A Russian informational operation in Georgia against the European Union
In June 2022, following the submission of their membership applications to the European Union, Ukraine and Moldova were granted the status of candidate countries. Additionally, the European Council acknowledged Georgia's European perspective and expressed its readiness to confer candidate country status upon Georgia once it addresses the twelve priorities outlined in the Commission's opinion. Georgia anticipates the European Commission's decision by the end of October. However, ahead of this crucial decision, a sponsored campaign of propaganda and disinformation against the EU has surfaced on Georgia's social media platforms, indicating the footprint of Russian involvement. Pages and accounts engaged in this propaganda represent an extension of existing networks, employing new tactics as identified by the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED) earlier this year. Before the decision is released, a sponsored campaign of propaganda and disinformation against the EU has been launched and stirred up in Georgia’s social media platforms, revealing Russian footprint. Pages and accounts engaged in propaganda, represent an extension of the network, linked to Russia, employing somewhat new tactics, as identified by International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED) earlier this year. This campaign, part of Russia's hybrid warfare strategy, contradicts Meta's regulations as it involves external influence and coordinated inauthentic behavior.
At the beginning of this year, ISFED uncovered coordinated networks of pro-Russian pages, accounts, and channels operating on major social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, and TikTok in the South Caucasus countries—Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. The actors behind these networks published identical content in local languages, although the pages and accounts were primarily managed from abroad, including territories within Russia. The objective of this coordinated campaign was to portray Russia as a potential ally to the countries in the region while casting a negative light on the West. Upon receiving the notification from ISFED regarding their investigation, Meta removed the network from Facebook and Instagram.
After Meta’s counter-operation, the actors behind the network appeared to have created new pages and accounts, some of which were also removed by Meta. Presently, a new network has emerged in the Georgian language, displaying strategy, tactics and a narrative that can be traced back to the actors behind the previously removed networks. The primary objective of the present network is to spread propaganda messages opposing Georgia’s integration into the EU and subsequently sowing skepticism toward the European Union among Georgian Society.
Connection of the Georgian Accounts of the New Network with Russia
Currently, 5 Facebook pages, 1 Instagram account, 1 Telegram channel and 1 webpage, operating in the Georgian language, reveal a connection to the older network and Russia due to the following factors:
- New accounts employ the similar tactics of the old network - as previously, some of the recently created pages falsely present themselves as legitimate media organizations. Operating under the guise of a news agency, these pages aim to establish trust in their content. To attract a larger user base, they are now also publishing non-political content, including humorous memes, like the old network used to do;
- A still active Telegram channel from the old network „საქართველო - სიახლე”, is mainly used to share the content published by the recently created page of the new network “Sakartvelo Today News”;
- Messages spread through both new and old, already removed networks, share a striking resemblance in content and align with the narrative of Kremlin propaganda.
New Tactics of Operation
A noticeable shift in operational tactics can be observed with the new network running on Facebook. This change involves erasing all traces after delivering messages to the audience. To disseminate their messages, network pages publish undisclosed advertisements, omitting mandatory information about the ad's sponsor. These actions violate Meta's regulations as the ads don't specify whether they pertain to political or social issues. Consequently, these posts are not archived in the Meta Ad Library and become unavailable after their activation period expires. Once the ads expire, pages promptly remove the posts from social networks, or they publish posts solely as advertisements, which disappear after their activation period concludes.
Narratives against the European Union
- The EU membership will undermine the family institute and promote sexual and gender identities
Facebook pages of the new network currently spread homophobic narratives aiming at sowing opposition to the EU membership in Georgian society. They suggest that joining the EU is linked to the degradation of traditional family values and promoting diverse sexual and gender identities. Moreover, these propaganda outlets depict LGBTQI rights as conflicting with Georgian values, insinuating that EU accession comes with the negligence of Georgian traditions. Additionally, they suggest that EU membership for Georgia will result in the prevalence of LGBTQI pride events.
- Georgia’s admission to the EU is a fake promise, Georgia will be rejected to get the candidate country status.
Pro-Russian outlets often propagate the narrative that the EU has been promising Georgia membership for 15 years span without delivering on this commitment. These outlets emphasize that setting conditions for Georgia is an empty promise, merely intended to worsen the country's political situation. They also disseminate messages suggesting that the purported potential date for Georgia's admission to the EU - 2030 is hardly a tangible prospect for membership.
The articles published on “Sakartvelo Today News” highlight the opposition is using the 12-point recommendations’ implementation strategy against the government. Additionally, these articles emphasize concerns about the European Union's policy toward Georgia and its society, indicating a pessimistic outlook regarding the decision to grant candidate status to the country. As a result, the articles argue for the necessity of developing a strategy for Georgia to navigate these challenges independently.
- EU integration supportive attitudes weaken
The website 'Sakartvelo Today News' is disseminating manipulative information suggesting as if the EU integration supportive sentiment is weakening in Georgian society and people already question the idea of the EU integration. The website uses its non-represenative, deceptive online opinion poll results to back up its message.
- Georgian labor migrants in the EU are being oppressed
Several articles published on websites affiliated with a pro-Russian network argue that Georgians, despite aspiring to migrate for better opportunities, face disappointment upon relocating. These articles claim that Georgians seeking employment in European countries often experience oppression and indecent treatment. The proponents of these claims cite Facebook posts, originally written in Russian and later translated into Georgian, as evidence. Additionally, these sources reference fake stories circulated on a webpage and a Facebook page, including one about a Georgian migrant's alleged death in England. Another article discusses the deportation of Georgians from EU member states.
