Anti-western Narratives and Actors around Nika Melia’s Arrest and Discrediting Campaign on Facebook

;On February 23 police raided headquarters of Georgia’s largest opposition party United National Movement (UNM) and  arrested1 its leader Nika Melia. During the raid, police used tear gas to disperse Melia’s supporters who had barricaded themselves inside the party’s office. Melia’s arrest sparked a series of critical statements from the EU and US officials, policy analysts and international organisations, which assessed the arrest as politically motivated and as a sign of decline of democracy in the country. Assessments from Western officials were followed by anti-western narratives from local pro-kremlin and ultra-nationalist actor. Moreover, several representatives of the ruling Georgian Dream party reproached Western officials because of their critique. This report analyses those anti-western narratives. It is a collaborative research of the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED) and the Media Development Foundation (MDF) within the scope of the Georgia Information Integrity Program (GIIP). 

Key Findings:

  • Critical assessments from the Western officials and opinion-makers on Melia’s arrest were followed by reproach from the members of the Georgian government, the ruling Georgian Dream party, and their supporters, that to some extent coincided with those of the pro-Kremlin and anti-liberal actors around the same period. 
  • Three key anti-Western narratives dominated discourse on social and traditional media:
    • The West has double standards: They perceive the January 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol as an example of terrorism, thus law enforcement responded with later arrests, while arrests for the attempted storming of the Parliament in Georgia in June 2019 is perceived as persecution of opposition
    • The Western critics of the Georgian Government are biased and support the UNM
    • Zygimantas Pavilionis the Lithuanian MP and Andrius Kalindra Lithuanian Ambassador to Georgia are politically biased
  • Anti-Western narratives were prolific on Facebook. Pro-Kremlin and pro-government anonymous pages capitalised on “double standards” message and compared Melia’s arrest to Capitol developments.
  • In addition to anti-Western narratives, pro-government and Georgian Dream supporting anonymous pages framed Melia’s arrest as protecting the “rule of law” and “just state”.
  • Facebook accounts, involved in information manipulation around Melia’s arrest, such as Facebook groups, anonymous pages, and personal profiles, became significantly more active.  the pages discrediting the Georgian Dream and supporting the opposition published 30% more posts during February 16-28 period, compared to February 01-15. On the other hand, the number of posts published by the pages discrediting the opposition and supporting the Georgian Dream changed only slightly – a decrease by 3% in the same period.
  • Despite slight decrease in the number of posts, the interaction level in the period of February 16-28 by pro-Georgian Dream pages increased by 33%. 
  • Contrary to the pro-government Facebook pages, we observed a smaller scale of campaign on pro-opposition pages. The most frequent message from pro-opposition pages announced a protest in the streets following Melia’s arrest and sought to mobilise party supporters. 
  • Together with the anonymous pages, inauthentic/fake accounts were also involved in mobilising opinion on Facebook.
  • Comments of fake accounts matched the messages disseminated by pro-Georgian Dream and anti-opposition pages, as well as Georgian Dream members and other pro-government actors.
  1. Key actors involved in anti-Western campaign

The Georgian disinformation ecosystem map built in the framework of the Georgia Information Integrity Program (GIIP), allowed us to identify actors who created or disseminated anti-western messages in the period of February 16-28. On the graph retrieved from the ecosystem map, the blue colour marks the members of GoG, ruling Georgian Dream party, affiliated media outlets, supportive Facebook pages and proxy experts. The pink colour indicates pro-Kremlin actors, including organisations, media and political parties. Lastly, the green colour marks anti-liberal and ultra-nationalist media outlets, political parties, organisations, Facebook pages and individuals. 
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As seen from the graph above, Georgian Dream members, pro-government media channels and experts, as well as pro-Kremlin and anti-liberal, ultra-nationalist groups were all involved in targeted campaign against the U.S. and EU officials and experts. Out of pro-Kremlin actors, Obiektivi TV channel and online outlet Georgia and World were mostly involved in anti-Western information campaign. Some ultra-nationalist, anti-liberal actors included Alt-Info and the head of Georgian Demographic Society XXI, with strong links to Levan Vasadze, the representative of World Congress of Families (WCF) in Georgia. 

