The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How fake news helped shape the Catalonia independence vote

What's happening in Spain and how did we get here? (Video: The Washington Post)

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. But something about this latest push was different, according to Spanish journalist Clara Jimenez Cruz. Cruz is a reporter with Maldito Bulo, aimed at debunking falsehoods 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 “fake news.” She said, too, that she's never seen 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 in recent years. “With 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,” Cruz told me in an email.

Spain threatens to take over Catalonia’s government as constitutional crisis looms

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; and a story of a 6-year-old boy paralyzed by police brutality.

Other fake news stories claimed that photos from a 2012 miners strike in Madrid actually depicted pro-independence Catalans 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.

“We've had to be specially watchful with images depicting supposed victims of the police and the civil guard on the first of October,” Cruz told me. Some, she said, “turned 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.”

Cruz said she also saw people sharing fake tweets from politicians and lots of videos of alleged tanks deployed in Catalonia. She noted, too: “We 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.”

The myth of massive support for independence in Catalonia

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 “definitive evidence” that Russia was involved. And Ben Nimmo,* an information defense fellow at the Atlantic Council, told AFP that he does not think Russian media was given “specific orders by the Kremlin about how to cover Catalonia.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article inaccurately characterized how often Cruz and her team were seeing pictures "from the past which had no relation whatsoever with the voting." It has been corrected. In an earlier version of this article, Ben Nimmo's name was misspelled.