The prime

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY WIL­LIAM BOOTH AND MICHAEL BIRNBAUM

min­is­ters of Bri­tain and Spain sep­a­rately ac­cused Rus­sian en­ti­ties of med­dling in Euro­pean elec­tions.

london — In a re­mark­able onetwo 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 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

“I have a very sim­ple mes­sage for Rus­sia. We know what you are do­ing. And you will not suc­ceed.” Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May, ad­dress­ing con­cerns en­ti­ties based in Rus­sia are dis­sem­i­nat­ing mis­lead­ing in­for­ma­tion on­line to un­der­mine Western in­sti­tu­tions

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.

“What is clear is that there are peo­ple who may be in­ter­ested in things not go­ing well in Europe,” Ra­joy said.

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.

May’s con­dem­na­tion of Rus­sia, in a speech to busi­ness lead­ers at an an­nual London ban­quet, re­flected her gov­ern­ment’s con­cern that Rus­sia con­tin­ues to ma­nip­u­late so­cial me­dia, ef­forts that “in­cluded med­dling in elec­tions and hack­ing the Dan­ish Min­istry of De­fense and the Bun­destag, among many oth­ers,” the prime min­is­ter said.

“The U.K. will do what is nec­es­sary to pro­tect our­selves, and work with our al­lies to do like­wise,” May said.

Yin Yin Lu of the Ox­ford In­ter­net In­sti­tute told the Times of London that 54 ac­counts on a list of 2,752 linked by Twit­ter to the In­ter­net Re­search Agency had tweeted about “Brexit,” Bri­tain’s planned exit from the Euro­pean Union. The In­ter­net Re­search Agency is a shad­owy cy­berspace op­er­a­tion, based in St. Peters­burg, that U.S. and some Rus­sian in­ves­ti­ga­tors say has ties to the Krem­lin.

May’s remarks ap­peared to con­tra­dict her for­eign sec­re­tary, Boris John­son. Asked ear­lier this month whether he sus­pected that Rus­sia played a role in re­cent Bri­tish elec­tions, John­son an­swered: “No, I haven’t seen any [ev­i­dence], not a sausage. . . . As far as I know they have played no role,” ac­cord­ing to the Reuters news agency.

In Spain, some seem­ingly au­to­mated Twit­ter ac­counts do ap­pear to have tweeted news sto­ries about the ref­er­en­dum from Sputnik and RT (for­merly Rus­sia Today), two Krem­lin-backed news or­ga­ni­za­tions that of­ten pro­mote nar­ra­tives about the sup­posed weak­ness of Western in­sti­tu­tions.

Javier Le­saca, a vis­it­ing scholar at Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity’s School of Me­dia and Pub­lic Af­fairs, wrote Sun­day in Spain’s El País news­pa­per that many of the 65 Twit­ter ac­counts he stud­ied that were shar­ing RT and Sputnik sto­ries on Twit­ter ap­peared to be au­to­mated bots.

Span­ish For­eign Min­is­ter Al­fonso Dastis, asked Mon­day in Brus­sels whether his gov­ern­ment had ev­i­dence to back up its ac­cu­sa­tions, said, “Yes, we have proof,” Reuters re­ported. Dastis did not of­fer specifics be­yond the fig­ures Ra­joy cited.

Lead­ers out­side Spain have been cau­tious in their as­sess­ments of the sit­u­a­tion.

The Euro­pean Union’s top diplo­mat, Fed­er­ica Mogherini, and NATO Sec­re­tary Gen­eral Jens Stoltenberg de­clined to com­ment Mon­day when asked about pos­si­ble Rus­sian med­dling in the Cata­lan in­de­pen­dence ef­fort.

Last week, the top mil­i­tary of­fi­cial in the NATO de­fense al­liance, Supreme Al­lied Com­man­der Cur­tis Sca­parrotti, said that Rus­sia had been try­ing to in­flu­ence Western po­lit­i­cal sys­tems, but he did not di­rectly ad­dress the sit­u­a­tion in Cat­alo­nia when asked about it.

A se­nior Rus­sian law­maker on Tues­day called May’s com­ments “base­less ac­cu­sa­tions” against Rus­sia. “In nor­mal life, peo­ple are held re­spon­si­ble for slan­der and mud­sling­ing, but there is the ‘Rus­sians-did-it’ pre­sump­tion of mod­ern diplo­macy,” the chair­man of the for­eign af­fairs com­mit­tee of the up­per house of Rus­sia’s par­lia­ment, Konstantin Kosachev, wrote on Face­book. “Why bother giv­ing any facts or proof?”

An­other Rus­sian sen­a­tor also dis­missed May’s charges.

“The world order that pleases May, with the seizure of Iraq, war in Libya, the rise of IS and ter­ror­ism in Europe, has out­lived it­self,” Alexei Pushkov tweeted, us­ing a ref­er­ence to the Is­lamic State. “You can­not save it by at­tack­ing Rus­sia.” Birnbaum re­ported from Brus­sels. Pamela Rolfe in Madrid con­trib­uted to this re­port.

LUKE MAC­GRE­GOR/BLOOMBERG NEWS

Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May ad­dresses the an­nual Lord Mayor’s Ban­quet at the Guild­hall in the square-mile fi­nan­cial district of the City of London on Mon­day.

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