Obiektivi is broadcast TV channel that was founded in 2010 by Irma Inashvili, now the leader of pro-Kremlin political party Alliance of Patriots (AoP). Obiektivi also broadcasts via radio frequency. More than 90% of the channel’s revenues are donations.  Obiektivi has a partnership with Sputnik Georgia. The channel runs Russian-language program Неделя (Week) together with Sputnik Georgia’s correspondent Ana Anastasiadi. Valeri Kvaratskhelia, the leader of inactive pro-Kremlin party Socialist/Neutral Georgia is a host at Obiektivi.  In 2020, Bondo Mdzinarashvili, former editor-in-chief of Obiektivi, notorious for his anti-Western and pro-Kremlin sentiments was elected by Georgian Dream (GD) MPs as a member of supervisory council of the public broadcaster. Zviad Avaliani, Obiektivi’s programs director also is contributor of platform Mediacritic.ge that was established by Georgia National Communication Commision (GNCC). 

Obiektivi pursues a xenophobic and anti-Western editorial policy that directly follows AoP’s agenda. According to 2019 Hate Speech Report from Media Development Foundation, Obiektivi spreads the highest number of hate speech and Turkophobic statements. For example, one the hosts of the channel said that Turkey has claims over Georgia’s three regions. Obiektivi also pushes the conspiracy that COVID-19 is a manmade virus and that Georgia is experimental polygon for vaccines. Another notorious narrative from the channel was questioning the Skripals’ poisoning due to their improved health condition. 


Georgia and World (Geworld.ge) is a print newspaper and online media outlet established in 2009 by LTD Historical Heritage. Chairman of Historical Heritage is Taras Gagnidze.  One of the members of public council of Historical Heritage is Alexander Chachia. In 2014 Vladimir Putin awarded Chachia for “his great contribution to strengthening friendship and cooperation with the Russian Federation, development of scientific and cultural ties.” In 2008 then-president Dmitry Medvedev personally welcomed the establishment of Historical Heritage in Georgia.  

Georgia and World has strong links with the Eurasian Institute, News Front Georgia and Russian ccommunity organisations in Georgia. Gulbaat Rtskhiladze, chairman of the Eurasian Institue and Konstantine Chikviladze, author at Georgia and World run public Facebook group that is predominantly used for promoting News Front Georgia materials. 

News Front Georgia itself has connections with the leftist and anti-Western Facebook page Politicano, that was also involved in anti-US campaign after Melia’s arrest. Politicano has partnership with Yevgeni Primakov Georgia-Russian Public Center that was founded by the Gorchakov Foundation Public Diplomacy Support Fund.


Georgian Demographic Society XXI was established in 2014. One of the founders of the organisation is Levan Vasadze, businessman and representative of World Congress of Families (WCF) in Georgia. Levan Vasadze is an ideologist of local conservative and far-right groups, including Alt-Info, anti-liberal channel that was founded by Konstantine Morgoshia, former member of the Georgian March and Alliance of Patriots.

  1. Key anti-Western narratives

Media Development Foundation (MDF) analysed key disinformation and anti-Western messages. The graph below shows the most commonly used keywords in the statements of the Georgian Dream members, government supporters, as well as pro-Kremlin and ultra-nationalist actors2 .

Image removed.

MDF’s media monitoring showed that anti-western messages around Melia’s arrest disseminated by the members of the government, Georgian dream, their supporters, as well as pro-Kremlin and anti-liberal groups, largely coincided with each other. 
The key themes of commentary were: 

  • The West has double standards – They see the January 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol as an example of terrorism, while Melias’s arrest for storming of the Parliament of Georgia it is perceived as persecution of the opposition

As seen from the network keywords graph above, local actors responded to the critical reactions from the U.S. mainly with a rhetoric accusing the U.S. of double standards. In this context, actors used the terms “storming/attack” (35 times) “terrorism” (8 times) and “double standards” (5 times). Commenting on U.S. Congressman Adam Kinzinger’s statement, Mamuka Mdinaradze, the deputy chairman of the Parliament, remarked  that Melia was accused of much worse than former U.S. President Trump, whose impeachment Kinzinger supported due to January 6 events at the U.S. Capitol. The same message was voiced by other members of the ruling party and its supporters, as well as pro-Kremlin actors, emphasizing U.S. “double standards”, the importance of the rule of law and just state. 

  • Targeting a Lithuanian MP and Ambassador

The February 19-21 visit of the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Lithuanian Seimas, Žygimantas Pavilionis, to Georgia also attracted attention. His warning that Georgia could “turn into Belarus” was followed by a smear campaign against him and the ambassador of Lithuania in Georgia. As seen from the keywords graph above, the term “Pavilionis” and “Lithuania” were used 22 and 28 times respectively by actors engaged in the campaign. According to MDF’s media monitoring results, along with government and pro-government actors, the Lithuanian MP became a target for pro-Kremlin and anti-liberal actors as well. Three main narratives were evident in this campaign:

  1. Pavilionis is a lobbyist for the United National Movement (UNM).
  2. Pavilionis statements are biased.
  3. Pavilionis interfered in Georgia’s domestic affairs.

