Distrust, fear and hate: The drivers of Spain’s 23J campaign

By: Valeria de la Fuente and Krystalle Pinilla

21 July 2023

This Dispatch is available in Spanish.


Glossary

23J – common shorthand to refer to the snap general election in Spain on 23 July 2023

28M – common shorthand to refer to the municipal and regional elections in Spain on 28 May 2023

ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna) – Basque nationalist and far-left terrorist organisation that announced “definitive cease” of activity in 2011 and dissolved completely in 2018. Splinter of a non-violent group founded in 1959, ETA conducted its first terrorist attack in 1968. During its activity, ETA ended the life of 853 people, injured thousands and kidnapped 79.

Movimiento Sumar (SMR) – Sumar (translates to add up) coalition: Leftist, progressive party founded in 2023 as a splinter of Unidas Podemos. Former member of Unidas Podemos Yolanda Diaz is the party leader and currently serving as second deputy prime minister since 2021 and minister of social economy of the Government of Spain since 2020.

“Only yes means yes” law – Sexual consent law; approved on 7 October 2022 to regulate sexual consent and guarantee sexual freedom in Spain. Unidas Podemos’ leader and Equality Minister, Irene Montero, promoted this law to permit the prosecution of sexual aggressions without needing to prove that the aggressor used violence and/or intimidation – which often led to sexual aggression being sentenced as sexual abuse due to the lack of sufficient evidence, incurring a lower sentence. This law eliminates the criminal of sexual abuse and only recognises sexual aggression, but also provides a wider range of sentence times. Lawyers have used these changes to request the reduction of prison time for convicted sexual aggressors in agreement with the new sentence orders. At the time of writing, this law has triggered the reduction in sentences of over a thousand convicted sex offenders and permitted 117 to be released from prison.

Partido Popular (PP) – People’s Party: Conservative party self-defined as the “reformist centre.” One of the predominant parties in Spain’s post-Franco democracy. Alberto Núñez Feijóo is the party’s current leader.

Partido Socialista (PSOE) – Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party: Social-democratic party with the longest governing history in Spain. One of the predominant parties in Spain’s post-Franco democracy. Pedro Sánchez is the party’s leader and current Prime Minister of Spain.

Unidas Podemos – United We Can: Democratic Socialist alliance formed by Podemos and Izquierda Unida and other left-wing parties in 2016, currently led by Irene Montero (minister of Equality). Unidas Podemos announced it will not run for elections in 23J, however many of its members have joined Movimiento Sumar’s list for elections.

VOX Far-right party that upholds ultraconservative and ultra-nationalist ideology. Santiago Abascal, former member of PP, has been the party leader since 2014.

Key findings

In the run-up to the 23J general election in Spain:

  • Politicians have tailored campaign messaging, knowingly or unknowingly, to appeal to already high levels of civilian distrust in political parties (90% distrust), government (73%), and the media (70%)— all at higher rates than the EU average— by using defamatory accusations against the credibility of official institutions and fearmongering narratives (e.g. accusing two parties of intending to lead a Jan. 6-style US insurrection if they don’t win on Sunday).
  • All parties have engaged in inflammatory rhetoric in line with similar ‘culture war’ trends ISD has seen in other elections around the world – weaponising LGBTQ+ rights, feminism, climate change and immigration— eroding any remnant of non-partisan consensus on these issues.
  • A range of election fraud narratives have spread across online forums. One of them – claims the government is interfering in Spain’s public mail service to restrict vote-by-mail delivery – has become mainstream in political debate after it was amplified by political figures on the right. On the fringe, posts claiming that the new historical memory law, granting citizenship to descendants of Spanish exiles, was only approved to usher in votes for leftist parties.
  • Advocacy groups, fringe online communities and even some elected politicians in Spain are introducing extremist viewpoints and conspiracy theories such as the ‘Great Replacement’, paedophile accusations against the LGBTQ+ community and the ‘groomer’ slur—all witnessed in other Western democracies. None of these narratives have so far achieved mainstream cut-through.
  • When analysing online activity, politicians and advocacy groups were the worst offenders when it came to incorporating polarising messaging, disregarding the well-known dangers in undermining the country’s media, electoral integrity and democratic institutions.

 

Introduction

In an unexpected turn of events, Spain is heading to the polls for a snap general election this Sunday, 23 July— four months earlier than originally intended. During this 16-day campaign, politicians across the aisle have openly exploited public concerns and attempted to interweave well-known extremist narratives for political gain. The uniquely high levels of distrust in Spain toward political parties and the media, 90% and 70% respectively, have created space for disinformation and extremist narratives. This is seemingly rewarding the use of sensationalist and sometimes extremist messaging by the media and politicians, as well as advocacy groups, who all compete for public attention. The campaign leading up to 23J has been full of conspiracies claiming voter fraud, allegations of anti-LGBTQ+, anti-feminist and extremist stances across the political aisle, and even accusations of a January 6-style insurrection against the Spanish parliament if two of the parties were to lose.

