Populism represents the newest challenge facing the European Union. In the past year, a string of elections and referendums in Italy, Spain, Germany, Czech Republic and Austria elevated anti-establishment and nationalist sentiments.
The shift in international order threatens the status quo, and western leaders are suspicious of Russian influence. Last year, United Kingdom Prime Minister Theresa May accused Russia of meddling in elections and spreading fake news to sow discord in the west. May acted on the allegations this January, announcing the creation of a department to curb fake news and social media influence campaigns.
The tweets from RT, a Russian news outlet, seem to confirm May’s claims that the Kremlin seeks to sow discord around the world. RT’s coverage of Spain’s latest attempt to quell the independence movement in Catalonia, Spain’s wealthiest region, overwhelmingly supported secessionists and highlighted division between European allies.
The Catalan Crisis
Catalan secessionists believed the Spanish government in Madrid taxed the region too much without putting sufficient investment back into Catalonia. Catalans mobilized and voted in an illegal referendum on October 1, 2017, with 90 percent voting in favor of independence. However, less than half of the electorate showed up to the polls.
Catalan lawmaker Alejandro Fernández, who opposed the independence referendum, said, “This movement is textbook populism.”
After the Spanish government invoked a rare measure to assert authority in Catalonia, secessionist leaders, including Catalan president Carles Puigdemont fled to Belgium seeking asylum.
At the end of March, German authorities arrested Puigdemont at the German-Danish border. Spain asked the German government to extradite him on embezzlement and rebellion charges. But on April 6, a German court decided to release Puigdemont on bail. The decision tested EU member state relations and dealt a major blow to Spain as it tries to prosecute others involved in the illegal referendum for Catalan independence held last fall.
Introducing RT en Español
To understand how Russian outlets covered Puigdemont’s arrest, I followed RT en Español for one week leading up to and following the German court’s decision on Puigdemont’s extradition. Pro Puigdemont and divided Europe messages saturated RT tweets, amplifying populist rhetoric and reinforcing discord between European countries.
History shows Russia seizes on opportunities to amplify crises through the spread of false information. Russian disinformation is characterized as high volume as well as rapid, continuous and repetitive. The textbook definitions of Russian disinformation are consistent with my findings. In seven days, the account released 1,900 tweets, tweeting an average of 270 times per day. I identified 60 tweets about Spain, as RT en Español also covers news from Latin America.
About 80 percent of these tweets either mentioned or referred to the crisis in Catalonia or secessionist leader Puigdemont. The sheer magnitude of tweets on Catalonia in a week is surprising. To be fair, the German court’s decision to not extradite Puigdemont, was a big development in the story. It was covered in other Spanish news outlets and is part of the reason why I started looking at RT tweets around the time of the decision. However, this wasn’t the only big story happening in Spain, yet it is the story RT heavily amplified.
When we look at the composition of the Catalonia tweets, we find them to be overwhelmingly pro Puigdemont.
RT tweeted several quotes from Puigdemont’s remarks after his release from jail. While there are other voices in this conflict, such as the Spanish government in Madrid, the only voice represented by RT is Puigdemont. It is actually consistent with populism to focus on a charismatic leader. RT’s constant coverage of Puigdemont bolsters this.
The second most popular tweet of the week was a pro Puigdemont announcement of his release from prison, including a particularly happy photo of the former Catalan president.
The slant is clear, by only highlighting Puigdemont, RT omits a big part of the Catalan crisis from its coverage, the Spanish government.
About a quarter of the Catalonia tweets were about divisions within Europe, and these tweets tended to perform the best, receiving hundreds of likes and retweets.
This tweet, for example, was the most popular of the week – with 852 retweets and 911 likes.
And this one.
Showing significantly lower engagement than the previous tweet, this tweet was the third most popular, with 153 retweets and 159 likes. However, it shows the growing rift between Spain and its European allies.
The Catalan crisis tested relations between Spain and the EU, Belgium and now Germany. Coverage of strained relations emphasizes a breakdown in EU member state cooperation, an institution that is supposed to be built on shared interests, sovereignty and tolerance.
While we have no direct way of testing the effects of RT’s pro Puigdemont and divided Europe messages, the content of the messages and the nature by which they were disseminated seem to undermine the status quo in favor of a new world order at best or chaos at worst.
The Catalan crisis is just one opportunistic example where Russia benefits by upending the status quo and dividing allies. A deeper look at other European populist movements could reveal even more efforts to sow discord in the west.
Caveat: The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. They do not necessarily express the views of either The Institute of Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or The George Washington University.