Pro-Kremlin actors went even further. Bondo Mdzinarashvili, a member of the Georgian Public Broadcaster's board of trustees and former editor-in-chief of Obiektivi TV, strongly affiliated with pro-Kremlin political party Alliance of Patriots (AoP) demanded Pavilionis’s expulsion from Georgia. Shota Apkhaidze, former editor of News Front Georgia, urged that Lithuanian Ambassador Andrius Kalindra should be recognized as a persona non grata and expelled from the country.

  • Government critics are biased/support UNM

One of the prominent narratives in this campaign linked the Western partners to UNM and assessed their statements as politically biased. For instance, Irakli Zarkua, member of the ruling party, said that Chris Socha, U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Staff Director, who spoke about possible sanctions against Ivanishvili, is either in an information vacuum, or biased, or could be even a UNM lobbyist. Valeri Kvaratskhelia, anchor at pro-Kremlin Obiektivi TV stressed that the U.S. dictates process and controls opposition parties, media and civil society in Georgia. A pro-government lawyer also argued that US criticism amounts to organizing a coup in Georgia to bring UNM back to power. 

  1. Campaign on Facebook

ISFED’s social media monitoring found that the anonymous social media information campaign intensified on February 23, the day police stormed UNM’s office and arrested the opposition leader. Facebook accounts, involved in information manipulation, such as Facebook groups, pages, and personal profiles, became significantly more active. An information campaign by the anonymous and organized Facebook pages aimed to polarize the public around the February 23-24 events and discredit the opposite side.

Politically motivated organized discrediting and supporting 78 Facebook pages published a total of 2190 posts in February 16-28 period. The number of posts published by the pages discrediting the Georgian Dream was more or less equal to the number of posts discrediting the opposition. However, the activity of support pages was different. Namely, the pages supporting the Georgian Dream published almost two times as many posts than those supporting the opposition.

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Comparison of the number of posts published by the discrediting and supporting pages operating in the interest of the opposition during February 16-28 period and the previous two weeks shows that detaining of Nika Melia likely became a reason for these pages’ increased activity. More precisely, the pages discrediting the Georgian Dream and supporting the opposition published 30% more posts during February 16-28, as compared to February 01-15. On the other hand, the number of posts published by the pages discrediting the opposition and supporting the Georgian Dream changed only slightly – a decrease by 3% in the same period. While the pro-GD pages activity did not change much from the previous 2 weeks period, in the previous 2 weeks they posted already almost twice more posts that the pro-opposition pages.

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 Interestingly, even though the number of posts published by the pages operating in the interest of the Georgian Dream changed insignificantly, interactions on the posts increased by 33% during February 16-28 compared to interactions the posts of these pages raised for the previous two weeks. As for the pages operating in the interest of the opposition, 30% increase in the number of posts during February 16-28 led to only 15% raise in interactions, again compared to the previous two weeks. Post interaction on Facebook is defined as the sum of all its reactions, comments and shares. 

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ISFED identified six key messages on Facebook about Nika Melia’s arrest disseminated by pro-Georgian Dream, anti-opposition, pro-opposition and divisive narrative3 pages. The interactive map is structured in the following way – orange dots indicate the six key messages; yellow colour marks the pages, and the blue ones introduces actual posts. 

Image removed.

 

As seen from the map, anti-Western narratives, notably the message on the U.S. “double standards” and the riot on the Capitol were also observed on Facebook and were mostly disseminated by pro-Kremlin pages and the Facebook pages of pro-Kremlin online media outlets. Pro-GD Facebook pages mobilised opinion on Melia’s arrest around the “rule of law” and “just state” narratives. Anti-opposition pages mocked Melia’s earlier statement that the police would not be able to arrest him and created political memes against him. A protest in response to the detainment of Melia was announced in front of the building of Administration of the Government of Georgia. It was later moved in front of the parliament.

Pages, discrediting the opposition were ironically pointing out the low number of opposition supporters at the protest that was held in response to Melia’s arrest.
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From left to right 
მიხეილ უკრაინოლოგი (Mikheil Ukrainologist): “Melia is a rotten egg”
რეალობა (Reality): “What do you say now, foxie?”
ტერენტი გლდანელი (Terenti Gldaneli): „“But he bragged so much they would not be able to detain him”.