ISD set out to identify where extremist messaging and disinformation were being deployed, both on the offline political stage and online, and who was relying on these tactics. ISD examined the Twitter, Instagram, and Telegram accounts of key politicians, media outlets, political influencers, advocacy groups and fringe online communities to identify extremist messaging and disinformation deployed during the period from 12 May to 18 July. This period was chosen to search through content from the 16-day campaign prior to local and regional elections on 28 May and through 18 July, when opinion poll reporting ended for the 23 July election. Additionally, Brandwatch was used to analyse tweets mentioning the slogan-term ‘Txapote’. We found that media, politicians and advocacy groups were the worst offenders when it came to incorporating polarising messaging, disregarding the well-known dangers in undermining the country’s media, electoral integrity and democratic institutions.

These narratives, legitimised by the politicians that use them and the media that give them platforms, have made space for even more extremist viewpoints, conspiracy theories anti-government rhetoric. In one notable case, an elected official in Balearic Islands who just became president of the regional Parliament wrote an essay for a local paper titled ‘the Great Replacement’, sharing the title and talking points of the known transnational white supremacist conspiracy theory. ISD has also observed how advocacy groups such as Desokupa, Hazte Oír and internationally-oriented CitizenGo, have propagated aggressive, sometimes extremist, messaging to their combined audience of over 482K followers on Instagram, Twitter and Telegram.

Thus far, Spanish political communities active online appear to be resilient to these groups’ messaging, engaging only at low levels with online content and instead challenging these views as ‘intolerable’ in comments. Yet, there is no way to measure how this messaging resonates among those that ‘like’ or merely follow their content. The reality is that, just like in other countries, mis- and disinformation and extreme views can become more palatable with time and repetition.

As politicians continue to question the credibility of their rivals, as well as the media and government institutions, Spaniards may further seek non-partisan or so-called ‘independent’ journalism. In the short-term, this 23 July, with 1 in 5 voters undecided before opinion reporting closed, results will tell which party’s strategy paid off. However only time will tell the long-term implications of making distrust, fear, and hate the central themes of Spain’s 23J campaign.

Distrust among the Spanish public – consistent and higher than the EU average

The Spanish public’s distrust towards democratic institutions is consistent across all government branches, and alarmingly high compared to its EU counterparts. According to the Eurobarometer Standard 98 survey released in March 2023, 90% of the Spanish population distrusts political parties (15% higher than the EU average) and 73% distrust the government (10% higher than the EU average). Another Eurobarometer survey from January 2023 revealed that the Spanish public has low confidence in the independence of the national justice system, with 51% reporting not trusting it (9% higher than the EU average).

The media does not evoke confidence among the Spanish population either: 70% of the public distrusts the media and 78% report often finding misleading or fake news (12% and 9% higher than the EU average respectively). The Spanish public reports a higher degree of concern about the existence of fake and misleading news than its EU counterparts, with 83% considering it a serious problem, while also reporting that they feel less capable of identifying such content.

As trust in institutions is a key pillar of any democracy, these figures should be cause for alarm in Spain. Yet, it appears that rebuilding trust has not been central to political party campaigning in this upcoming election. Instead, they have often capitalised on these concerns – accusing the media of being biased, the judicial system of lacking independence and the government of deliberately providing misleading data. This rhetoric has not only failed to regain the trust of the public but has further entrenched and legitimised distrust.

Election Context

After almost four years of a coalition government between the left-wing Socialist Workers’ party (PSOE) and leftist Unidas Podemos, Spaniards went to the polls for regularly scheduled local and regional (in 12 of 17 regions) elections on 28 May (28M). The conservative People’s Party made huge gains at local levels and won in six of PSOE’s 10-held regions. For many, this seemed to foreshadow the results of the November general elections. Pedro Sánchez, the country’s incumbent prime minister and president of the ruling PSOE party, responded by dissolving the country’s Parliament and called for an early general election on 23 July (23J).

