The use of disinformation, particularly on social media platforms, has had a tremendous impact on the outcome of elections, as well as public response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as it has the ability to shape public sentiment.
In developing countries like Georgia, there are domestic and international sources of disinformation that impact public perception and trust. Tackling this issue are civic organisations looking to rebuild public trust in democractic processes such as elections, while also encouraging trust in the media. One such organisation is the Georgia Information Integrity Program at Zinc Network in Georgia, which is a private company running a USAID program aimed confronting disinformation campaigns in the country.
Mikheil Benidze is one such individual working to deal with disinformation in Georgia. Here he shares how he became involved in the work of democracy building and what's at stake.
Georgia is a country with thousands of years of history, but also a country that has always been struggling between bigger powers of this small part of the world, at the juncture of Europe and Asia. It was always at the crossroads of different powers, always kind of surviving, while always kind of struggling. And that is the environment that I was also brought up in, because Georgia used to be part of the Soviet Union for 70 years after it was occupied in 1921, after a brief history of independence.
I was born in 1988 and then, in a few years, the Soviet Union broke up. Georgia became independent again. But it was plagued with a lot of troubles, including the civil war, including the wars in two regions, which are breakaway territories and currently occupied by Russia. So this resistance towards Russia, towards the influence and attempt to influence Georgia's policy, has been something that was part of the country. Wanting independence and to develop the country is where Georgia is currently, as it is striving to be part of European nations, part of the European Union, part of the Western institutions. And Georgia's striving towards a Western democratic way of life is, on one hand, impeded by continuous attempts from Russia primarily to block this.
How I became concerned with the issue of democracy building is hard to pinpoint. But when I was in my last grade of high school, in the 11th grade in Georgia, I was selected to be one of the finalists of an exchange program in the United States. And I think that one year of exchange really influenced my way of thinking and my becoming more civic-minded. Maybe it would have happened anyway, but I think coming back from the United States to Georgia, I really had this drive that I wanted to bring about change. It didn't necessarily start with being involved with democracy building, and it was more with other types of youth projects that I was doing at the time. By chance, I ended up at an organization called International Society for Elections and Democracy, where I started initially as an intern, supporting program development and fundraising, and then, over time, it grew on me. I became more passionate about the work that we did, which was primarily election observation. At some point, well into 2016, I was selected as the executive director of the organization. But I worked in different positions as a program manager, as a fundraiser, and intern. So, that was my path, how I ended up doing what I'm doing and how it started.
I left that organization in 2020 after my term ended, and since then, I am now leading a counter disinformation project in Georgia, which is a separate project funded by the USAID, and it is implemented by an organization called Zinc Network. So I'm, as they call it, chief of party, essentially like a project director.
In terms of disinformation in Georgia, there is both Russian and domestic disinformation. Russian disinformation and propaganda is a significant challenge as it is aimed, on one hand, to derail Georgia from its path of the Euro-Atlantic integration and its intended membership of the European Union and NATO and, on the other hand, it tries to undermine Georgia's democracy, its institutions, and societal fabric by sowing irrational fears, conspiracies, and attempting to divide society along value-based lines using xenophobic, nationalistic, homophobic, Islamophobic, and generally illiberal or anti-Western narratives in the propaganda.
However, that is not the only challenge to the information integrity. There is also very proliferated domestic disinformation and propaganda, which fuels domestic political polarization. The domestic disinformation actors have the primary objective to influence public opinion to achieve political and electoral gains. They are particularly active on social media (mainly Facebook) and use discrediting campaigns (against political opponents, media and journalists, civil society and activists, and basically anyone with a different or critical opinion), false media operations (setting up social media pages pretending to be media outlets while pushing sponsored political propaganda), false support (pages set up with the intent to pretend to be supporting a particular actor, while in reality trying to undermine them), or anonymous support for a political party. Such operations are done in a coordinated and organized manner and often use sponsored content.
Facebook has taken down a number of such inauthentic networks for their violations of the platform rules, inauthentic coordination, and artificial amplification of content — largest of which were linked with the Georgian government ruling party. What is a challenge currently is that, increasingly, themes, tactics, and methods (including, in some cases, accounts) being used by domestic and foreign-linked (Russian affiliated, pro-Kremlin) actors are similar or they overlap — so for a non-researcher, it is harder and harder to identify and distinguish them and tell how the aims of different disinformation actors differ. This convergence increases information vulnerability for a regular citizen and leads to information chaos and general mistrust of news, media, and information sources. So, this is particularly problematic in terms of resilience.