Pages openly supporting the Georgian Dream actively disseminated the message that the arrest of Nika Melia ended peacefully. Moreover, a page called “ლიდერი 41” (Leader 41) with 38,453 subscribers, posted that the police did not use tear gas and the statements of the United National Movement members about getting harmed were not true. Pages Bidzina Ivanishvili’s supporters, Leader 41 and Bidzina Ivanishvili & Media cited comments by the Georgian Dream leaders on how Nika Melia’s detention served the respect of rule of law.
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From left to right
First line

ბიძინა ივანიშვილის მხარდამჭერები (Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Supporters): “Davit Sergeenko on the detention of Nika Melia: the choice was made in favor of the legal decision. It was made in favor of any decision that would have been made…”
ბიძინა ივანიშვილის მხარდამჭერები (Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Supporters): “Sozar Subari: law is law for everyone and its enforcement is the primary duty of the state. ‘Today, the state is strong and what happened 100 years ago in Georgia…”

Second line
ლიდერი 41 (Leader 41): “Tea Tsulukiani – nobody can stand above the law, there can be no double standards. If storming the parliament somewhere else is bad, it is bad in our country too.”
Bidzina Ivanishvili & Media “Irakli Kobakhidze on Nika Melia: he did not pay, they detained him. More precisely, he detained himself and this is state. This is the rule of law, a state which…”

Several anonymous discrediting pages even sponsored the posts related to the February 23 events. According to the Facebook ads library, only the pages discrediting the opposition sponsored their posts. Each placed ad costed less than USD 100. From these pages, ნაცები, შმაცები და შმაცუნები (Natsis, Shmatsis and Shmatsunas) was the most active – its sponsored posts aimed at making fun of the opposition. In the ads declaration of this page, Giorgi Kvaratskhelia is indicated as the person paying for the ads – he features in the ads declaration of a page targeting the opposition.
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Posts from page Natsis, Shmatsis and Shmatsunas
From left to right
First line
 “He bragged a lot that they would not be able to detain him”
 “Would not it be better to still be the host of Kurieri? 😅”
 “A journalist suggested to him that he was not feeling well 🤣 🤣 🤣”

Second line
 “A UNM activist is throwing a solid object at a police officer, damaging photo equipment of a nearby citizen. A video disseminated by the Ministry of Internal Affairs”
“😁😁😁 Oh, please do not fly me, there are too few people anyway”
 “They were left just with Ugulava at the protest 🤣”

Contrary to pro-government Facebook pages, we observed a smaller scale of campaign on pro-opposition pages. The most frequent message from pro-opposition pages announced a protest in the streets following Melia’s arrest and sought to mobilise party supports. Several posts, discrediting the Georgian Dream and supporting the opposition, were published, but they did not contain any signs of an organized campaign.

Politicano, a Facebook page that has links with the Primakov Center and News Front Georgia and is engaged in promoting the value-based divisive narratives, sponsored a discrediting post targeting Adam Kinzinger, an American congressman, and Ian Kelly, the former Ambassador of the United States to Georgia with regards to their assessments of the detainment of Nika Melia.
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Politicano · პოლიტიკანო: “🇺🇸 our ‘arch-allies’ are concerned with the detention of Nika Melia. However, they are doing this out of their love to us – they do not want anything bad for us, they just want good. 🔶 They are so worried about the future of our democracy that sometimes forget about the events in their own countries #კელი #კინზინგერი #საქართველოაშშ” (In response to the statements by Adam Kinzinger: “Incredibly Dumb move by Georgian Government against a legitimate political party” and Ian Kelly: “Yes, those first two words deserve to be capitalized. Release Melia immediately!”)

 

 

 

 

Inauthentic accounts involved in the campaign

In addition to pro-government and anti-opposition pages analysed by ISFED, MDF also identified 41 inauthentic accounts whose comments matched the messages disseminated by other actors involved in anti-Western campaign. Some of the accounts seek to hide their identities, while others use stolen photos of other users. 

According to MDF, some of the pro-government trolls disseminated messages in support of the government. The second group of trolls tried to discredit the opposition. The third group targeted the U.S. – they referred to the storming of the U.S. Capitol, were comparing it to the storming of the Parliament of Georgia and hinted at double standards. They also emphasized that the U.S. does not have the moral right to speak of democracy.


