Bri­tain and Spain: Rus­sian en­ti­ties med­dled in elec­tions

The Mercury News - - News - By Wil­liam Booth and Michael Birn­baum

LON­DON >> In a re­mark­able one-two punch aimed at Rus­sian hack­ers, bots and trolls, the prime min­is­ters of Bri­tain and Spain have sep­a­rately ac­cused Rus­sian en­ti­ties — in­clud­ing some al­legedly sup­ported by the state — of med­dling in European elec­tions and have vowed to foil them.

Span­ish Prime Min­is­ter Mar­i­ano Ra­joy said Tues­day that an “avalanche” of bots spread “fake news” about Spain dur­ing Cat­alo­nia’s in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum last month and that Span­ish au­thor­i­ties think that more than half of the orig­i­nat­ing ac­counts are in Rus­sian ter­ri­tory.

Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May on Mon­day night charged that Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin’s Rus­sia was at­tempt­ing to “un­der­mine free so­ci­eties” and “sow dis­cord” in Bri­tain and among its Western al­lies by “de­ploy­ing its state-run me­dia or­ga­ni­za­tions to plant fake sto­ries.”

“So I have a very sim­ple mes­sage for Rus­sia,” May said. “We know what you are do­ing. And you will not suc­ceed.”

The al­le­ga­tions lev­eled by May and Ra­joy stand in stark con­trast to re­marks made over the week­end by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, who ap­peared to de­fend the Rus­sian pres­i­dent.

“He said he didn’t med­dle,” Trump said Satur­day, an­swer­ing re­porters’ ques­tions on Air Force One about grow­ing ev­i­dence of Rus­sia’s in­volve­ment in the 2016 U.S. pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. “I asked him again. You can only ask so many times . ... He said he ab­so­lutely did not med­dle in our elec­tion. He did not do what they are say­ing he did.”

Trump said he be­lieved Putin was “sin­cere” in his de­nials and that the Rus­sian pres­i­dent even felt in­sulted by the ac­cu­sa­tion.

Rus­sian of­fi­cials re­sponded to the state­ments from Lon­don and Madrid by call­ing them un­sub­stan­ti­ated, hyp­o­crit­i­cal and in keep­ing with a “blame Rus­sia first” ethos in the West.

In their re­marks, nei­ther Ra­joy nor May pro­vided much ev­i­dence to sup­port their ac­cu­sa­tions, al­though both coun­tries have de­ployed their se­cu­rity ser­vices to in­ves­ti­gate the al­leged ped­dling of fake news.

“We learned that 55 per­cent of those fake pro­files were in Rus­sia,” Ra­joy told the Cope ra­dio net­work on Tues­day, dis­cussing so­cial avatars and ac­counts. “And an ad­di­tional 30 per­cent in Venezuela. This has hap­pened with Brexit [and] in the French elec­tions with Le Pen” — a ref­er­ence to the na­tion­al­ist party leader who lost a pres­i­den­tial runoff vote to Em­manuel Macron in May.

Ra­joy said he had no in­for­ma­tion that the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment was be­hind the false ac­counts.

Span­ish au­thor­i­ties have said that Rus­sian users falsely linked im­ages of vi­o­lence to the con­tro­ver­sial ref­er­en­dum and am­pli­fied news ac­counts from state-backed Rus­sian me­dia out­lets that stoked sep­a­ratism.

Cata­lan pro-in­de­pen­dence ad­vo­cates deny that Rus­sian bots played a sig­nif­i­cant role in bol­ster­ing their cause.

Pre­lim­i­nary in­ves­ti­ga­tions by a Span­ish me­dia out­let found that so­cial me­dia at the time of the un­con­sti­tu­tional ref­er­en­dum were awash in fake news and un­re­lated im­ages cir­cu­lated by both sides — pro-in­de­pen­dence ac­tivists and those op­posed to se­ces­sion from Spain.

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