Moscow’s disinformation tactics aimed to sow chaos, confusion, and panic both before and during the invasion of Ukraine – trying to paint a picture of Ukraine as the aggressor, conceal the civilian cost of the conflict, and even the dates of military operations.
Back in early January, US intelligence warned the Kremlin was planning a ‘false-flag operation’ as a precursor to the invasion, and Ukraine also suffered cyberattacks against government websites and banks, some of which have been attributed to the GRU – Russia’s military intelligence agency.
Ukraine is not alone in this, as Georgia has also been attempting to cope with a long-term information warfare storm from the Kremlin. The invasion of Ukraine acts as both a call to action and a sombre reminder of the power of Russian disinformation.
There is now an urgency to build resilience against these operations across the whole of Moscow’s declared ‘sphere of influence’. Georgia, along with other Eastern Partnership states, has been targeted by disinformation that intends to turn public opinion against the European Union (EU), US, and NATO, as well as the country’s strong movement towards closer European integration.
A prolonged information warfare storm
One of the most common narratives deployed by Russian disinformation against Georgia exploits local conservative and traditional values by targeting women and the LGBTIQ+ community, particularly activists and human rights defenders. Disinformation about ethnic minorities such as Azerbaijanis or Armenians is also used to undermine Georgia’s social cohesion.
Watch a short video explainer (4 mins) on fighting disinformation in Georgia.
Moscow’s narratives are amplified in Georgia by far-right, pro-Kremlin, and nationalist politicians, as well as religious groups – especially certain representatives of the Georgian Orthodox Church. Politicians - both government and opposition – use disinformation to target their opponents.
This conflation of foreign-backed and homegrown disinformation – whether it is toolkits for spreading misleading information, or misleading content itself – is toxic and has led to a polluted information landscape, endangering both Georgia’s democracy and its most vulnerable groups.
Given Russia’s current information warfare operations against Ukraine, disincentivising the spread of disinformation in Georgia is critical to urgently improve resilience to pro-Russian narratives, which can be used as a pretext for violations of sovereignty. Failing to counter these harmful narratives risks amplifying existing cracks in social cohesion and exacerbating the online and offline harms faced by marginalized groups.
This was especially highlighted during the COVID-19 crisis which was a pressure cooker for harmful disinformation in Georgia – particularly against ethnic minorities – creating substantial barriers to inclusion. In March 2020, after intensive – and misleading – media coverage of Azerbaijani communities supposedly breaking restrictions, this ethnic group faced a wave of hate on social media platforms.
Then just a few months later, during the latest outbreak of the Armenian-Azerbaijani war over Nagorny Karabakh, pro-Russian disinformation contesting Georgia’s neutrality caused tensions between Armenians and Georgians, working to further undermine the trust between these communities.
Ethnic groups are not the only target, as anti-equality disinformation narratives targeting women have been running rampant in recent years. In response to a growing movement to fight violence and discrimination against women, disinformation campaigns target feminist activists, women’s human rights defenders, and survivors of violence – generally aiming to frame the women’s movement as a threat to traditional values and Georgia’s national identity.
In July 2021, Georgia’s LGBTIQ+ communities and journalists became the targets of violent attacks after a malign anti-Pride disinformation campaign from the Kremlin and local groups, including government officials, far-right political groups, and high-profile Church leaders.
Much needs to be done to increase the general public’s awareness of how these narratives are used to weaken Georgia – its government is reluctant to confront Russia directly due to security concerns, but steps can be taken towards increasing the country’s resilience.
New standards for mitigating disinformation
Georgia’s civil society, media, and the government all have a role and responsibility in improving resilience to information warfare, but a whole-of-society approach faces many obstacles due to the polarization of Georgia’s political scene and public discourse, as well as low levels of trust between all actors.
However, progress could be made on improving coordination and enhancing technical capacity, and public commitments by media outlets and platforms to shared standards for fighting disinformation would also help build trust and social cohesion.
A consolidated package of media ‘gold standards’ for mitigating threats from disinformation would formalize existing emergency coordination in response to fake news incidents, especially campaigns which amplify social fragmentation. These standards should be developed by an advisory group driven by representatives from Georgia’s mainstream and independent media organizations with support from donors and other experts.
The package should also include improving standards of reporting relating to ethnic minorities, women, and LGBTIQ+ communities. The media plays an important role in shaping public awareness and narratives about these communities, and therefore can support Georgia’s longer-term resilience to harmful information operations designed to amplify cracks in society.
Framing the standards both in terms of resisting Kremlin-backed disinformation and to provide democratic and human rights safeguards for minorities in line with European integration requirements would help encourage eventual commitment from both government and opposition-affiliated media – but the initiative can start small.
International donors can also play a key role in creating a platform to develop these standards, and a recurring formal event – such as a summit or a conference – would help avoid duplicating effort and ensure the standards reflect Georgia’s evolving experience in responding to information warfare.