Propaganda and the Catalonia Referendum

The laziness of journalists is legendary. Especially these days, when the line between journalist and propagandist has been blurred, the many ways in which these scribblers take shortcuts and otherwise seek to make their jobs less strenuous have been greatly increased. While outright plagiarism used to be the favored method, with the advance of technology this has become much easier to detect, and so the self-indulgent scribe has moved on to other, less obvious shortcuts. The substitution of opinion for the reporting of facts is one way to fill up a page, and, in tandem with this, the adoption of a formula is now a mainstay of “mainstream” journalism. This is unashamedly borrowed from those writers of pure fiction who labor in the fields of various sub-literate genres – say, pornography – and must churn out large quantities of product in order to pay the rent. Saddled with a limited imagination, and pressed for time, these third-and –fourth-rate wordsmiths have only to latch on to the time-honored scripts which have been created by their more inventive predecessors: with the plot-lines mapped out in advance, all they have to do is fill in the blanks (background, character names) and – voila! – the job is done.

In our degenerated era, the rules for fiction and nonfiction are the same: one simply has to follow the formula. In its “journalistic” incarnation, the formulaic model has flourished in the era of the new cold war: one simply has to attribute any and all political phenomena that challenge the status quo to the supposedly all-pervasive and semi-omnipotent influence of the Russians.

As one of my Twitter followers put it: “How did they ever lose the cold war?”

From Brexit to the victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, everything the Establishment disapproves of is credited to – or, rather, blamed on – the Kremlin, and specifically the Machiavellian figure of Vladimir Putin, whose demonic genius bestrides the world. Add to this the advance of technology, and the “Putin did it” formula is ready to be deployed by the Powers That Be and their journalistic camarilla.

A classic example of the genre is a recent piece by one David Alandete, the managing editor of Spain’s “liberal” nationalist daily, El Pais, who writes:

“The network of fake-news producers that Russia has employed to weaken the United States and the European Union is now operating at full speed on Catalonia, according to detailed analyses of pro-Kremlin websites and social media profiles by this newspaper.

“After undercover campaigns in favor of Brexit and the leader of the French right-wing party National Front, Marine Le Pen, as well as the far-right in Germany, the Kremlin is using the Catalan crisis as a way to deepen divisions within Europe and consolidate its international influence. It appears in the form of websites that publish hoax stories, the activity of activists such as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and a legion of bots – millions of automated social media accounts that can turn lies into trending topics.”

Here is the “Putin-did-it” formula in its chemically pure form. Since there is no real substance in this kind of “reportage,” it’s all about style: the promiscuous use of words and phrases such as “hoax stories” (what stories?) and “lies” (which ones?). Making arbitrary assertions, uttered as if they’re uncontroversial facts, is the essence of this methodology. There is not the slightest effort to prove the premise behind the author’s contention that independence for Catalonia would “weaken the United States and the European Union.” How? What has this got to do with the United States? We are never told. The Catalans have indicated that they would enter the EU (indeed, their economic security would depend on it) – and so why would their independent status “weaken” the Union? Alandete doesn’t bother to ask, let alone answer, these questions.

Instead, the clichés gather like moths around a flame, whirling and fluttering in a veritable cloud of obfuscation. We are told that “it is no coincidence” that the Russian government web site, RT – which has a minuscule readership both in Spain and the US – “has published 42 articles on the crisis in Catalonia with inaccurate headlines such as ‘The European Union will respect the independence of Catalonia but it will have to pass through an adhesion process.’”

While I am not a regular reader of RT, and would not vouch for its reporting in every instance, in this case they are merely echoing mainstream Western media outlets. EU President Jean Claude Juncker has stated that the EU would “respect” the outcome of a “yes” vote in the Catalan referendum, but that the newly independent region would have to apply for EU membership just like any other aspiring member. While Juncker subsequently backtracked a bit by saying the referendum would have to be approved by the Spanish legislature, this hardly validates Alandete’s contention that the Catalan independence movement represents a threat to the EU’s cohesion: indeed, quite the opposite is the case. But then again, accuracy is not Alandete’s concern.

