Barcelona have released a statement to deny allegations of contracting a company to create social media posts that attack the reputations of its own stars, legends and those in contention for the club presidency online.
SER Catalunya sensationally reported that Barcelona used the services of I3 Ventures to create posts across various Facebook and Twitter pages that protect the reputation of current president Josep Maria Bartomeu and the current board.
However, more shockingly, pages - supposedly under I3 Ventures' control - have also been found to be attacking current players such as Lionel Messi and Gerard Pique, former club greats like Xavi Hernandez and Pep Guardiola and possible future presidential candidates Victor Font and Joan Laporta.
SER Catalunya claims to have had 'access' to two reports prepared by I3 Venture, which detail the 'impact and evolution' of six of their accounts, and a specific 'action plan' against the possibility of Font running for the club presidency in 2021.
One example post from the account 'Alter Sports' - which has 26k Facebook followers - shared by SER shows current Manchester City manager Guardiola behind the wheel of a car, with the caption: "this guy has crashed four luxury cars in four years Manchester, Guardiola doesn't know how to win the Champions League or drive without Messi. Guardiola at the wheel, constant danger."
Other posts criticise defender Pique (often touted as a future club president) for his involvement with the Davis Cup tennis tournament (a frequent hot-button topic) and Messi over his contract renewal. Meanwhile, former stars Xavi and Carles Puyol have also been the subjects of disparaging posts, which appear to seek to generate controversy and foster negative opinion.
Beyond club players, past and present, ex-presidents and possible future rivals for the club's top job in the next elections such as Font, Joan Laporta and Agustí Benedito have been targeted, along with political organisations such as the Catalan movement Tsunami Democratic.
It is alleged that Barcelona paid just under €1m - 'divided into six different invoices' for the services.
Font has called on the board of directors to 'offer an explanation' for the 'extremely worrying' situation, while Benedito, another touted presidential candidate, has confirmed his intention to take legal action against incumbent Bartomeu.
Madrid-based I3 Ventures has since denied working on Barcelona's behalf to discredit certain individuals, calling SER's allegations 'absolutely false'. They also deny authorship of several pages identified in the report - including 'Alter Sports' - while claiming their role is related to 'tracking and monitoring' of social and digital channels.
Barcelona released their own statement, with a five-point response, on Monday afternoon.
It reads: "FC Barcelona flatly denies any relationship and, even more, the contracting of services linked to social network accounts that have spread negative or disparaging messages in relation to any person, entity or organization that has or has had a relationship with the Club.
"1. It strongly denies any relationship and, even more, the contracting of services linked to social network accounts that have spread negative or disparaging messages in relation to any person, entity or organization that has or has had a relationship with the Club.
"2.- I3 Ventures, provider of the Club, has no link to these accounts and, if any type of relationship is demonstrated, the Club would immediately terminate its contractual relationship and take appropriate legal action in defence of its legitimate interests.
"3.- Likewise, FC Barcelona confirms that it has contracted social network monitoring services in order to be aware of both positive and negative messages, of which the Entity is the object.
"4.- With the hiring of these services, the Club ensures to protect and preserve its reputation, as well as that of those linked to the Club (sponsors, players, managers, partners, peñistas ...), to the extent that the protection This reputation is a fundamental element and an indispensable obligation for those who work for the Entity.
"5.- The Club requires the immediate rectification of the information disseminated and reserves the right to take appropriate legal action against those who continue to involve the Club in this type of practice."