By Irakli Jgharkava, Researcher
The recent take down of “troll-accounts” by Facebook has been linked to Georgian government-backed personas; many of whom are already facing allegations of serious misconduct for the circulation of ‘fake news’ in the lead-up to the parliamentary elections. In Georgia’s increasingly polarized political climate, what are the implications of such activities for the democratic development and overall security of the country? Does the “end” justify the “means” and/or coincide with Georgia’s ambitious Euro-Atlantic agenda?
The “coordinated inauthentic behavior” that led to the recent take down by Facebook of various Georgian social media groups and pages is being further investigated by the Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) of the Atlantic Council to identify and track the content of these accounts. Initial study results showed that the accounts were woefully involved in the dissemination of disinformation of a false nature and also posited negative and anti-West content in an effort to undermine ‘unfavorable’ Georgian candidates and parties, notably from the Opposition.
Facebook’s decision escalated growing tensions and mistrust between Georgian government representatives and contributed to the concerns and debate between politicians on ‘freedom of speech.’ Blocked representatives, such as Panda, a well-known Georgian advertising agency, issued a statement citing bias and blame towards Facebook’s interpretation of the content in question that had in turn promulgated the circulation of fake news rather than acknowledging the facts in hand. The content analysis by DFRLab, however, demonstrated that Panda had engaged in an ‘unbalanced approach;’ a practice whereby posted material is notably leaning, signaling prejudice and partisanship; in this case, predominantly anti-West rhetoric. While the Georgian government denied any affiliation with Panda and the blocked pages, Facebook’s decision and the subsequent analysis by DFRLab raise serious questions about the role and intentions of the country’s ruling party, the Georgian Dream (GD).
Throughout December 2019, Facebook announced and implemented the removal of multiple accounts, pages and groups that targeted domestic audiences in Georgia through disinformation. The activities of the pages in question, “posed as news organizations and impersonated political parties, public figures and media entities and were conducted on behalf of a government or foreign actor,” Facebook stated. Although, these pages, groups and accounts were taken down based on their behavior (coordinated activity using fake accounts to misrepresent themselves), rather than content, Facebook also clustered the posted topics by users and categories including elections, government policies, public officials, criticism of the opposition and local activist organizations. Moreover, the investigation linked these activities to Panda and the GD and also highlighted that the amount of money spent on advertising by the blocked accounts totaled $316,000.
Despite the Georgian government’s repeated statements of denial, involvement and association with trolls disseminating anti-Opposition content online, the findings by Facebook suggest otherwise. Indeed, the ‘murky waters’ surrounding the case signal a high probability of involvement and intention on the part of the government to stage a disinformation campaign against its opponents. In defense, the Speaker of the Georgian Parliament, Archil Talakvadze, stated: “No money from the government’s budget was spent nor government-owned resources utilized in favor of those blocked pages. These are private monies, likely… spent by our supporters, and what should we do? Say to those groups – no, don’t be our supporters and say to the Opposition to continue disinformation? No, – this cannot happen.”
The facts, of course, illustrate a different story; that it was a targeted campaign against the Opposition and the electorate to manipulate and influence citizens using disinformation to arguably garner additional pre-election support. Given the wavering popularity and dips in the public approval ratings for the GD in recent months also enhances the probability of coordinated government efforts to initiate targeted campaigns to discredit the Opposition, with or without private parties and monies.
While the internet guarantees a free space where anyone can share information, the misuse of this freedom is increasingly hazardous in our hyper-connected world. Over the last few years, Georgia has been a target of hostile information campaigns by Russia. Its neighbor has exploited accessible cyberspace to misinform audiences in an effort to derail Georgia’s pro-Western agenda. As such, the recent “Troll-Scandal” allegedly backed by the GD coalition-led government is a serious case that merits further analysis, particularly as the Georgian government is intent on approximating its policies in adherence to EU and NATO membership requirements.
In the long-run, should the involvement of the Georgian government in “coordinated inauthentic behavior” prove accurate, what are some of the implications of this on the country’s democratic development and overall security? To strengthen its democracy, Georgia will require a robust civil society to protect human rights, defend the rule of law and hold the government accountable when necessary. Indeed, if the government is succumbing to the use of “troll-factory” agents towards the fulfillment of a self-serving agenda, the result is not only a polarized political climate but a fragmented society, already fragile by socioeconomic disparities. Moreover, this type of concerted behavior will neither contribute to democratic development nor regional stability as security concerns remain with its northern neighbor and Georgia remains susceptible to cyberspace volatility. Georgia, too, will incur the challenges of accruing support when facing any future hostile cyberspace campaigns if deemed culpable of the same activities. The loss of credibility in this regard may lead to grave implications for the national security of the country.
A country governed by the narrow political interests of a few and guided by the mantra, “the end justifies the means,” to maintain power is a disservice to Georgia’s best interests and contrary to its aspirational agenda to form deeper links with Western political institutions and organizations.
The opinions and conclusions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Rondeli Foundation.