Taking his cues from his American handlers, Alandete has quite the hard-on for Julian Assange, who is described as an agent of the Kremlin as well as “the principal international agitator in the Catalan crisis,” whose agitation has caused pro-Catalan sentiment to “go viral.” We are treated to a tedious account of Assange’s many tweets promoting the Catalan cause, alongside the contention that a good many of Assange’s followers aren’t real people at all but merely Russian-controlled “bots”:

“Messages on social media usually go viral over the course of several days because the act of sharing a message depends on the decision of followers in several countries. But in the case of the tweet from Assange, as with many of his messages on the social media platform, it received 2,000 retweets in an hour and obtained its maximum reach – 12,000 retweets, in less than a day. The fact that the tweet went viral so quickly is evidence of the intervention of bots, or false social media profiles, programmed simply to automatically echo certain messages.”

So where’s the evidence of his bot-heavy following? Well, it looks like some web site called “Twitter Audit” that purports to detect bots claims that more than half of Assange’s followers are “fake” – i.e. bots, presumably personally controlled by Putin. Yet the same site claimed half of Donald Trump’s followers are bots, an assertion debunked by actual Internet experts.  As Philip Bump pointed out in the Washington Post: “That evaluation is both less rigorous than the one used by the researchers in the USC study – and a lot more variable. As of [this] writing, Trump’s Twitter following is estimated to be only 30 percent fake. That’s a lower percentage than, say, @barackobama – or The Washington Post.”

In short, Alandete’s “evidence” that Assange’s pro-Catalonia tweets are being popularized by Russian-controlled “bots” is pure b.s. The founder and voice of WikiLeaks is surely well-known enough to not require such assistance: but in the conspiracist world of Señor Alandete, acknowledging such obvious facts is impermissible. Everything is a Russian plot.

Edward Snowden, another pro-Catalonia tweeter, is another target of Alandete’s obsession with Russian conspiracies. We are told that Snowden “collaborates on a regular basis with Russia’s secret services,” a factoid that can doubtless be verified by Louise Mensch.  And I am also part of this Russian cabal:

“One of Assange’s tweets to have the greatest impact in the last seven days (2,200 retweets and 2,000 likes) included a screenshot and a link to article by a firm ally of the Russian view in the United States – Justin Raimondo, director of the website AntiWar, and an anti-globalization activist who has supported Trump. The article – headlined ‘In Catalonia: A Spanish Tiananmen Square?’ – compared the protests in Barcelona with the Chinese repression in 1989, which lead to the death of hundreds, if not thousands, of people.”

Yes, like myself, those Russians are notorious libertarians – why, I wouldn’t be surprised if, on the morrow, they erected a statue of Murray Rothbard next to Lenin’s tomb! As for being an “anti-globalization activist,” I’m pretty sure that requires dreadlocks, and more than a few tattoos, neither of which comports with my aesthetic model. As for my attitude toward Trump, it can best be described as anti-anti-Trump, but subtlety is apparently beyond Alandete’s purview – nuance and propaganda go together like pickles and ice cream – and so we’ll let that one go.

In any case, this litany of inaccuracies is followed by a quote from my piece, in which I point out the likelihood of the Spanish state using violence to suppress the Catalans – a prediction which, it seems, is already coming to pass even as I write. And while there is no telling what the scale of the violence will be, certainly the smallest incident has the potential to spiral into an outright insurrection. Fourteen Catalan officials have been arrested by the Spanish police, so far, for organizing the referendum: thousands of Spanish soldiers have poured into Catalonia, and they aren’t going there to direct traffic. Ballots have been seized: Internet sites have been closed down. The offices of newspapers and printers involved in the referendum have been raided.

And so the question is raised; what will happen on October 1, the date of the referendum? Is it really out of the question that we’ll see a Catalan Tiananmen Square? Of course it isn’t: indeed, it’s quite likely. Which is why Alandete doesn’t contest what I’ve written: he merely quotes me. And if my prediction comes true, you can bet Alandete will be among the first to justify the murderous actions of the neo-Francoist Spanish state.

Ah, but now we stumble on the dirty little secret of propagandist hacks, whose laziness is a qualification rather than a detriment to their jobs. Alandete writes:

“The definitive proof that those who mobilize the army of pro-Russian bots have chosen to focus on the Catalan independence movement can be seen in the fact that Catalonia has begun to appear in the list of regular topics on social media alongside Syria, Russia, Ukraine, Trump, Hillary Clinton and the so-called Islamic State (ISIS).