Since then, a flurry of defamatory between the two main leftist (ruling PSOE, and new-left Sumar) and rightist parties (PP and far-right VOX) have taken centre stage, distasteful billboards have gone up – and been ordered to be taken down – in Madrid (See image 1), and parties on both sides have spread fearmongering narratives about possible coalitions with former terrorists, separatist parties or the ‘ultra right’. Specifically, the mainstream parties (PP and PSOE):

  • liberal PSOE with Sumar, the new left-wing alliance and/or smaller parties (left-wing, pro-independence party ERC or controversial EH Bildu, or centrist, nationalist PNV);
  • conservative PP with far-right VOX.

Image 1. Billboard by far-right Vox reading “Decide what matters” and a hand with a Spain bracelet throwing flags representing feminism, LGBTQ+ rights, Communism, the EU’s 2030 Agenda, and Catalan separatism, into a bin.

Following similar ‘culture war’ trends ISD sees in other elections around the world, climate change, immigration policies, nationalist movements and LGBTQ+ rights have been weaponised in political conversation. Additionally, parties, advocacy groups and the media, are bringing back long-settled topics such as debates on the terrorist group ETA, reviving fears and divisions. The media, despite being accused of lying by politicians, give those same politicians airtime which they use to amplify bombastic phrasing and messaging, as seen in the one and only debate between party leaders Sánchez and PP’s Alberto Núñez Feijóo. The Spanish public is a mere spectator to it all.

 

Image 2: Instagram screenshot from anonymous journalist with 838K following on Instagram, 43K Telegram and 43.6K on Twitter following the debate. In the final paragraph they say: “I don’t know about you, but I am watching how the two political leaders who, apparently, are in the lead for 23-J and are competing for the presidency of our country for the next four years, have sat down only to vomit data accompanied by figures that the viewer cannot check simultaneously.

Distrust, fear and hate

In the run up to 23J we have observed actors on all sides target concerns around climate agendas, the Okupa (squatters) movement, feminism, LGBTQ+ rights and more.

The far-right party, VOX, has also exploited concerns around immigration, separatist movements, and progressive agendas that promote LGBTQ+ rights, feminism and climate action. VOX blatantly showcased this messaging in one billboard in Madrid (See image 1), photos of which continue to circulate online despite the physical version being taken down after 10 days. This strategy of driving online virality with ads has been used by VOX in previous elections (See image 3).

Image 3. Image shared by VOX in the run-up to the 2019 elections with a caption that read: “Let the battle begin.”

Conservative PP has also capitalised on distrust, accusing Sánchez of curtailing the independence of the justice system, discrediting public institutions, and calling the PSOE leader “authoritarian and extremist.” They have accused the current government of white-washing and legitimising defunct terrorist organisation ETA and reducing the sentences of sexual aggressors (see Feminism, below). Aware of the reservations around far-right policies, the PP is asking voters to think about a “useful vote”— voting for PP so it gets as close as possible to the 176 of 350 seats required for a majority to allow for the party to rule alone, or to have enough leverage to secure that majority with VOX if needed without having to commit to the party’s more controversial far-right policies.

Left-wing parties seem to also use the public’s distrust of institutions for their gain. PM Sánchez accused the Spanish media of being conservative leaning and advancing an agenda against him and his party (and one mainstream outlet’s lead presenter responded to the accusation: “trumpism in its pure state”). Left-wing, populist Unidas Podemos, junior member of the governing coalition, accused the long-esteemed Center for Sociological Investigations (CIS) of negatively manipulating projection polls against them. This accusation brought back concerns about the independence of CIS, which is headed by a former member of PSOE. In addition, left-wing parties— PSOE, Unidas Podemos and Sumar— are repeatedly urging voters against a coalition that may include VOX, aiming to capture conservative PP voters who may reject some of VOX’s more extreme stances. The left campaign has framed the current elections as a defining moment for diversity, equality and inclusion. However, in doing so, they have indirectly declared LGBTQ+ rights, feminism, and climate action as exclusively their cause, and votes against them are framed as votes against those causes (see image 4).

Image 4: PSOE spokesperson Patxi Lopez: “On 23J you have a lot of reasons to vote. I ask that you vote for you. Because your vote is for the battle against machista violence, climate change or to defend pensions. And to stop those who are against all of those things. Vote in self-defence. Vote for you.”

 

Image 5. Billboard financed by PSOE stating that a vote for their party is a vote to move forward, while a vote for the right (image of Vox’s Santiago Abascal and Iván Espinosa de los Monteros, and PP’s Alberto Núñez Feijóo ) is a vote to move backwards [to the past, referencing repeals of abortion rights, legal euthanasia, etc.].

