In October, we, a group of Georgian journalists, arrived in Berlin through an exchange program. Our visit was organized by the Media Development Foundation and Deutsche Gesselschaft. During a week, we participated in intensive seminars, listened to presentations and met with officials from Georgian, EU and German public sectors. Disinformation and the ways of combating it was the key research and discussion topic. As part of our visit, we received information about the spread of fake news in the German and European context.
For example, increased popularity of far-right public actors is the key political and social challenge facing Germany. Their rhetoric is mainly focused on inciting nationalist discourse and anti-migrant sentiments. Alternative for Germany (AfD), a right-wing to far-right political party in Germany, is the flagship of this movement. The party actively spreads nationalist propaganda through various media outlets, trying to mobilize the public this way.
A week-long comprehensive analysis of fake news campaigns has once again confirmed that disinformation is not a phenomenon of any country or international organization, but rather a global development. Far-right groups penetrate into the broad public of Georgia with nationalist rhetoric, manipulating with the facts and spreading fake reports. The dominant motive of this rhetoric is our country’s incompliance with Europe and generally, the West. Populist statements, ultra-conservative calls and allegations like “we are being deprived of our Georgian nationality” have become more widespread in Georgia in recent years. This narrative has become a lever in the hands of anti-Western propaganda. Recently, amid growing number of social network users in Georgia, populists and nationalists find it easier to spread their messages.
How does anti-Western propaganda sound in our country?
In 2014, Georgia signed the Association Agreement with the European Union and in 2016 the Agreement entered into force that was an important step towards the European integration. This process prompted nationalist, anti-Western and openly pro-Russian groups to intensify their negative campaigns that directly or indirectly reflected the work of Kremlin’s propaganda machine.
One of its clear and early examples is disinformation as if the Association Agreement with the European Union obliged the Georgian Parliament to legalize, through its anti-discrimination law, same-sex marriage and homosexuality in the country. In this context, representatives of nationalist groups are frequently rallying, demanding the abolition of the anti-discrimination law. For example, Guram Palavandishvili, founder of the Society for Children’s Rights, links the abolition of the law to the abolition of same-sex marriage and other issues.
In fact, the above mentioned law was developed not to legalize same-sex marriage, but rather to prohibit discrimination on any grounds (religion, race, gender identity); it provides the mechanisms for anti-discrimination policy.
According to another myth, by joining the European Union, Georgia will lose its sovereignty and become a puppet of western actors; moreover, the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) damages Georgia’s economy. In fact, DCFTA makes the EU market easily accessible for Georgian exports.
Scales of disinformation
As I have already mentioned, nationalist groups launched massive use of social media in the 2010s.
“They perfectly use social media to penetrate into the society,” says Alexander Sängerlaub of Berlin's Stiftung Neue Verantwortung (SNV) think tank, who leads the project Disinformation in the Digital Public Sphere in Germany. The results of the research conducted by his team confirm that social media “has turned into alternative media for populists.”
Social media analyst, Luca Hammer claims that social media has been established as a public space for populist discourse. The same can be said about video addresses posted by Levan Vasadze on the Facebook page of the World Congress of Families.
Why is such nationalist rhetoric dangerous?
Manipulating with national and religious identities is, at a glance, part of nationalist discourse; on the other hand, it is Kremlin’s efficient tool in the information warfare, because the concept of “Russian world” promotes just common values and identity.
The World Congress of Families, an organization, which unites American ultra-conservatives and has close links with Russia, serves as a clear example. Alexey Komov is WCF’s representative in Russia and he is financed by Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeev. The latter participated financially in Russia’s annexation of Crimea, prompting the European Union and the United States to impose sanctions against him.
Kremlin’s occupation and military aggression is complemented by its soft power full of calls about common religious history and traditions.
Last year, “Ukrainian Prism”, Ukraine’s foreign policy and security think-tank, and its partners released a research on disinformation resilience in Central and Eastern Europe, including Georgia. According to the results, Georgia is facing a serious threat of Russian propaganda with the latter targeting its religion, language, economy and ethnic minorities living in the country. Besides social media, Russia’s state-owned mainstream media and television also represent a weak point for us. During our visit to Berlin, a lot of experts told us that nobody in Germany perceives Russian state-owned media, such as RT and Sputnik networks, seriously; however, in the regions densely populated by ethnic minorities, where the problem of speaking the official language is still persisting, locals are more dependent on Russian-language sources.
In late 2018, the Media Development Foundation (MDF) conducted a study in Samtskhe-Javakheti and Kvemo Kartli regions populated by ethnic minorities. The aim of the study was to identify the level of awareness of Euro-Atlantic integration issues among this part of population as well as the influence of Kremlin’s disinformation on them.
MDF monitored anti-Western sentiments and disinformation spread by Russian TV channels. The key messages voiced by Russian TV channels involved accusing the West of violence, encouraging conflicts, fighting against traditional identity and establishing unacceptable values. The pro-Kremlin media outlets tried to portray the United States as the force provoking violence and terrorism in the Syrian conflict. They were promoting the myth as if the United States was provoking a coup, as if it was interfering in domestic affairs of other countries and is an unreliable partner. The key messages targeting the EU “concerned the migration crisis, demonizing not only the EU’s liberal policy but also fomenting xenophobic attitudes through portraying migrants as criminals and terrorists.”
Russia’s pro-governmental media messages targeting Georgia mainly concerned the biological threats and were related to the Richard Lugar Public Health Research Center in Tbilisi.
Moreover, the majority of interviewed social media users have Russian social network Odnoklassniki’s accounts and although no longer trusting it, they still remain part of this network.
What are the desirable results of such propaganda?
Anti-Western narrative is being spread regularly and tied up to pro-Kremlin rhetoric, as if Georgia is very far from Europe by its values and that not only the EU integration does not help the country economically, but it even causes harm to it. In case of success, such statements may cause nihilism, indifferent attitude among the population towards the EU integration and arouse doubts that our pro-Western policy course is absolutely useless and so many reforms will yield no results. Against this background, Russia emerges as the only way to salvation and a powerful neighbor. Russia’s portrayal as an alternative aims at strengthening its influence in the region.
Journalist at Coda Story Especially for Myth detector
The article is published within the framework of the project #FIGHTFAKE, which is implemented by MDF in cooperation with its partner organisation Deutsche Gesellschaft e.V.