“This is reflected by the results of the Hamilton 68 tool developed by the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a project of the German Marshall Fund created in the wake of Russian meddling in the US elections. This tool permanently monitors 600 pro-Kremlin accounts, both real and false. In 48 hours from Wednesday to Friday last week, one of the most-used hashtags employed by these profiles was #Catalonia, behind others including #HerpesHillary and #Trump.

“According to this tool, one of the media outlets most widely shared by these pro-Russian profiles was Antiwar, home to the opinion article comparing Barcelona and Tiananmen.”

“The definitive proof”! Oh, there it is, as revealed by the Alliance for Securing Democracy – an alliance of warmongering neoconservatives, embittered Hillaryites, and a gaggle of European governments with separatist movements on their own soil to contend with.

To begin with, the “Hamilton68 tool” is an elaborate joke: they purport to measure “Russian influence” on the Internet, specifically on social media like Twitter, but refuse to reveal the 600 Twitter accounts they monitor. Not that they have anything to hide, mind you. May we presume that Assange, Snowden, and myself are included among the Seditious 600? Here again we see the utility of the propagandist style, which substitutes assertions for solid facts. One has only to look at the Hamilton “dashboard” to note that these alleged Russian agents are tweeting what the rest of the Twitterverse is tweeting about: the stories that dominate whatever news cycle we’re in.

The pretense of “science” is an essential part of the propaganda: The use of words like “tool,” and the conceit of precision implied by the measurement of arbitrary markers like hashtags, which are often merely topical, is supposed to give the arbitrary pronouncements of hacks like Alandete the gloss of objectivity. Yet to anyone with even a modicum of a critical faculty, this “dashboard” is laughable: right now it’s telling me that the Russians are pushing Trump’s criticism of the NFL knee-benders – because, after all, Putin wants to encourage American patriotism even as he plots to destroy the country.

Why bother with reporting reality when you can go to the “Hamilton68” “dashboard” and get prefabricated “facts” to fit your prejudices? It’s easy, convenient, and practically effortless. Who needs reality when you can invent your own? And that, my dear readers, is the definition of propaganda.

President Trump’s joint press conference with Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, in which he called the cause of Catalan independence “foolish,” is being hailed by the Castilian supremacists as an “unambiguous” declaration of support for a unitary Spain, in the words of Radio Free Europe. However, close observers of Trumpisms will note that, while hailing Spain as a “great country,” and opining that “I’m just for a united Spain, I really think the people of Catalonia would stay with Spain, I think it would be foolish not to,” he did not come out against the holding of referendum. Indeed, he said the independence movement would lose if such were held:

“‘I think the people of Catalonia have been talking about this for a long time.’ Trump said. ‘I’m just for a united Spain,’ he said, adding that if accurate polling were done in the region ‘you’d find out people of Catalonia love their country, they love Spain.’”

Here, I think, Trump is talking to Rajoy, who is standing next to him, as much as to the rest of us. He’s telling him to relax, and maybe don’t call in the tanks on October 1. Can’t you just hear him? “Let them vote – you’re a sure winner! By Christmas you’ll be so sick of winning that you’ll say: ‘Trump, please make it stop!’”

Yeah, just like Luther Strange. So far as I know, Trump has yet to tweet about Catalonia, which means it’s not official, so I’m not sure how seriously to take his remarks. Be that as it may, of one thing we can be sure: if the Catalans do break free, Trump will be hailing Catalonia as “great” and embracing Catalan President Carles Puigdemont just like he’s embracing Roy Moore.

It’s slightly hilarious that Trump, supposedly the biggest Kremlin Tool of them all, is coming out on the other side of the barricades from his Russian puppetmasters. I’m not sure how the “Hamilton dashboard” is going to integrate this counterintuitive development into their “scientific” calculations, but I’m sure the combined genius of Bill Kristol, the Three Mikes (McFaul, Morell, and Rogers), and Jake Sullivan will come up with something.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.

I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).

You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.

Read more by Justin Raimondo

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of Antiwar.com, and a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He is a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and writes a monthly column for Chronicles. He is the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].