Sánchez has increasingly based his campaign on “anti-Trumpism”, telling voters that a vote for him is aligning Spain with US President Biden and that a vote for the PP is aligning the country with Trump. He has also used the case of January 6th as an analogy of the direction Spain could take if the conservative right takes hold of the country. During a public appearance two days after calling the snap election, he warned that if the opposition parties, PP and VOX, were to lose the elections they would claim there was electoral fraud and incite an “assault to the Capitol,” as their “idols” in the US did. Other PSOE members have made similar claims (see images 6 and 7) days before the election and have been retweeted by colleagues. While VOX did receive support from former US president Trump, PP has repeatedly criticised Trump’s politics role in the Capitol riot. Thus far, there is no evidence of PP or VOX organising mass demonstrations or promoting the use of violence, making these accusations baseless, divisive and incendiary.

Image 6 and 7. (Left) PSOE spokesman tweeted, “If PP and VOX lose the elections, will they assault Congress like Trump or Bolsonaro? Feijóo pretends to be moderate but he is acting like an anti-system radical.” and shared a link to an article that features him and his thoughts. (Right) It was retweeted by Ander Gil (PSOE), President of the Spanish Senate. Source.

 

Additionally, the President of the Spanish Senate, Ander Gil (PSOE), shared an article that included a statement falsely attributed to the EU President, Ursula von der Leyen (who later shared a press communication denying the statement). The PP party used this as an example to say PSOE amplifies fake news (see image 8).

Image 8. Facebook post by PP: “The fact that the European Commission had to come out to contradict the president of the Senate for spreading lies 5 days before the elections is not antisanchismo…it’s reality.” PP reposted Ander Gil’s claims that Von der Leyer said Feijóo was a man “with no ideas coming to dismantle the government, along a post by the European The PP post also included the EU Commission’s spokeperson Dana Spinant sharing the response: “We deny any claims attributed to president von der Leyen in that article. That is simply not true and we would like to make it clear. A reaction from the European Commission was never requested to publish this article.”

Election fraud narratives

Accusations of election fraud, referred to as ‘pucherazo’, were launched by rightist candidates in the run-up to the 28M. In the campaign for 23J, fear of voter fraud or government intervention in the distribution of vote-by-mail ballots has been widespread.  Sánchez and his party have attempted to add additional distrust to the situation by claiming a Jan. 6-style insurrection led by PP and VOX if they don’t win. These narratives have been repeated by respective party members and highly covered by media in the last two weeks.

Like many conspiracies, the vote-by-mail narrative started from a genuine concern around Correos, the public postal system’s capacity to deliver an unprecedent number of votes (2.6M, 2.5x more than in 2019) during the summer vacation period. Although the mailing system affirmed they would undergo an “unprecedented” mass hire to ensure all votes were delivered and cover thousands of workers who were set to be on holiday, the narrative has evolved to accuse PM Sánchez of deliberately limiting resources and leveraging his friendship with the Director of to restrict vote delivery (see images 9, 10, and 11).

In one campaign rally, PP’s candidate Feijóo fed into these claims when he urged postal workers to do all in their power to deliver the millions of votes that had been requested by mail, “independently of their bosses [wishes]” so that “Spaniards can vote.” After this rally, the unfortunate wording was propelled to the headlines of most mainstream and smaller , amplified by other PP and VOX figures, and investigated by right-leaning reporters.

Image 9. Tweet: “Crazy to think that Sánchez could organize pucherazo? They already caught him in Ferraz adding a fake ballot box behind the curtains and adding votes himself. He wanted to win no matter what. They expelled him in 2016 from the PSOE Executive because of this pucherazo.”

Image 10. Tweet: “Vote in person on 23J, we can’t rely on mail voting when the mailing system president is Juan Manuel Serrano, handpicked by and close friend of Sánchez , and when the President of the Electoral Board is Menendez Perez, who belongs to the leftist association of Judges for Democracy and is known in the Supreme Court because of his sectarianism.”

 

Image 11. Telegram user: “The places with higher % of mail voting collapse are, precisely, the areas where PSOE can lose more votes: Madrid, Tarragona, Baleares, Sevilla, Malaga, and Murcia. It’s all a coincidence.”

Early in the 23J campaign, another viral claim made its rounds on Telegram channels and Twitter accounts regarding voters living abroad, known as CERA (census for absent residents abroad). A Telegram channel with over 206.9 K subscribers baselessly claimed that there had been a 700% rise in CERA votes in the autonomous region of Madrid with similar trends in other big cities. This user implied that these votes would benefit the left as they had been requested in Colombia, Venezuela and Argentina. He further claims that conferring citizenship to descendants of exiled Spanish citizens was part of a scheme by the Socialist Party to get more votes (see images 12 and 13). The fact that the CERA provided by this Telegram channels is inaccurate did not stop these claims from spreading across different Telegram channels and other social media platforms.

