How to fight against the misinformation and propaganda that is dividing Catalan society?
During the last two months I have observed closely how Catalan society is tearing apart into two opposing sides. I have worked hundreds of hours walking around Barcelona taking photos and talking politics with a lot of people. Also, I have participated in demonstrations, protests and passionate debates where citizens born in Catalonia, from both sides of the conflict, have argued bitterly with each other.
I have witnessed how the political climate has been polarised during recent weeks. After the October 1st independence referendum and following the images of police brutality against peaceful voters, the debates between Catalans have become more vicious. A more complicated change happened after the massive October 8th demonstration for the unity of Spain, when the opposition to the independence movement took the streets first time in Barcelona.
“You are ‘forced’ to choose sides. There is no middle ground. I have tried to choose my side for years, but now I can’t because I don’t believe in either of them. I’m really frustrated and tired of the whole situation” – stated one Catalan friend of mine with tears in his eyes.
Here in Catalonia, when a debate boils over, you can really taste the hot Mediterranean temperament. Both sides of the conflict accuse each other of being fascists, undemocratic or corrupt. In recent days I’ve witnessed angry shouts, Nazi gestures, tears, frightened faces and even death threats.
The loss of trust and the 21st century information crisis
We are experiencing a new kind of 21st century information crisis here in Catalonia. Every day our mobile phones are bombarded with thousands of homemade propaganda messages where objectivity is buried under manipulation and surrounding noise. The political arguments are based on simplifications of complex issues and half-truths. People seem to no longer be able to critically read the information they are receiving. As they constantly read and hear the same story – filled with Catalan or Spanish nationalistic fury – they come to really believe in it.
I got the impression that many Catalans have lost their trust in the mainstream news networks altogether. It seems that most people trust only the filtered information from channels that blindly support their own points of view. People are force-fed info, shared on Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram, where facts are transformed into tools of disinformation. Opinions are built on disturbing images filled with messages with passionate feelings where the basic understanding of history, democratic rights and the rule of law becomes distorted.
Now, the information crisis has started an information war in Catalonia and the situation is out of control. The social media is infected with propaganda and the gap between the two opposing sides of conflict is widening fast.
Simplified and false accusations
The pro-independent Catalans believe that their democratic rights have been oppressed with violence by the corrupt Spanish government. Some of them have totally lost their trust in the Spanish democracy and the Spanish legal system.
On the other side of the conflict, the unionists feel that their opponents are victims of propaganda fabricated inside the pro-independent organizations and the Catalan Government. They feel that the pro-independence movement is a minority without any legal rights to go forward with secession.
The social media information war is intensifying as the Catalan independence movement is trying desperately to find international support for a dialogue with the Spanish government. Unfortunately the Spanish government and the international institutions state that the crisis is an internal matter of Spain. The situation is blocked and there is no solution in sight.
How to fight propaganda in social media?
As a political researcher and a freedom of information activist, I think there is still a possible solution to unblock the information crisis in Catalonia.
We are facing a new type of information crisis, where the individual citizens have lost the control of access to trusted information.
In my opinion, the right medicine against misinformation and propaganda is to match it with information that is accepted and can be trusted on both sides of the conflict. In this complex crisis of trust, we need a commission of national and international investigators who are able to study the real story behind the crisis in Catalonia. I think we need a kind of transparent 21st century truth and reconciliation commission, where the investigators are recognized experts of political science, history and human rights. The members of the research group should be chosen in an agreement between the Catalan and the Spanish governments.
The both sides of the conflict should also agree to support the end results of the investigators. The politicians and civil organizations in Catalonia should also agree to distribute the research outcomes through their communication networks.
In my opinion a widely accepted, transparent and objective body of research is the only way to fight against the misinformation circulating out of control on the internet. A new type of commission of truth and reconciliation would work as a database for healthy dialogue and help the reunification of the Catalan society in the future.