Russian Pro­pa­ganda Lever­ag­ing Social Media and Coro­n­avirus in Georgia Ahead of Elections

Fake News Konzept, shutterstock/​pedrosek

As part of our project “Eastern Part­ner­ship 2.0” we publish a series of arti­cles about the three EU asso­ci­a­tion states. The authors from the region (Mikheil Benidze, Volodymyr Yer­molenko, Victor Gotisan) analyze the impact of Russian soft power (fake news, media pro­pa­ganda and infor­ma­tion warfare) in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova from a civil society perspective.

Over recent years, Russian inter­fer­ence in the elec­tions and polit­i­cal processes of other coun­tries has become a major topic of dis­cus­sion and concern in the West. In Russia’s imme­di­ate neigh­bour­hood, however, this phe­nom­e­non is nothing new. Evi­dence of the Russian Federation’s hostile atti­tudes towards its sov­er­eign neigh­bours no longer comes as a sur­prise to anyone, given the Kremlin’s record of mil­i­tary aggres­sion, start­ing with its 2008 inva­sion of Georgia and occu­pa­tion of Abk­hazia and Tskhin­vali region fol­lowed by the 2014 annex­a­tion of Crimea and occu­pa­tion of the Donbass region in Ukraine. However, along with direct mil­i­tary action, the Kremlin has been engag­ing in a con­tin­u­ous cam­paign of infor­ma­tion warfare aimed at under­min­ing democ­racy and desta­bil­is­ing the polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion in these coun­tries. Georgia has been a primary target of Russian influ­ence oper­a­tions, the Kremlin’s objec­tives there are deter­ing the process of Euro­pean and NATO inte­gra­tion, thus derail­ing Geor­gian foreign policy, and to increase polit­i­cal polar­i­sa­tion domestically.

As is the case else­where, the Russian pro­pa­ganda cam­paign in Georgia seeks to exploit exist­ing vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties in society. Tra­di­tional values, reli­gion and ter­ri­to­r­ial con­flicts are some of the issues that provide fertile ground for the manip­u­la­tion of public sen­ti­ments in Georgia. To advance its inter­ests, the Russian gov­ern­ment sup­ports various pro-Kremlin actors, such as polit­i­cal parties, media outlets, NGOs, and radical extrem­ist groups, which often act as vehi­cles for spread­ing anti-Western nar­ra­tives. The country’s most influ­en­tial insti­tu­tion – the Geor­gian Ortho­dox Church (GOC), is also subject to sig­nif­i­cant Russian influ­ence, and ortho­dox clergy often serve as sources or ampli­fiers of pro-Russian and anti-Western nar­ra­tives. Not all of these actors have direct and open links with Russia though, and some may act as natural ampli­fiers or “useful idiots”, con­tribut­ing to the overall pro-Kremlin ecosys­tem of soft power and pro­pa­ganda that thrives on con­spir­acy the­o­ries and divi­sive narratives.

A Media Devel­op­ment Foun­da­tion (MDF) study of anti-Western pro­pa­ganda observed that anti-Western nar­ra­tives take a three-tiered approach: sowing fear, instill­ing despair, and offer­ing alter­na­tive solu­tions. Accord­ing to the MDF’s report, anti-Western pro­pa­ganda uses the danger of antag­o­nis­ing Russia, the risk of war and of the loss of ter­ri­to­ries, as well as threat of a loss of iden­tity to promote fears in Geor­gian society. The main mes­sages used to instil despair focus on scep­ti­cism about the will­ing­ness on the part of the EU and NATO to support Georgia and por­tray­als of liberal decline in the West, as well as aiming to fuel mis­trust towards insti­tu­tions and under­min­ing belief in Geor­gian sov­er­eignty. Against this back­drop, direct dia­logue with Russia and polit­i­cal and mil­i­tary neu­tral­ity are offered as a solu­tion for ter­ri­to­r­ial prob­lems and a pro-Russian ori­en­ta­tion pre­sented as a way to protect Geor­gian iden­tity and ensure eco­nomic stability.

In its pro­pa­ganda ecosys­tem, Russia has relied heavily on Face­book – the most popular social network in Georgia. Pro-Kremlin actors have been inten­sively setting up and using social media infra­struc­ture to spread dis­in­for­ma­tion and false news. In the context of its social media mon­i­tor­ing, the Inter­na­tional Society for Fair Elec­tions and Democ­racy (ISFED) – a Geor­gian elec­tion and democ­racy watch­dog –uncov­ered organ­ised net­works on Face­book that oper­ated in a coor­di­nated manner to arti­fi­cially amplify and dis­sem­i­nate content from the pro-Russian outlets News-Front and Sputnik.

News-Front, an overt and aggres­sive vehicle of Russian dis­in­for­ma­tion, was estab­lished in occu­pied Crimea in 2014 and launched in the Geor­gian lan­guage in October 2019, becom­ing engaged in infor­ma­tion oper­a­tions on Face­book shortly there­after. Specif­i­cally, the ISFED’s inves­ti­ga­tion found that “News-Front attempted to insti­gate antag­o­nism and aggres­sion among Geor­gian Face­book users, divid­ing the society, cre­at­ing polit­i­cal polar­iza­tion [...] and employ­ing a range of tactics to spread anti-Western, pro-Russian mes­sages.” As part of its oper­a­tion, News-Front used fake accounts that shared News-Front content in a covert, organ­ised and tar­geted manner to at least 31 open Face­book groups with a com­bined audi­ence of over half a million. Apart from pro­mot­ing anti-Western and pro-Russian content, this network tar­geted both pro-gov­ern­ment and pro-oppo­si­tion Face­book groups “with tai­lored provoca­tive mes­sages which may have served the purpose of divid­ing the society into two camps and trig­ger­ing confrontation”.

