I had an interesting time on twitter recently, having expressed a strong opinion on the Catalan UDI. I have tried to remain balanced in my interpretation of the situation in Catalonia, although it is clear that there is now a huge polarisation of views and beliefs, both between Catalans and Spanish and within Catalonia.
So why express an intemperate view in the first place? And on twitter, which has been called a ‘dumping ground for emotion’.
Well, I have become increasingly aware of what appears to be a social media campaign of support for Catalan independence going on. It is carried on in English and seems to be focused specifically at non-Iberians. Nothing wrong with that, as long as it isn’t a campaign of deliberate misinformation, something one is alive to rather more than formerly after the revelations about the U.S. election.
One aspect seems to be denunciations of Madrid and PM Rajoy, or anyone who doesn’t support secession, as quasi-fascists, and comparisons with Franco. Now there are people alive today who suffered under Franco and still much unhappiness about that period and the way wrongs have not, many believe, been righted, so this is a very emotive issue. In my part of Spain, one simply doesn’t discuss Franco, unless you know someone very well, so I found this unusual. Maybe they’re the younger generation, the second since the end of the Franco, I thought and aren’t so reluctant to do so. But still, the modern Spanish state is most certainly a democracy (they almost had three General Elections in one twelve month period) and however unacceptable the violent actions of the Guardia Civil in Catalonia on 1st October, this was not the brutal repression and summary execution common under the late, unlamented general.
Then I came across a recent report from Reporters Without Borders (an organisation which sometimes works with English PEN) which suggests active participation from Catalan officials in a concerted campaign to target foreigners to ensure they see things the way the separatists want them to be seen ( see RSF Report ). There is bias from certain Spanish TV stations and newspapers which support the central government as well, the Report acknowledges, though not the individual intimidation which is complained of in Catalonia. Nor the cyberbullying.
This is when I began to look more closely and carried out an experiment of my own. It was completely unscientific.
First I responded to a tweet which called on people to support Catalonian independence and likened Rajoy to a dictator who should be removed from office (I can’t give you the actual text as I have since been blocked from seeing the account of the person who tweeted, but it seemed to be from a Scottish individual). I countered with a call to support the Spanish constitution and the opinion that Puigdemont should be removed from office, as greedy, law-breaking and irresponsible, using the hashtag #CataloniaIndependence (a very popular hashtag). This prompted three ‘likes’ and a couple of challenges, one of which told me that I knew nothing, Spain wasn’t a democracy, but a dictatorship (tongue in cheek, I thought). But that was all. Okay, I wouldn’t expect too many replies, who am I after all?
But what if a British media out-let was included? So, I tweeted in response to a Channel4 News tweet that I thought the Declaration of Independence was irresponsible and lacked legitimacy. I also added that more Catalans wanted to remain than to leave ( which, in retrospect I regret because it wasn’t supported by incontrovertible evidence and just prompted long threads saying that I was wrong and they knew better – actually no one knows one way or the other ).
This was when, as a friend who was caught up in it says, ‘It went berserk.’
This tweet drew an immediate and impassioned response and, at least at first, almost all in English. Many were supposedly from Catalans. Now nationalist sentiment runs deep and emotions are easily stirred, so I expected some of the responses, but what was interesting was the high number of responses citing fascism and Franco (one even claiming that the Spanish constitution had been drawn up by Franco, another that Franco ruled the Spanish state ). I also received these from British people, many, though not all, Scots. One Scot suggested that Spain had never really been a democracy at all, it was ‘just smoke’.
Spanish speakers also responded but much later in the discussion.
The ‘likes’ were overwhelmingly from separatist supporters, though there were others supporting union. I replied directly i.e. outside the main thread, to many and, in several instances, we ended up agreeing, or at least agreeing to disagree, in a civilised fashion. But most were interested only in saying how wrong I was. Eventually, in the main thread, people began arguing one with another and my original comment was forgotten (though the arguing went on for days and tended towards capital letters and exclamation marks). There were over 18,000 impressions of my tweet and 550 engagements. This is, of course, an indication of just what a hot news story this is.
What does this suggest? Nothing definitive. Perhaps the age and education of the separatists predisposes them to use social media and in English, whereas the unionists are less keen users (older, not confident in English). But it does tell me that there are some (British) folk out there who are seriously misinformed – things which seem to have passed them by include the democracy in power in Spain since 1978 and the highly devolved nature of that democracy. It also suggests that separatists are quick to accuse people of being fascists. This fits with what I’ve been told by individuals living in Barcelona.
Is this a concerted effort? I cannot say that it is, I don’t have definitive evidence. Whether or not it is organised, encouraged or otherwise, the separatists have, however, got themselves an amateur quick response rebuttal unit online and active in the English-speaking world.
Does it matter? Not now, Rajoy has got the support of the EU leaders and no country recognises Catalonia as an independent state. But what if the crisis drags on? What if public opinion, especially abroad, becomes more important? Then such a thing might be useful.