Other Messages Spread by the Network
Alongside the anti-EU propaganda, social media pages associated with the pro-Russian network spread anti-Western, including, anti-NATO (The North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and anti-Ukraine messages too. Simultaneously, they run a pro-Russian information campaign.
The network has been actively discouraging the idea of Georgia's potential NATO membership, portraying relevant promises as futile. They have also accused the Alliance of instigating revolutions in post-Soviet countries and abandoning people in war-torn regions. Additionally, the page called “Crazy World” has been spreading disinformation, suggesting that NATO is recruiting volunteer soldiers to be transferred to Georgia to launch anti-Russian military operations.
"Sakartvelo Today News" frequently asserts that Western nations are actively attempting to interfere in Georgia's domestic affairs and manipulate public opinion. Specifically, they claim that foreign countries provide financial support to non-governmental organizations and opposition political parties, aiming to undermine the government's independent strategies. These accusations go further to allege that the West is keen on opening a second war front in Georgia. Additionally, affiliated web pages within this network have even gone so far as to accuse Ukraine of intervening in Georgia's internal matters to induce destabilization.
The network taken down by Meta, as well as the recently re-emerged pages, portray Russia as Georgia’s primary partner in economic, cultural and other spheres. These platforms actively spread information about the dynamics of Russia-Georgia trade, direct flight connections, the interest of Russian writers in Georgia, the teaching of the Russian language in Georgia, and more. Additionally, some pages within this network aim to evoke Soviet sentiments too.
Anti-Western Propaganda of the “People’s Power”
During June-August of this year, "Sakartvelo Today News" published sponsored video interviews featuring members of "People's Power," a faction that split from the ruling party yet still remains part of the parliamentary majority. In these interviews, conducted by journalist and fashion blogger Mersi Mulkhanishvili, the members criticized the EU, the US, Ukraine, and President of Georgia, while expressing support for the strategies of the Government of Georgia and Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili.
The interviews delved into several topics, including Georgians' reactions to the resumption of flights between Georgia and Russia, and whether this would lead to economic growth. The representatives were asked about the steps taken to protect Georgia's national interests and why President Salome Zurabishvili was critical of the Government of Georgia. The interviewer also explored the perception that Georgian traditions are sometimes disregarded in the name of freedom.
In one sponsored video shared by a pro-Russian propaganda page, member Zurab Kadagidze from "People's Power" positively assessed the renewal of direct flight connections between Georgia and Russia. He argued that these flights benefit the Georgian diaspora residing in Russia and facilitate communication for those interested in conducting business in both countries.
The same page also published a sponsored post featuring interview excerpts with another member of "People's Power," David Kartvelishvili. In these fragments, Kartvelishvili criticized the President for not aligning with the ruling party's support for the draft law on foreign agents. He also expressed discontent over the President's lack of agreement with the assessment that not obtaining the status of an EU membership candidate country was unfair. In the video, Kartvelishvili argues that both "People's Power" and the government are facing pressure from the US, Europe, and Ukraine to involve Georgia in the devastating war in Ukraine.
“Opinions” About Georgia’s Domestic Affairs
The website sakartvelo-today.org has been actively publishing political reviews related to Georgia. These articles often feature opinions, although the authors remain unidentified. Some of these opinions include conspiracy theories, such as the claim that the President's decision to pardon Nika Gvaramia, the founder of the Georgian TV channel "Mtavari Arkhi," was influenced by the EU and the US. Additionally, in the articles, the US embassy is accused of sponsoring protest rallies against the proposed foreign agents' law in March. According to the statement published on the website, American instructors purportedly trained Georgian youth to organize these protest rallies. Furthermore, the opposition's attempt to impeach Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili was linked to the September 10 visit of the High Representative of the European Council, Joseph Borelli, who was allegedly attempting to destabilize the country.
„The US and the EU are increasingly intervening in Georgia’s domestic affairs. Their aim remains the same - to influence a change in the government. The intervention is driven by the current Georgian government's refusal to align with Western allies. Instead, the government strives to create a better future based on the independent interests of its citizens (sakartvelo-today.org, September 20, 2023)“.
Unlike the President of Georgia and various opposition political groups, the articles featured on sakartvelo-today.org explicitly express support for Irakli Gharibashvili. The website even published a letter addressed to the Prime Minister on his birthday, acknowledging that he gained the second term in office after the opposition attempted to overthrow the government. Strengthening trade relations with Russia, “under the pressure of powerful Western countries”, was named one of his remarkable achievements.
„During Irakli Gharibashvili’s term, Georgia’s GDP grew by 10.1% and relations with the country’s major trade partners, namely Russia, improved (despite a great pressure from the West) (sakartvelo-today.org, 28 ივნისი, 2023)“.
The above-described information campaign highlights a concerning trend: Georgian social media users are being targeted by Russian propaganda. The prevailing narratives in this campaign are focused on undermining Georgians' strong support for EU integration and sowing skepticism about the Union. What's alarming is that the network involved members of the parliamentary majority and representatives of "People's Power." Disseminated anti-EU messages align with the Kremlin's narrative, as well as a tactic of self-positioning as the media outlet matches the Russian hybrid warfare methods. Furthermore, despite the political nature of the advertisements circulating on Facebook and Instagram, crucial details such as the amount of money spent and their origins remain opaque. This lack of transparency constitutes a violation of Meta's rules and regulations, as well as coordinated inauthentic behavior and foreign influence operations.
Social Media Monitoring Program of the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy is made possible by the support from the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The sole responsibility for the content of this article lies with the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED) and the views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the donor’s position.