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

Fake News Konzept, shutterstock/​pedrosek

Im Rahmen unseres Pro­jek­tes „Öst­li­che Part­ner­schaft 2.0“ ver­öf­fent­li­chen wir eine dritte Arti­kel­reihe über die drei EU-Asso­­­zi­ie­­­rungs­­­­­staa­­ten. Die Autoren aus der Region (Mikheil Benidze, Volodymyr Yermo­lenko, Victor Gotisan) ana­ly­sie­ren die Auswir­kung der Russi­schen Soft power (fake news, Medi­en­pro­pa­ganda und Infor­ma­ti­ons­krieg) in der Ukraine, Georgien und Moldau aus zivil­ge­sell­schaft­li­cher Perspektive.

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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