A couple of weeks ago, Catalans went to the polls to decide whether to seek independence.
Catalonia, located in Spain’s northeast and the home of Barcelona, has been agitating for independence for more than 300 years.Â But something about this latest push was different, according to Spanish journalist Clara Jimenez Cruz. Cruz is a reporter withÂ Maldito Bulo, aimed at debunking falsehoodsÂ on social media. It’s something akin to The Washington Post’s Fact Checker, although the seven reporters who work on Maldito Bulo have full-time jobs, too.
Cruz told me that the lead-up to the Catalonia independence vote was full of âfake news.â She said, too, that she’s never seenÂ anything like it. She thinks that’s partly because the Catalonia vote was one of the most important and sensitive political issues to come up in Spain inÂ recent years.Â âWith Catalonia, because of all the feelings from both sides being involved, people are willing to believe any story that favors their argument and social media consumers have been taken in by a lot of fake news from both sides,â Cruz told me in an email.
Among the more pernicious fake stories that circulated right around the Oct. 1 vote: a picture of the fingers of a woman, allegedly broken by police to stop her from voting; reports that a police officer sent to Catalonia to block the vote had died of a heart attack there, surrounded by activists; andÂ a story of a 6-year-old boy paralyzed by police brutality.
Other fake news stories claimed thatÂ photos from a 2012 miners strike in MadridÂ actually depicted pro-independence CatalansÂ injured during the vote. Some reports seemed intended simply to cause confusion. On social media, people circulated a photo of a man in a yellow shirt, claiming that he was an undercover police officer. As Maldito Bulo reported, he was in fact a pro-independence advocate.
Esta foto no es de hoy.
Es de 2012 durante las cargas policiales contra las protestas de los mineros en Madrid. pic.twitter.com/TBCB6fLBKf
â MALDITO BULO (@malditobulo) October 1, 2017
El supuesto infiltrado en las manifestaciones de la huelga no es policÃa.
Es independentista, se llama Pep Escobedo y lo ha desmentido pic.twitter.com/KaOOGWoVux
â MALDITO BULO (@malditobulo) October 3, 2017
âWe’ve had to be specially watchful with images depicting supposed victims of the police and the civil guard on the first of October,âÂ Cruz told me. Most, she said, âturned out to be pictures from the past which had no relation whatsoever with the voting and also pictures of alleged right-wing demonstrators doing the Nazi salute with the Spanish flag which, many of them, were also pictures from other demonstrations.â
Cruz said she also saw people sharing fake tweets from politicians and lots of videos of alleged tanks deployed in Catalonia. She noted, too: âWe are aware that there has been going on a lot of stuff on Whatsapp but we’ve only been able to debunk those pieces that were sent to us by our users since Whatsapp is such a private system.â
It’s not clear who was responsible for the fake news. El Pais reported that Russians were to blame, suggesting that news outlets such as Russia Today and Sputnik were circulating the fake stories to deepen divisions in Europe. According to Politico, Russian state-backed news organizations and bots aggressively pushed misinformation about the politically charged vote.
But Spain’s foreign minister said he did not have âdefinitive evidenceâ that Russia was involved. And Ban Nimmo, an information defense fellow at the Atlantic Council, told AFP that he does not think Russian media was givenÂ âspecific orders by the Kremlin about how to cover Catalonia.â