Conclusion

The arrest of Nika Melia and the assessment of Georgia’s Western partners led to an intensification of anti-Western messages in Georgia. Interestingly, in response to the government's criticism, some members of the Georgian Dream resorted to anti-Western rhetoric, accusing Western partners of bias. Not surprisingly, the current political crisis has been capitalized on by openly pro-Kremlin groups as well as ultra-nationalist actors, thus once again revealing collaboration between these two groups in terms of messages and targets. These groups have used the crisis to attack the United States and the European Union in order to reinforce the old anti-Western narrative that Washington and Brussels dictate the processes in Georgia.

After Melia's arrest, the anonymous pages supporting the government and the Georgian Dream, as well as pages discrediting the opposition became more active. Based on past experience and studies of local organizations, politically motivated anonymous pages become active active in a critical developments for the government and mobilize opinion on the social network according to the Georgian Dream and the government agenda. Amid harsh assessments of the government by Western partners and local civil society, pro-government and pro-Georgian Dream pages have sought to justify Melia's arrest and raid on the main opposition party’s office with a message of the rule of law. Anonymous pro-opposition pages became more active as well, but the number of their posts was lower than that of pro-government pages, and the posts with discrediting content did not have a coordinated manner, unlike pro-government and anti-opposition pages.


Methodology

The Georgia Information Integrity Program seeks to improve information integrity in Georgia and strengthen Georgia’s societal resilience against disinformation.  To achieve this goal, GIIP works with a diverse set of partners including civil society organizations. GIIP aims to support its partners achieve better synergies through collaborative research and shared understanding of disinformation ecosystem in Georgia.

As part of this work, the GIIP has supported its partners Media Development Foundation (MDF) and International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED) to outline the scale and nature of disinformation and anti-Western narratives in Georgia following the arrest of the main opposition leader Nika Melia on February 23 and assessments from the US and EU officials and opinion makers. This report is the first collaborative analysis with the network partners on ongoing political crisis in the country. The report is based on media and social media monitoring conducted by ISFED and MDF. 

We used Visallo, a software for link analysis, to identify the connections of the key actors involved in disseminating anti-western messages around Melia’s case. Based on MDF’s media monitoring results, we used Python, a programming language, to retrieve top keywords from the statements that allowed us to analyse key anti-western messages. ISFED cross-checked the narratives from media into social media via Crowdtangle, a Facebook-owned social media monitoring platform, and identified how pro-government, anti-opposition and opposition Facebook pages mobilised opinion on Facebook. 

The monitoring covers the period between February 16 and February 28:

  • On February 16, Georgian Parliament lifted immunity from Nika Melia allowing the Prosecutor’s office to request his arrest. 
  • On February 28 Charles Michel, President of the European Council, visited Georgia initiating a political dialogue, which reduced harsh rhetoric and the scale of discrediting messages across traditional and social media. 

For visualisation purposes we have used Gephi, a visualisation and exploration software for network analysis and Flourish, an online tool for data visualisation.


 In June 2019, anti-government and anti-occupation protests erupted in Tbilisi, Georgia, after the visit of Russian communist MP Sergei Gavrilov and took the Georgian parliamentary speaker’s seat. On night of 20-21 June police used extensive force to disperse protest including rubber bullets and tear gas. Authorities launched a criminal investigation prosecuting protesters and Nika Melia, the member of parliament and the leader of UNM on charges of charges of organization of, participation in and leading a group activity accompanied by violence. On 16 February 2021, by 88 votes to 2, Georgian Parliament lifted immunity from Nika Melia second time allowing the Prosecutor’s office to request his arrest. Several days after, on 23 February, police raided UNM’s office and arrested Melia. International and local watchdog organisations and civil society, including Amnesty International and Transparency Georgia, assessed Melia’s arrest as “disregard for the rule of law” and “politically motivated”.

  Interactive graph of the keywords is available here https://public.flourish.studio/visualisation/5507801/

3   As defined by ISFED, narrative pages unite pages with nationalist, anti-liberal, xenophobic, anti-Western, Islamophobic and homophobic ideology.

This report is made possible by the generous support from the American people through United States Agency for International Development (USAID) via Georgia Information Integrity Program (GIIP). GIIP is implemented by Zinc Network and its partners. The views expressed in this report may not necessarily reflect those of USAID or the U.S. Government. 

The MDF monitoring data was obtained through the support of USAID’s PITA project …. ISFED’s social media monitoring was conducted through the support of USAID’s EWMI-ACCESS project.

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