Civil society organisations in Georgia have found themselves to be the last line of defence against Russian and pro-government disinformation. What tools do they have at their disposal?
Recent developments in Georgia have brought the country closer to some other countries of Eastern Europe and the former USSR which are referred to as illiberal or hybrid democracies.
Georgia’s richest oligarch, Bidzina Ivanishvili, remains at the top of the state and places his loyalists in key government positions. He undertakes pervasive attempts to control the independent media and the judiciary, moves which certainly sound familiar to anyone following Eastern European and post-Soviet politics of the last decades.
Another attribute that Georgia shares with deteriorating democracies, is the fact that its public sphere is increasingly flooded with propaganda and disinformation. Growing illiberalism of Georgian domestic politics has given a long-awaited opportunity to omnipresent Russian propaganda and disinformation efforts. Addressing and countering these aggressive influence campaigns, whether they are external or not, has, therefore, become a task for the whole society.
Russian propaganda, an old cold case
As elsewhere, Russia’s disinformation and propaganda campaigns in Georgia operate in line with Russian foreign policy objectives. Just like the Baltic states, Georgia has been a constant target of Russian influence operations since the early 1990s.
However, Georgia also has the unasked privileged to be a testing ground for the much-hyped “hybrid warfare” tactics. In 2008, Russia premiered a combination of non-traditional methods of warfare with more traditional military means during the Russian-Georgian war.
Yet, it was only after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 that Georgians felt the full extent and intensity of its influence operations.
Despite Russian efforts, it appears that Georgia has proved to be rather impervious to the disruptive efforts of its northern neighbour. The country showcases decades of popular support for Euro-Atlantic integration, hovering around 70-80%. In combination with the failure to cause any significant shifts in Georgia’s foreign policy, it is evident that Russia has also failed to improve its image among Georgians.
The latest public opinion poll shows that an overwhelming majority of surveyed Georgians (83 per cent) are still identifying Russia as the country’s greatest political threat, 72 per cent as the main economic threat, while 77 per cent believe that Russian aggression never ceased.
The Kremlin understands the extreme difficulty it has to pose in a credible manner as Georgia’s friend or inspire any game-changing foreign policy shifts. Therefore, it has focused its efforts on exploiting cultural and economic ties, amplifying socially conservative, anti-western and anti-liberal narratives.
The Kremlin portrays “morally decadent” EU and NATO as an existential threat to Georgia’s traditional values. And this appears to be a wise gamble: growing illiberalism and democratic erosion turn out to be a particularly fertile ground for these kind of narratives. In such circumstances, all Kremlin has to do is to encourage, subtly or not, the actors playing their own game.
Facebook’s wake-up call
With almost 2.4 million Facebook users (60 per cent of the countries population) and totalling around 81 per cent of the social media usage in Georgia (while Youtube, Twitter and Instagram all rank below five per cent) it is hard to overstate the significance of this social media platform in the Georgian public sphere.
Hence it felt like an early Christmas present when on 20 of December Facebook announced the first massive takedown of Georgian pages which “posed as news organisations and impersonated political parties, public figures, activist groups and media entities.”
This very good news did, however, reveal some rather disturbing details. As had been long suspected, Facebook’s unequivocal statement stressed the direct link between disinformation, the spread of the fake accounts and “the Georgian Dream-led Government”. This was hardly a surprise to anyone watching Georgian traditional or using social media in the last decade.
Much more disturbing, however, was the fact that the messages and narratives used in Russian disinformation campaigns appeared to be part of a panoply of domestic actors pushing their political or ideological agenda, thus amplifying them, willingly or not. The already porous line that delineated external and domestic disinformation campaigns had become virtually nonexistent.
The government’s response amounted to half-hearted attempts of denial. The calls for an official inquiry into the matter have thus far gone unanswered.
Civil Society Accepts the Challenge
In this increasingly uncertain situation, with the state actors implicated in spreading disinformation and thus unwilling and unable to protect the public sphere from it, civil society organisations (CSOs) have found themselves to be the last line of defence against disinformation.
This happened in spite of the fact they have different priorities and areas of expertise. Fortunately, alarming levels of disinformation prompted leading Georgian CSOs to develop or step up their counter propaganda and disinformation efforts against pro-Russian forces or the government long ago.
“Right after the illegal annexation of Crimea and destabilisation of Eastern Ukraine by Russia, it became clear that Russia was refreshing its aggressive hybrid warfare strategy in the region”, recalls Shota Gvineria, a Senior Fellow with Economic Policy Research Center. This Tbilisi-based NGO was initially specialised, as its name suggests, in economic policy issues of emerging democracies.
“Ukraine’s example, on top of earlier experiences in Georgia, provided a fruitful ground for starting a profound research process with the aim to understand how Russia was using information warfare as one of the most effective tools in its hybrid strategies”. By seizing the new momentum of starting a fight against the ever-increasing Russian influence, EPRC was one of the civil society actors adding a counter-disinformation dimension to its activities.
In another instance, ISFED’s main purpose was the citizen monitoring of Georgian elections, but the high levels of disinformation left them no choice. “We first spotted serious efforts of malicious influence during the 2017 municipal elections. Given the examples of 2016 US presidential election, the Brexit referendum and other European elections it was clear that social media will play a crucial role in Georgian elections too”, explains Revaz Baramidze, communication officer for the organisation.
In 2018 that ISFED decided to create their own methodology which enables them to monitor and analyse anonymously sponsored influence campaigns on social media.
“The 2018 presidential election convinced us that social media manipulations were one of the main challenges of the electoral process in Georgia. After months of methodical monitoring, ISFED published its findings and contacted Facebook. The suppression of those pages by Facebook convinced us that our approach was right.”
“It was unbearable”, says one of the founders of the Georgian anonymous group Vin Vin Aris (Who’s Who) the group behind the first created tool that allows users to visually identify manipulative activity on social media and other sources of online propaganda. “In 2018 we witnessed a most impressive increase in the level of disinformation. The news feeds of any average Facebook user were inundated with white noise information and two distinct streams, one pro-government and one pro-Russian, the loudest.”
“So we decided to create a simple tool which will allow any average user to flag and identify inappropriate behaviour. Our main idea was to help average social media users, people not knowing how vicious these techniques can be.”
The people behind Vin Vin Aris are now aiming to upgrade their tool. They will be able to share it with civil society activists in other countries.
Only tactical victories
It appears that in the absence of a silver bullet to halt rampant disinformation campaigns, whether domestic or foreign, the best solution found so far by Georgian civil society activists is to investigate sources, debunk myths, research and fact-check information, and to deliver proactive messages.
Despite important tactical victories secured by Georgian civil society actors, the strategic situation remains unchanged. Thus, the extent to which civil society is capable of countering state-sponsored disinformation remains to be defined.