Image 12. Tweet: “Pucherazo on the road” 700% increase in CERA votes in Madrid, from Cuba, Venezuela…” with a caption of the telegram channel.

Image 13 . Telegram user: “Here you have the charts with the provinces that have sent most CERA votes for the 23J elections, the countries where they were sent, and the two percetage columns that add ‘Transparent Elections,’ there is something surprising: “CERA Vote in Madrid surpasses that of 10N 2019 from 48,047 to 337,205 for 23J. We are talking about an increase of almost 700%. Madrid is not the only case, we see similar ratios in Barcelona and Valencia. If we pay attention to the countries of origin for CERA voters, Argentina, Cuba and Venezuela are at the top. Let’s remember that the Historic Memory Law granted citizenship to grandchildren and descendats of exiled Spanish citizens. Was that law passed to prepare a potential “pucherazo”? Here are the numbers, Yours are the conclusions.”

Equality and feminism

Another issue that has proven central to public debate and vulnerable to misinformation has been feminism and women’s rights. On 8 March, cities around Spain celebrated International Women’s Day with competing rallies, a clear reflection of the divergences the feminist movement is experiencing in the country. Last year’s passage of the “Only yes means yes” law (see Glossary above) that triggered the reduction in sentences of over a thousand convicted sex offenders, and allowed for 117 to be released from prison, as well as divided opinions on trans rights and banning prostitution, has led to a prominent split.

Policies around gendered violence, equality and abortion in Spain have long been polarising topics. The new Sumar alliance (made up of remnants of smaller local and regional parties and Unidas Podemos – with the exclusion of controversial Irene Montero) promises to uphold “feminist policies”. Sumar’s decision to leave out Montero, who has been serving as the country’s Equality Minister and is deeply unpopular among the right for her role in the “Only yes means yes” law, was seen as a political move to bring in more centrist voters.

During this year’s campaigns, left-wing parties have accused right-wing parties of “machismo”. Sánchez has specifically attacked Feijóo, reprimanding the PP for past and future agreements or coalitions with VOX. The party has previously opposed the use of the term ‘gender-based violence’ for murders of women that associate these crimes with machismo, as it suggests social inequalities between men and women. VOX argues that using the phrase ‘gender-based violence’ or ‘machista violence’ is politically divisive and instead opts for homicide, domestic violence or intrafamily violence.

Meanwhile in the Balearic Islands, where VOX is now part of coalition government with PP, the equality council (and climate change council) has been closed down. Regional equality councils often tasked with tracking the so-called “feminist policies”, which tracking the murder of women and girls would fall under. During debates and interviews, both VOX and PP have pushed back on accusations of being machista by bringing up the consequences of the “Only yes means yes”.

This debate has divided the Spanish public. On 17 July, Javier “Patxi” Lopez, a member of the Congress of Deputies from the PSOE party, tweeted (see image 4 above): “On 23J you have a lot of reasons to vote. I ask that you vote for you. Because your vote is for the battle against machista violence, climate change or to defend pensions. And to stop those who are against all of those things. Vote in self-defence. Vote for you.” This discourse suggests that a vote against PSOE is a vote for machista violence. In response, PP has defended their acknowledgement of machista violence, and instead urges all parties and the public to “stop fighting over this.”

Image 14. Tweet by media outlet Onda Cero: Santiago Abascal on machista violence. “They must think we want to tie women up to the leg of the bed” [referring to keeping women tied at home].

Image 15. Tweet by media outlet Europa Press: “Feijóo shows his discomfort about the accusations PP is receiving of not acknowledging machista violence: “That’s another consequence of a party’s fear because they know they are losing and they need to instill fear in citizens.”

Anti-LGBTQ+ activity

The LGBTQ+ community fell into the centre of a bitter political debate when the snap election was called during Pride month.

The display of the Pride flag outside of public offices has become a point of contention. In late June 2023, a new regional coalition led by VOX rejected petitions to hang the LGBTQ+ flag outside of the Balearic Parliament. VOX’s Gabriel Le Senne, the new Balearic Parliamentary president, has been documented saying that Spain’s low birth rate can be blamed in part due to “LGBTQ+ indoctrination.” VOX has repeatedly referred to the LGBTQ+ community as a “totalitarian lobby”, demanding the flag not be hung on public property on the basis that the constitution states that only “official flags” should be hung there. In Extremadura (Mérida), VOX’s Francisco Piñol demanded for the LGBTQ+ flag to be taken down from the City Council building, calling it the “paedophile” flag. VOX’s regional leader considered Piñol’s word choice to be an “error” saying that his party “absolutely respects” any sexual orientation.

