Number of Discrediting Facebook Pages Tripled for the Runoff - Second Interim Report of Social Media Monitoring
On November 20, the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED) presented second interim report of social media monitoring in the context of the 2018 presidential election. The present report summarizes trends identified by ISFED during the last stage of the pre-election period of the first round, as well as in the period between the first and the second rounds of the presidential election. Findings of the monitoring confirm that Facebook was used not only for political discussions but also for discrediting campaigns against candidates, parties, observer organizations, media outlets and politically active individuals by actively spreading misinformation and a range of damaging information in an organized and purposeful manner. As soon as the first round ended, it became clear that activity and negative campaign by political groups on social media became more aggressive. Therefore, it is impossible to paint a thorough picture of the pre-election period ahead of the second round of the election without analyzing social media.
Attempts to discredit candidates and political actors through social media using sponsored content published on anonymous Facebook pages became intensive. From October 19 to December 2, activity of mostly anonymously pages with the aim to discredit specific candidates, parties and other actors and influence public attitudes was especially striking. Number of these pages tripled before the second round. The trend of sponsoring discrediting posts to ensure their wide reach also grew.
Discrediting Facebook pages operated against Salome Zurabishvili as well as Grigol Vashadze and parties that endorsed them, using clearly negative messages. Anonymous pages operating for discrediting purposes were divided into two camps during the pre-election period of the second round. One group was targeting Salome Zurabishvili and the ruling Georgian Dream party that managed her campaign, while another group was operating against Grigol Vashadze, political parties and leaders that supported him and Rustavi 2 TV. Unlike official Facebook pages of the presidential candidates and political parties that supported them, the anonymous pages waged negative, discrediting and somewhat immoral campaign. These pages were speculating with details of the candidates’ personal lives and other sensitive issues. They also often published posts containing xenophobic and homophobic contents.
During the pre-election period of the second round, it became evident that discrediting pages from both sides attacked one another in an organized manner and engaged in smear campaigns in response to discrediting messages coming from the opposing side. For instance, pages targeting Grigol Vashadze were actively disseminating posts of POST-TV campaign “#NotoMisha”, where individuals shared their difficult experiences related to the time when the UNM was in power. In response, pages operating against Salome Zurabishvili started a campaign “NotoSalome”, where former military officials referred to Salome Zurabishvili as instrument of Russia’s interests and a traitor, saying that having her as the commander-in-chief was unacceptable. In response to this campaign, pages operating against Grigol Vashadze released video interviews with former military servicemen and parents of soldiers that were killed, condemning soldiers’ remarks about the female candidate and strictly criticizing involvement of soldiers in politics and their use by the UNM for this purpose.
Ahead of the second round, fake media pages were created or became active, acting against the opposition candidate. During the second round campaign, anonymous pages somewhat modified their strategy. Prior to the first round Election Day, discrediting Facebook pages followed the same scenario. In particular, they spread damaging information about specific candidates and their supporters. During the time between the first and the second round, fake news agency pages became active. Their names and logos led users to believe that they were ordinary news agencies, covering political processes in the country. However, in reality posts published on these pages were in support of the government on the one hand and against Grigol Vashadze and the UNM on the other. Significant part of posts were sponsored, which made it possible to deliver confusing and discrediting messages to a broad audience.
Pages that aimed to confuse and disorganize voters became active ahead of the second round. With regard to voter awareness, especially damaging were pages that pretended to support a particular candidate. These pages nearly did not exist in the first round. Such pages used names and logos of a candidate or a party that nominated/supported the candidate and on the surface they did not look any different from official campaign pages. However, based on the in-depth analysis of posts, their comparison to posts published by other pages, study of level and frequency of sponsored posts identified, it became clear that in reality these pages were targeting the very subjects in the name of which they seemingly operated. These pages often disseminated controversial posts. Activity of false supporting pages aimed to have their messages perceived as a position of subjects in the name of which they operated, which would have discredited them. ISFED found 7 such pages operating against Grigol Vashadze and 1 against Salome Zurabishvili.
Following the first round of the election, pages spreading ultra-nationalist narratives became active on Facebook in favor of Salome Zurabishvili. Prior to that, majority of these pages were actively disseminating posts with xenophobic, homophobic and anti-liberal contents. Activity of these pages also entailed attempts to discredit observer organizations, which became especially active after a public statement was made by observer organizations about possible printing of fake ID cards.
Pages of presidential candidates, parties that nominated/endorsed them and official campaign pages on Facebook mostly operated in abidance by requirements of the law. From October 10 to December 2, activity of official Facebook pages of electoral subjects and parties that endorsed them was mostly limited to advertising their platforms, criticizing competitors and publishing electoral promises. Homophobic and xenophobic rhetoric and hate speech was detected on Facebook pages of certain candidates that participated in the first round, however no such campaign was found on official campaign pages of Grigol Vashadze and Salome Zurabishvili, who competed in the second round. Notably, candidates and parties essentially did not use their official social media pages for discrediting opponents. In addition, based on the analysis of posts published on these pages, presidential candidates did not violate the rules of pre-election campaigning.
The Georgian Dream made illegal donation in favor of Salome Zurabishvili using their official Facebook page. P/u Georgian Dream – Democratic Georgia published sponsored posts on its official page, openly expressing their support for the independent presidential candidate Salome Zurabishvili. In addition, some of the sponsored posts published on the party website represented campaigning against Grigol Vashadze and the UNM. Expenses made for sponsored posts amounts to illegal donation in favor of Salome Zurabishvili and is against the organic law of Georgia on Political Associations of Citizens.
Notably, Giorgi Vashadze, who managed Grigol Vashadze’s campaign, and Zaal Udumashvili published a number of sponsored posts on their official Facebook pages, which should be disclosed as a donation made in favor of the UNM in a declaration submitted to the State Audit Office. Otherwise, it will amount to illegal donation.
Instances of misuse of administrative resources during the pre-election period were not found on official Facebook pages of municipalities and Ajara A/R bodies. The only exception is the official page of Tianeti Municipality, which published one campaign post. ISFED filed a complaint in connection to the violation and a protocol of administrative violation was subsequently issued against the responsible civil servant. ISFED welcomes that number of posts published by official Facebook pages of municipalities did not change during the campaign period for both the first and the second round of the presidential election and their activity remained stable.
Local self-government employees (civil servants) often violated the Election Code by campaigning during working hours using social media. Similar to the trend identified in the first interim report of social media monitoring, civil servants continued to actively participate in campaigning during the second round, in favor of the candidate endorsed by the ruling party and against the opposition candidate. During the second reporting period covering the official election campaign for both the first and the second round of the election, ISFED identified violation of campaigning rules during working hours by a total of 62 civil servants in 30 municipalities.
ISFED is the first observer organization in Georgia to conduct methodic pre-election monitoring of social media for elections. At this stage, in the context of the presidential election ISFED monitors only Facebook activity since it is especially popular among different social media platforms in Georgia.
The interim report of ISFED focuses on the following four areas:
- Activity of official Facebook pages of presidential candidates, parties that nominated these candidates and official campaign pages, and their compliance with legislation;
- Campaigning by local self-government civil servants on Facebook;
- Monitoring of official Facebook pages of local self-government and Ajara A/R bodies;
- Activity of Facebook pages set up primarily for discreditation purposes, their tactics and main messages;
The pilot project of social media monitoring is implemented with support of the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Georgia.
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