Julian Assange Catalonia independence movement and referendum Spain


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.”


catalonia spain barcelona
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 p
rogram 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.


FILE PHOTO: Catalonia's regional President Carles Puigdemont (R) and former regional President Artur Mas salute the crowd, after Catalunya Parliament's President Carme Forcadell arrived to the court to testify, in Barcelona, Spain May 8, 2017. REUTERS/Albert Gea
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.”

Murky links 

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.”



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