Back in Madrid, however, the PP lit up its headquarters with emblematic Pride colours in June. The City and autonomous community (Community of Madrid), governed by the PP with an absolute majority, lit up the the city council building and the central Cibeles fountain with pride colours. Catholic groups have openly opposed both PSOE and PP’s tolerance for the LGBTQ+ flag and their alleged failure to defend “values”. Hazte Oír (the organisation behind international CitizenGo), which previously came on ISD’s radar for its participation in a global network of ultra-conservative organisations attempting to curb the rights of women and sexual minorities, posted on Twitter and Instagram rejecting “LGBT totalitarianism” and saying that LGBTQ+ colours are “hiding” communism (see images 17 and 18). Hazte Oír claims they are “protecting family values” and set out a voters guide where PP received a “mild” endorsement and VOX received a “good” rating (see image 18).

Image 16. “independent” journalist Vito Quiles shares a sticker “23J vote” with the pride colours and writes: “Then they say the LGBTQ community is nonpartisan and they are defending homosexuals. No, they only defend the left and it is their way of imposing their ideology.” This hints at the “lobby” narrative.

Image 17: Screenshot of post from Hazte Oír crossing out the LGBTQ+ colours: “We will end with LGBTQ totalianarism sooner or later. Long life family!” Some comments challenged the post asking if they would inflict death on LGBTQ+ families. Others commented celebrating the organisation and praising the family concept “instilled by God.”

Image 18: Screenshot of post from Hazte Oír: “Communism is what the LGBTQ colours hide.” Comments debated various stances around the post.

Image 19. Hazte Oír tweet: Our voters guide for the upcoming elections”. The chart analyses the performance of Sumar, PSOE, PP, and VOX (left to right) on 1) Right to life, 2) Family protection, 3) Ending ideological indoctrination, 4) Right to freedom, 5) Tax reduction, 6) Spain’s unity.

The country’s new ‘transgender law’, which makes Spain one of the first in the EU to allow for people to self-define their gender, has also been part of the election campaign. Both the PP and VOX have said they will challenge this law in the country’s Supreme Court.  During Pride month, we also found instances of the ‘groomer’ slur entering into online conversation. In posts fact-checked by Maldita.es, users attempted to associate the LGBTQ+ community with paedophilia through altered images (see image 20). In another case, Gabriel Rufián, Congress member for the regional party ERC (Republican left of Catalonia) shared on Twitter, hate he was receiving on Instagram after advocacy group Desokupa (See advocacy groups below) shared an image of him celebrating Pride 2023 (see image 21). Rufián wrote on Twitter: “You’ll always have me here, Nazis.”

 

Image 20. Tweet sharing a fake image. In the original photo the shirt didn’t have a written message.

Image 21: Gabriel Rufián, Congress member for the regional party ERC (Republican left of Catalonia) responds to an Instagram post from advocacy group Desokupa (See advocacy groups below). In the post from Desokupa, they share an image of Rufián at Pride 2023 in Catalonia with the caption “What some will do to get some more votes… @garbeilrufian is now “Rufinita”, which is great, but you seriously came out of the closet before elections… Well nothing big guy, we still love you no matter what you are hot stuff!” Rufián took screenshots of the comments and shared them on Twitter: “Like this since yesterday. Homophobia and threats. Their hate is our pride. You’ll always have me here, Nazis.”

Weaponisation of immigration

The rhetoric around immigration in Spain overlaps similar talking points and trends to those observed by ISD in other European countries. The ‘Great Replacement’ conspiracy theory, for example, is being shared by some fringe online users and even an elected official in Spain. Online users claim that the government, political parties, and the media are at the service of global elites, and argue that vaccines, LGBTQ+ rights, and climate action are part of their imposed agenda (see images 22 and 23). Le Senne, VOX’s parliamentary president in the Balearic Islands, wrote an article for a local paper titled “The Great Replacement” in which he uses the theory to explain a drop in White population in the UK and Europe due to Black immigrants from Africa, and blames a decrease in the US on Latin-American immigrants. He then says that in Spain between Black and Latin-American immigrants, “it’s not clear how this will end up.” More specific to Spain, there are two trends that have become particularly acute in this election campaign.

Image 22. Twitter post accusing all political parties of being at the service of the “International Jews”.

Image 23. A Twitter post about the debate between PP and PSOE: “What debate? I asked, if BOTH are at the service of pharmaceutical multi corporations and the 2030 agenda? The entire debate is rigged, FARCE.”

