As Catalonians gear up for Sunday’s independence referendum – a vote that will not be recognized by Madrid, and may yet be canceled altogether – a new, surprising figure has emerged as the primary spokesman for Catalan independence: Julian Assange.
The WikiLeaks founder, and current tenant of the Ecuadorian embassy in London, has come out forcefully in favor of breaking Catalonia off from the rest of Spain. Where Assange had previously remained largely silent on the issue of Catalonian secession, he has, over just the past two weeks, unleashed approximately 100 tweets on the topic to his 400,000 followers.
Assange is, of course, neither Catalonian nor Spanish, and it remains unclear what Catalans’ independence push has to do with Assange’s prior work pertaining to privacy and information security. But that didn’t stop him from kick-starting his own campaign for Catalonian independence on Sept. 9, when Assange tweeted out a photo (in both English and Catalan) comparing the issue of Catalonian secession with, bizarrely, the Tiananmen Square protests, the latter of which not only had nothing to do with secession but also saw hundreds of protesters, if not more, killed by Chinese authorities.
Spain, this will not work in Catalonia. The Catalan people have a right to self-determination. Arrests only unify and strengthen them. pic.twitter.com/mRYBdRroHz
— Julian Assange 🔹 (@JulianAssange) September 9, 2017
In the time since, Assange has only picked up the pace of plugging support for Catalonia’s secession movement. Despite the fact that he claimed he has “no position on independence itself,” Assange has referred to Madrid as a “banana monarchy,” with the planned referendum forcing “the Spanish deep state … to surface.” He has also compared the situation between Catalonia and Spain to one of “an occupying power against a liberation struggle.”
Assange’s support, mirroring his prior statements on geopolitical developments, has also veered into the bizarre and conspiratorial. To wit, Assange has claimed that “Spain may block all internet!” in pursuit of clamping down on the vote. For good measure, Assange has also flirted with pushing violence in the region. Despite saying he wasn’t “encouraging” non-peaceful means of protest, Assange added that “non-violence … has a limit” and that Catalonia’s “[one million] fit men” are “a force which if rallied vastly eclipses the available capacities of Spain’s police & army as police.”
On its face, Assange may appear to be another celebrity simply lending their name to an international cause they’ve just stumbled upon, following in the footsteps of Yoko Ono and Peter Gabriel. However, Assange has used the Catalonia referendum to not only stake the campaign as the “next great battle in cryptography,” but to condemn Spanish coverage of the referendum – all while plugging coverage from Russian propaganda outlets like RT.
Catalonia's vote to secede from Spain on Oct 1 will reveal the true nature of power. Already El País and ABC have become a torrent of lies.
— Julian Assange 🔹 (@JulianAssange) September 12, 2017
Assange’s transformation into the leading voice of Catalonian independence hasn’t gone unnoticed in the Spanish press. Over the weekend, the country’s flagship El País newspaper offered a detailed social media analysis of Assange’s reach, as well as the Twitter bots and sock-puppet accounts helping promote pro-secession messaging. The paper pointed to Assange’s role alongside a “legion of bots” to “turn a lie into a trend shared millions of times.”
El País’s analysis, which further highlights pro-secession material on a raft of conspiracy sites, cites the “machinery of Russian interference” helping prop the pro-secession campaign, adding that “Assange has become … the main international agitator of the Catalan crisis, spreading opinions and half-truths as if they were news.”
While no Russian actors have claimed responsibility for the bots and sock-puppet accounts focused on fracturing Spain, the campaign fits a broader trend of Kremlin-linked organizations and individuals supplying support for Western secession movements. Not only would Catalonian secession immediately raise questions about EU or NATO membership, but Catalonian independence advocates are among those who’ve flown to Moscow to meet with a group that, as of 2016, received Kremlin funding to help network Western separatist groups. This group, the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia, issued a statement last week supporting the secession push, comparing Catalonia to Crimea – the latter of which continues to be widely regarded in the international community as a constituent part of Ukraine.
Among the other secessionist groups who’ve traveled to Russia include those from California, who opened a “California embassy” in Moscow earlier this year, and Texas. A pro-Texas secession Facebook page, which had gathered a quarter-million followers and organized separatist rallies across the state last November, was recently shuttered in a rollback of fake accounts linked to Russian actors. (Calling for secession remains illegal in Russia.)
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) April 5, 2016
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) July 23, 2014
As it is, Assange’s conversion into a bullhorn for Catalan independence has only distracted from Madrid’s heavy-handed response to Barcelona’s push for a referendum. Despite the fact that no previous Catalonian independence referenda, of which there have been multiple over the past few years, has resulted in majority support for statehood, the Spanish government’s response to the latest vote push – which includes arresting a number of senior Catalan officials and a notable influx of police – risks tipping the balance in favor of outright secession.
The referendum, despite Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s statement that he’ll do “whatever is needed” to prevent the vote, remains scheduled for next Sunday, with heated rhetoric only continuing to rise in both Barcelona and Madrid.
In the interim, Assange has only continued pushing support for voting on Catalonian independence – and announcing that he’d like to see California vote on secession next.