Fake news fu­els Cat­alo­nia in­de­pen­dence ten­sion

Oman Daily Observer - - FRONT PAGE - ADRIEN VI­CENTE

Footage from a five-year-old min­ers’ strike, a paral­ysed young boy and woman’s bro­ken fin­gers: im­ages swarm­ing Span­ish so­cial me­dia dur­ing the Cat­alo­nia in­de­pen­dence cri­sis have one thing in com­mon. They all are fake news. Mis­lead­ing news re­ports, of­ten about vi­o­lence in­volv­ing po­lice, and par­ti­san me­dia cov­er­age have fu­elled ten­sions as each side seeks to in­flu­ence the out­come of Spain’s toxic po­lit­i­cal cri­sis. One photo of a woman whose fin­gers were al­legedly bro­ken by po­lice to stop her from vot­ing dur­ing a banned in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum in Cat­alo­nia on Oc­to­ber 1 was widely dis­trib­uted on so­cial me­dia.

She later told Cata­lan tele­vi­sion that doc­tors had only di­ag­nosed swollen car­ti­lage in her hand.

Other widely-cir­cu­lated re­ports said that a po­lice­man sent to Cat­alo­nia to block the plebiscite had died while on as­sign­ment, and that a six-yearold boy had been paral­ysed by po­lice bru­tal­ity.

All were false. “We have never seen this in Spain un­til now,” Clara Jimenez, a jour­nal­ist in charge of a pop­u­lar Twit­ter ac­count called “Maldito Bulo”, or “Damned Hoax”, which ver­i­fies sto­ries that cir­cu­late on­line, said.

She said the flood of fake sto­ries started a few days be­fore the ref­er­en­dum, which was marred by po­lice vi­o­lence. The bo­gus re­ports, shared widely on­line, form part of the global phe­nom­e­non of “fake news”, with Rus­sia in par­tic­u­lar be­ing blamed for spread­ing mis­in­for­ma­tion in a bid to in­flu­ence pol­i­tics.

Cat­alo­nia’s sep­a­ratist gov­ern­ment went ahead with the Oc­to­ber 1 vote even though a judge had or­dered po­lice to close polling sta­tions and seize bal­lot boxes to stop it from hap­pen­ing.

Im­ages of in­jured vot­ers — real and fake — then cir­cu­lated around the world.

Many of the peo­ple al­legedly hurt by po­lice were really pic­tured from dif­fer­ent demon­stra­tions in other places. Some of the mis­lead­ing im­ages came from a min­ers’ strike in the north­ern re­gion of As­turias five years ago, ac­cord­ing to an in­ves­ti­ga­tion by pri­vate TV sta­tion La Sexta. The emo­tional de­bate over Cat­alo­nia’s push to split from Spain, which has deeply di­vided the coun­try and the re­gion it­self, is the “per­fect breed­ing ground for fake news,” said Jimenez. “Peo­ple see what they want to see and they be­lieve it. They don’t doubt it be­cause feel­ings are in­volved.”

The Cata­lan gov­ern­ment said nearly 900 peo­ple had re­ceived “med­i­cal at­ten­tion” on the day of the ref­er­en­dum. This fig­ure was trans­lated by some Cata­lan sep­a­ratists into “nearly 900 in­jured.”

Spain’s cen­tral gov­ern­ment re­jected fig­ure, point­ing out that two days after that the ref­er­en­dum only two peo­ple were still in hos­pi­tal.

“Any­one who was struck was counted as in­jured,” said Gabriel Colome, po­lit­i­cal sci­ence lec­turer at Barcelona’s Au­ton­o­mous Univer­sity.

“It is ob­vi­ous that (the sep­a­ratists) wanted those pho­tos of vi­o­lence,” he added. “Since you have won the me­dia bat­tle, you can say it was over 800, no one will ques­tion it. It is a post-truth bat­tle, lit­er­ally.”

AFP tried on the day of the ref­er­en­dum to ver­ify the sta­tus of the in­jured. Cata­lan health of­fi­cials would only say that there were 92 “con­firmed in­juries”, in­clud­ing two se­ri­ously in­jured. The po­lice crack­down against the ref­er­en­dum has also been cov­ered rad­i­cally dif­fer­ently by Span­ish state tele­vi­sion and Cat­alo­nia re­gional TV.

“Span­ish tele­vi­sion and Cata­lan tele­vi­sion seem like dif­fer­ent worlds,” said Univer­sity of Sala­manca com­mu­ni­ca­tions pro­fes­sor Car­los Ar­cila.

On Oc­to­ber 1 TV3, which de­pends on the Cata­lan gov­ern­ment, opened its main news­cast with state­ments from Span­ish gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials hail­ing the “pro­fes­sion­al­ism” of se­cu­rity forces — fol­lowed by im­ages of po­lice beat­ing would-be vot­ers. On Span­ish public tele­vi­sion TVE the im­ages of po­lice vi­o­lence did not make the nightly news.

TVE jour­nal­ists in Cat­alo­nia is­sued a state­ment con­demn­ing what they called “cen­sor­ship of the facts”. Daily El Pais, which is highly crit­i­cal of Cata­lan sep­a­ratists, re­ported that Rus­sian state­backed news or­gan­i­sa­tions like RT and Sputnik were “us­ing the Cata­lan cri­sis as a way to deepen di­vi­sions within Europe.”

Span­ish For­eign Min­is­ter Al­fonso Dastis said he did not have “de­fin­i­tive ev­i­dence” of “such an in­ter­fer­ence”. Ben Nimmo, an information de­fence fel­low at the At­lantic Coun­cil, a think-tank, said he does not think Rus­sian me­dia had “spe­cific or­ders by the Krem­lin about how to cover Cat­alo­nia.”

The Span­ish lan­guage ser­vice of RT was “more bal­anced” while “Sputnik chose to follow the stand­ing or­ders to make the west look bad and chaotic”, he said.

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