Firstly, the use of mis- and disinformation about immigration has become more prominent and mainstream in debates and campaign ads. VOX has been the most active party on the debate about immigration, including by using misleading data to argue that immigrants are being giving financial perks over Spanish nationals (see image 24). This anti-immigration rhetoric almost exclusively targets Arab migrants, particularly unaccompanied minors emigrating from North Africa, often referred to as ‘MENAs’. Since the war began in Ukraine, VOX has distinguished between Ukrainian refugees, who should be welcomed, and “fighting age men” of Muslim origin who come to Europe to “invade and colonise.”

Image 24. VOX campaign billboard during the Madrid elections in 2021 that reads: “One MENA 4,700 euros per month. Your grandmother, 426 euros from her retirement.”

A recent example is the far right’s framing of the French riots through the lens of immigration, saying that it’s an example of the failures of multiculturalism and the implications of open immigration policies. They’ve gone to say it contrasts the upheaval in France to the “stability” of countries that are less permissive of immigration, like Poland or Hungary (see images 25 and 26).

 

 

Images 25 and 26. (Left) Tweet from a right-wing journalist: “This video is gold. A country tolerant of illegal immigration (France) vs. a country with safe borders (Poland). Share!”. The video in this post was initially shared by Poland’s PM Mateusz Morawiecki on Twitter, and shows contrasting images of protests in France and aerials of Polish cities and streets: “Our plan is a Europe of Secure Borders – security and public order – there are the values from which everything begins.

 

In addition, figures on the right often highlight the nationality of criminal offenders, particularly sexual offenders, to heighten fears toward immigrants and immigration. In some cases, these narratives go so far as to lie about the nationality of the perpetrator. In a recent case, some online figures falsely claimed that a male from North Africa was responsible for the murder of a woman in Madrid, even though the perpetrator was born and raised in Spain (image 27). VOX’s Abascal also amplified this claim through his Twitter account (image 28). Abascal and others who spread these claims, such as the group Desokupa, are currently under investigation for a potential hate crime.

Image 27. A right-wing journalist posted on Twitter: “A criminal who has a criminal record is killed in a police persecution, and Europe burns [referring to the French riots]. A working woman is murdered by a Maghreb [North African man] and not even the feminists condemn it.”

Image 28. Tweet by VOX’s leader, Santiago Abascal: Neither Sánchez, nor his vice president will remember this woman. There won’t be minutes of silence, headlines, or special programs… Only VOX will remember there are Spaniards suffering the nonsense migration enabled by all parties” and shared a link to a news article claiming the perpetrator was allegedly a Magreb man. The tweet was later deleted.

Reviving the fear of terrorism

This election campaign is bringing back into the mainstream of political debate the four decades of security threats and terrorism by ETA. Even though only 1% of the Spanish public are concerned with terrorism today, politicians have made it one of the main talking points in the lead up to 23J, reviving a painful conflict that the public had long ago put to rest.

This debate started after PSOE reached a number of agreements with Basque separatist parties to pass legislation. VOX has been the most active in criticising the left for giving legitimacy and influence to what they deem the “political arm” of the inactive terrorist organisation. In the lead up to 28M, right-wing figures and victims of ETA attacks questioned the separatist coalition EH Bildu’s decision to include 44 former terrorists (7 convicted murderers) as candidates in the elections. Soon the debate evolved from questioning the “ethics” of their participation in politics, to accusing the government of being accomplices of terrorism. This resulted in an inflammatory and desensitised debate that some said disregarded victims and revived tensions.

The best representation of this revival can be seen in the trivial use of a slogan by the right against the left which reads “Que te vote Txapote” meaning “Let Txapote vote for you.” Txapote refers to one of ETA’s former leaders, a notorious criminal currently serving a prison sentence for the murder of 13 people, including two PP politicians. Although the slogan has been widely used by some PP and VOX members, on social media and in pop culture, it’s use has been condemned by families of ETA terrorists. Even after several victims condemned its use for political purposes and its disregard for their pain, the slogan continued to spread, taking on a life of its own as a humorous political statement. It has been shared across social media, chanted at social events, and even put on t-shirts (see image 29). During the investigation period, ‘Txapote’, ‘Que te vote Txapote’ and ‘QuetevoteTxapote’ had a total of 64.34K mentions on Twitter alone, with a reach of 940.7M. According to an AI-assisted quantitative analysis of these mentions via Brandwatch, the mentions analysed mostly denounced the slogan for disrespecting victims and trivialising terrorism, and criticising Feijóo for not speaking out against it.

Image 29. Quiles quote tweets himself celebrating “We did it! SO GOOD” to an initial message that bet that if he got over 3K retweets before 9:00 p.m. he would create shirts with the “summer slogan: Que te vote Txapote!”