I would say the main threat in terms of the information environment in Georgia is coming from Russia, but what has particularly undermined resilience (including to Russian disinformation) and harmed information integrity are the domestic discrediting campaigns and information manipulation. That’s why we started monitoring not only election campaigning in physical spaces and even on TV, but also election campaigning on social media. Because we saw that you cannot really see the full picture of what's going on if you don't fully understand also what's happening on social media, and all these discrediting campaigns, all these propaganda messages, etc. And so as part of that, we used to do a lot of monitoring and understanding of both narratives, as well as actors who are doing this and how they are organized, as well as identifying coordinated networks on social media, primarily on Facebook in Georgia.
Facebook is the main network, and so we work with Facebook to take down some of those networks that showed signs of coordination and that they were mobilized and organized. Our work means maintaining communication with them, sharing findings from investigations and monitoring inauthentic networks, their activity and behaviour, and trying to also hold Facebook accountable. By pointing out and reporting malicious activity on their platform, and in some cases publically demanding from Facebook that they take specific actions, we tried to make sure that Georgia (which otherwise is a small market and a small country) stayed on Facebook's radar and they paid attention to what was happening on their platform within Georgia. Obviously, there can be differences of opinions and sometimes discrediting messages can also be a legitimate part of the debate. But when we see that these are organized and these are coordinated, and someone is paying for it and there are significant resources behind it, it shows that it is not just a self-organized opinion, but it is organized and coordinated on a more organizational level — that there's someone who's trying to influence public opinion.
In terms of how we work, first we conduct investigations. We try to identify and pinpoint the actors behind disinformation, but also what their connections are. Thesecond strand of activity is we support the civil society organizations who have gotten together in a coalition. It's called the Information Integrity Coalition. And basically, we are providing administrative support to this coalition with the idea that the coalition is to unify and create awareness countering disinformation. We are a resource that supports this coalition in whatever they need. And this coalition right now unites 12 civil society organizations who have different backgrounds, but they, in one way or another, either have expertise in working against disinformation, media monitoring, media literacy, or they work on the issues, for example, on the minority rights, which are often instrumentalized by disinformation actors. And then we do periodic public opinion research to understand some of these disinformation narratives, whether people believe in them — and then why people believe in them ... to understand what are the vulnerabilities that make people believe certain types of disinformation. And then we try to come up with projects and solutions that target not just the symptom. We don't just try to tell people that, "You shouldn't believe this, because it is wrong," but rather try to figure out the root cause.
I think in Georgia, the biggest challenge is the lack of political will. Georgia has a very vibrant civil society with independent activists and movements, as well as organized NGOs and civil society organizations, and an active media landscape. And so there is really a lot of potential in terms of reforms and democratic progress in the country. There are good ideas around what needs to be improved in terms of corruption, what needs to be improved in terms of access to information and in terms of freedom of expression in the country, in terms of the rights of minorities, LGBTQI+ rights, rights of people with disabilities, how to improve the judiciary, and how we can make sure that justice is delivered to the people. However, all this huge potential is met with the lack of political will to really reform, really change, and to really move this country forward. And it is what is frustrating for a lot of us in the civic space and civil society. It is exactly those domestic barriers that limit Georgia's potential, including its path to democratization.
I guess right now the best way to support democracy building is to support Ukraine and to understand the cause and to understand how Russian disinformation functions — how Russia has also penetrated the information spaces not only in Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, and other neighbouring countries, but also how some of this influence has gone much further into Western Europe or into other European countries, into Africa. So, first of all, more people questioning and understanding some of these positions would be something that would be helpful, not directly helpful to the work that I'm doing at the moment, but generally to help the civic space, not just in our region, but globally. And then what is the most important, I would say, is to really have a principled approach when it comes to democracy and when it comes to human rights. This means you cannot have tradeoffs, and you cannot turn a blind eye to some things, whether it's growing authoritarianism somewhere or whether it's compromising on some of the democratic values because of the potential ramifications and potential reactions from the bullying nations such as Russia, or maybe, in some cases, China. I think all of us have to really remain principled when it comes to the key values of democracy, of human rights, of equality, and that there shouldn't be a compromise.
As told to Gugulethu Mhlungu.
The 2022 In My Own Word Series was made possible thanks to funding from the Ford Foundation.