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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