Image 30. Quiles tweets an image of himself wearing a ‘Que te vote Txapote’ t-shirt and writes: “23 happening very soon and a lot of you have ordered your t-shirt to go vote. Don’t miss it, get it here: [link to selling site]”.

Image 31. Quiles shares a meme comparing the media’s nonchalant reaction (“the same old”) to a Basque man saying in Euskera (Basque language); ‘Gora Eta’ (Long live military ETA).

Fringe advocacy groups

Conspiracy theories found in other Western democracies have seeped into Spain, visible in some politicians’ platforms as we’ve seen throughout this investigation, and also identifiable in non-partisan, fringe online conversations.

The Desokupa movement has been particularly active during this election campaign, receiving a lot of attention due to its billboard in Madrid with messaging about sending Sánchez to Morocco [referring to immigration flows], and to stop being a squatter of Moncloa [the PM’s residence] (image 32). Although the group was originally created in opposition to okupas (squatters), it has grown to incorporate anti-immigration, anti-multiculturalism, and aporophobia (discrimination towards the poor) sentiments. The leader of this movement, who has 102.5K followers on Twitter and 262K on Instagram, has expressed he does not identify with a particular political group, but instead takes the side of “his country and the Spanish population” (see image 33). Quiles has shown close ties to Desokupa often sharing posts mentioning them and has even wore a shirt from them during a press conference with ERC’s Rufián.

Image 32. Billboard that reads: “You [PM Sánchez] go to Morocco. Desokupa [Stop squatting] the Moncloa [the PM’s residence]”

Image 33. In an interview, the leader of Desokupa says he doesn’t identify with a particular party but with himself and says that if they give him a Ministry he would “clean this country in three days and have two left.”

Image 34. Desokupa leader defends Spain still has time to prepare for events like the French riots and says if something similar happens in Spain “he will be one of the organisers of the street army even if he has to die in the street defending his country.”

Ultra-catholic organisation, Hazte Oír, previously mentioned for its anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric, has approached the campaign with clear messaging against the two mainstream parties, equating the PP and PSOE as “two sides of the same coin” and asking to “vote for values” (see images 35 and 36).

Image 35. Hazte Oír bus that reads: “Sánchez-Feijóo: Two sides of the same coin?” and shows the symbols and colors form Agenda 2030.

Image 36. Hazte Oír Instagram post of PM Sánchez (PSOE) and Feijóo (PP)

It is important to note that these conspiracy theories remain mostly fringe phenomena and are not getting the same traction in Spain as they do in other countries.

Conclusion

While disagreements are inherent in politics, and even more so in Spain’s young multi-party system, the narratives widespread in this year’s campaigns are indicative of broader democratic and political polarisation. This buildup of inflammatory anti-Sanchismo (anti-Sánchez, term used to refer to rejecting all left-wing policies under Sánchez) and anti-right wing rhetoric mixed with widespread distrust has created a lack of shared reality, where the Spanish public may feel like nothing is factual and everything is an opinion.

Political figures and the media should be aware of the implications of normalising and amplifying distrust, fear and hate. Other countries such as the US, France and Australia, have witnessed the consequences of these tactics. When the public distrusts information provided by institutions, and doesn’t identify with the parties at play, they are more likely to become disenfranchised with official institutions and look for “independent” information elsewhere. Furthermore, the Spanish public will seek their news elsewhere— this can be from non-outlet affiliated groups that mix opinion with reporting such as es.decirdiario, Willytolerdoo and wallstreetwolverine, which alone have a combined following of 1.42M on Instagram and 767.7K Twitter. Self-described “independent” journalist Alvise Pérez appeared heavily throughout our investigation and is active to his 765.4K combined followers on Instagram, Twitter and Telegram. More journalists in this vein may become popular as institutional distrust deepens in Spain.

Political parties, especially the two mainstream ones, PSOE and PP,— that alone are projected to garner 61.3% of the vote this weekend— should have the responsibility to instill trust in the government and in a free media environment. As political parties with more polarising policy stances join coalitions, whether at local, regional or national level, there is a possibility of giving more exposure to dangerous extremist narratives that have created environments for violence in other countries. As always, tech companies bear some responsibility for the health of the online electoral environment. Given that 43% of the Spanish public reports that they get their news from social media every day, ensuring the ‘news’ content they consume is free from election disinformation, and false allegations about political candidates, is crucial. The media must also do more to fill in gaps or fact-check comments responsibly to aid in rebuilding a healthy information ecosystem. Otherwise, Spaniards will be left in the dark as to who they can trust.