Catalonia and the UK: Worrying Trends in the Age of Disinformation

The Catalan crisis may not at first seem to have much to do with the UK. But in an age of ‘Fake News’ and with the growing power of public opinion over due process we should be very concerned by what events there might mean for us. The crisis also raises key questions about democracy, the rule of law, and the growing malign influence of foreign powers which, accompanied by questionable media coverage make it a worrying herald of things to come for the UK.

In recent weeks, we have seen a relative de-escalation in the crisis.  Protests in Catalonia have quietened down and numerous senior figures from the independence movement are currently in prison (or on bail) facing charges of rebellion, sedition, and misuse of public funds. Regional ex-leader Carles Puigdemont and a few other ex-ministers, who are in Brussels in an attempt to avoid the Spanish courts, still try to stir the pot by proposing (and retracting) ideas such as a referendum on whether Catalonia should remain or leave the EU. But for the most part, people seem to be waiting for the regional snap elections on the 21st of December that will either diffuse or re-spark the ongoing crisis.

The Catalan independence movement has carried out countless irrefutably illegal actions yet many in the UK either fail to recognise this or perceive it only as a secondary concern. Instead, many see a romantic picture of the oppressed against the oppressor. But in doing so they are often sacrificing informed opinion for impressions and feelings based at best on little evidence. Some MP’s such as Labour’s Chris Bryant and the Conservative’s Sir Greg Knight have raised this issue, criticising the BBC’s coverage of the Catalan crisis as “irresponsible and inaccurate”. But this problem is not limited to just the BBC, much of the UK media and public have fallen into the same trap, in what is becoming a worrying trend both of misinformation and of fading support for the democratic necessity for the rule of law.


Uninformed Opinions and Fake News shaping UK public opinion

At first sight, the independence narrative with its images of huge pro-independence crowds and police violence is a compelling one for all of us in the UK. Yet as we scratch beneath the surface of this portrayal, the role of fake news in both our traditional and social media becomes apparent. The clearest example being the many fake images of police violence shared on the day of the illegal referendum, often depicting violence carried out by Catalan not national police from previous years. There were real incidents and images of police violence, and these deserve full and unreserved condemnation, but the proportionality and quantity of those cases have been warped by inaccurate reporting.

Media sources across the UK reported 900 injured that day. Yet this was an unverified figure released by the Catalan independence movement itself which in fact included those who weren’t even present on the streets but reported “anxiety” at seeing the images of the violence of which we know many to be fake. The number of injured that required hospitalisation was 4. In Peter Preston’s (former Editor of the Guardian) own words, the fact that the UK media were so quick to cite these figures and happy to put serious journalistic rigour to one side : “has done journalism no favours”. Decline in UK media coverage of foreign affairs is not new. A BFPG report published earlier this year highlighted that the number of foreign correspondents for UK media sources was down 80% between 1979 and 2009. Not only has this trend not done journalism any favours, it has also led to a less informed UK public.

More and more we turn to informal online news and social media to find our news, and in doing so, we read and hear more and more uninformed and misinformed voices. The misinformation can stem from honest mistakes or it can be deliberate. Around Catalonia, Russian media has been the most active of all, unsurprisingly siding with the disruptor to great impact. The sum of RT and Sputnik News posts on the Catalan crisis have had more influence and interaction on social media than CNN or the Guardian, and more remarkably, more than major Spanish newspapers such as El Mundo or La Vanguardia. In these cases it is not genuine but misled public support that drives this influence.  87% of profiles that shared RT and Sputnik stories on Catalonia can be defined as “fake, automatized, or activated and controlled by a superior authority”. 

Public engagement on foreign policy is extremely positive, but if it is based on misinformation, it can also be highly dangerous. This is why an evidence-led approach by those who seek to inform the UK public on foreign affairs is more important than ever. By providing a platform that amplifies informed opinion on UK foreign policy, the BFPG aims to counter these problems that we face with regards to how we are informed about foreign affairs and how this impacts us in the UK. Ultimately though, it will also require the broader UK public to acknowledge these risks and make a conscious effort to avoid the often-tempting traps offered by fake news.

Catalonia and ‘Global Britain’

In the case of the Catalan crisis, this misinformation has strengthened a narrative that devalues a fundamental cornerstone of modern democracy – the rule of law. In his inaugural ‘Global Britain’ speech, Boris Johnson talked about “democracy in retreat across the world” and said that if the West ‘fails’, “the rules and institutions we have so painstakingly built will fade away into irrelevance”. He was probably not thinking of Catalonia, but the independence movement has rejected the rule of law and consequently led a fast-track retreat of democracy in the region. If we in the UK accept that the rule of law in Spain should be secondary to the will of a large group of Spanish people, it will only strengthen the same argument in our own country. The same argument the Daily Mail used to brand UK judges “enemies of the people” who “defied 17.4m voters” simply for following and enforcing UK law.

None of this means we cannot and should not also speak out about the other issues surrounding the crisis, whether it be the historic failings of the Spanish government in dealing with Catalan nationalism, the corruption scandals of the governing Popular Party, or the use of heavy police action on the day of the illegal referendum. But for all the reasons stated above we, the UK, should not be silent and look the other way when witnessing the Catalonian independence movement’s consistent affront to democracy and the supremacy of the rule of law.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the BFPG. The BFPG is an independent not for profit organisation that encourages constructive, informed and considered opinions without taking an institutional position on any issue.
Edward Elliott

Edward Elliott is a Senior Associate at the British Foreign Policy Group.