It is prob­a­bly no coin­ci­dence that News-Front’s Geor­gian service was launched one year ahead of Georgia’s October 2020 par­lia­men­tary elec­tions. It is highly likely that inau­then­tic Face­book network was being set up to influ­ence pre-elec­tion dis­course and further fuel polar­i­sa­tion in Georgia, where polit­i­cal debate is already very charged. However, the start of the coro­n­avirus pan­demic and sub­se­quent global health crisis pro­vided an oppor­tune moment for News-Front to launch an infor­ma­tion offen­sive in Georgia. News-Front and its Face­book network were quickly mobilised to spread dis­in­for­ma­tion, con­spir­a­cies and anti-Western mes­sages in Georgia. COVID-related Russian dis­in­for­ma­tion in Georgia attempted to distort reality and promote the view that Georgia should dis­tance itself from the West and covertly attacked state insti­tu­tions and mea­sures taken to contain the virus. Once again, Russian dis­in­for­ma­tion attempted to dis­credit the US-sup­ported Richard Lugar Centre for Public Health Research (Lugar Lab) of Georgia’s National Center for Disease Control, accus­ing it of involve­ment in the spread of the virus and under­min­ing trust itsef­forts to combat the coro­n­avirus out­break. Kremlin has long fuelled con­spir­acy the­o­ries relat­ing to Lugar Lab, even accus­ing it of pro­duc­ing bio­log­i­cal weapons. News-Front also exploited the GOC’s reluc­tance to limit church ser­vices and desire to con­tinue the use of a shared spoon in its com­mu­nion ritual despite public fears about the spread of the virus, por­tray­ing the COVID-related restric­tions as an attack on the Ortho­dox Church and Eucharist prac­tice and urged believ­ers to attend church ser­vices to receive com­mu­nion with a shared spoon.

The ISFED also found that, like News-Front, another Russian media outlet, Sputnik, also used fake Face­book accounts to arti­fi­cially amplify content in Georgia. In this case, however, the content being shared was not polit­i­cal but related to a wide range of general-inter­est topics such as tabloid news, fashion, cuisine, tourism, horo­scopes, gar­den­ing, agri­cul­ture, emi­grant com­mu­ni­ties, etc. Com­bined reach of the 11 pages and 41 groups Sputnik used to spread such content was nearly 2 million Face­book users These covert oper­a­tions may have been aimed at estab­lish­ing Sputnik as a reli­able source of infor­ma­tion on various general issues, driving up traffic to its website, and, poten­tially, col­lect­ing the per­sonal data of users by asking website vis­i­tors per­mis­sion to allow noti­fi­ca­tions from Sputnik.

Face­book removed global News-Front infra­struc­ture from its plat­form in April 2020, banning the organ­i­sa­tion from re-estab­lish­ing itself on the network. Fake accounts asso­ci­ated with Sputnik found by ISFED were also removed at around the same time. This may have limited some of the capa­bil­i­ties of the Russian dis­in­for­ma­tion infra­struc­ture on Face­book ahead of Georgia’s par­lia­men­tary elec­tions, however these inves­ti­ga­tions demon­strate that Russia is and will be exploit­ing capa­bil­i­ties of social media to influ­ence public dis­course and elec­tions in Georgia. It appears that indi­vid­u­als related to News-Front are already attempt­ing to estab­lish an alter­na­tive pres­ence on Face­book. However, along­side the outlets that are offi­cially affil­i­ated with the Kremlin, there are numer­ous other “influ­ence assets” on Face­book that are spread­ing divi­sive nar­ra­tives on value-based issues similar to those that Russian pro­pa­ganda has exploited else­where in Europe.

During the 2018 pres­i­den­tial elec­tions in Georgia, the ISFED’s mon­i­tor­ing found 52 Face­book pages that spread nation­al­is­tic, xeno­pho­bic, anti-liberal, homo­pho­bic, Islam­o­pho­bic and anti-Western nar­ra­tives. By 2020, some of those pages had also started oper­at­ing with complex inau­then­tic net­works – a self-pro­claimed “alter­na­tive news source”, Alt-Info, is pushing anti-Western pro­pa­ganda, includ­ing the ideas of Kremlin ide­ol­o­gist Alexandr Dugin, through a coor­di­nated network of Face­book pages and groups. The pro-Russian party Alliance of Patri­ots also seems to be running a coor­di­nated network on Facebook.

Georgia’s 2020 elec­tions rep­re­sent a key mile­stone for the country’s demo­c­ra­tic devel­op­ment and are likely to deter­mine how ambi­tious Georgia will be in pur­su­ing its declared path of demo­c­ra­tic trans­for­ma­tion and Western inte­gra­tion moving forward. There is no doubt that the Kremlin will use all of its soft power and pro­pa­ganda infra­struc­ture to influ­ence these elec­tions and public dis­course. Given the ongoing pan­demic, the already polarised polit­i­cal land­scape and sig­nif­i­cant domes­tic dis­in­for­ma­tion and dis­cred­it­ing cam­paigns that gov­ern­ment proxies and some oppo­si­tion actors are con­duct­ing against one another, the infor­ma­tion envi­ron­ment will be the key chal­lenge of these elec­tions. Han­dling this chal­lenge will be a major test for Georgia’s government.

Mikheil Benidze is current Senior Advisor and former Exec­u­tive Direc­tor at the Inter­na­tional Society for Fair Elec­tions and Democ­racy (ISFED). ISFED is a major elec­tion observer and democ­racy watch­dog in Georgia that has oper­ated since 1995. 

 

 

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