has been very selective about which separatist movements it wants to back and which it wants to suppress, pointing to Moscow’s stronghold on Chechnya and refusal to recognize Kosovo as an independent country while backing separatist forces in Georgia and forcibly annexing Crimea from Ukraine.
In Europe, Kramer added, Moscow supported the Scottish National Party’s bid for independence as part of its “vigorous campaign to sow turmoil and division within NATO and the EU…now the Russian authorities are doing the same thing with the Catalan independence referendum.”