Britain and Spain: Russian entities meddled in elections
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.