Facebook’s administration removed a “pro-Kremlin” page and a dozen of accounts linked with it that were spreading disinformation in Georgia amid the coronavirus pandemic, the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED), a local watchdog, reported on May 1.
The watchdog said it had been monitoring News-Front Georgia, posing as a news organization, on the social media platform since November, 2019. As of May 1, News-Front Georgia’s Facebook page is no longer accessible to users.
Mikheil Benidze, who heads ISFED, wrote the page was removed by Facebook’s administration, along with twelve fictional persona accounts linked with the entity. “Last week we informed Facebook about the results of our research,” Benidze said, “and now [the network] is deleted.”
News-Front – violating Facebook’s community standards – was carrying out a “targeted” campaign aimed at sowing discord, fomenting political polarization and peddling pro-Russian and anti-Western propaganda among Georgians through “inauthentic interaction” with social media users, ISFED stated.
The watchdog estimated that News-Front’s online outreach had been sizable, as it was able to disseminate reported disinformation in 31 open Facebook groups (content visible to non-members), an audience of 521,240 members in total.
According to a report released by Media Development Fund, another watchdog, News-Front network is run by Shota Apkhaidze, a resident of Moscow, with alleged ties to a fringe far-right movement “Georgian March.”
As stated by ISFED, News-Front is a pro-Kremlin network of media outlets, which set up its Georgian-language branch in October, 2019, which is “exactly a year before the 2020 parliamentary elections” in Georgia.
The watchdog suggested that the disinformation network – devised by foreign and domestic “malicious” actors – was in fact intended to meddle in the crucial polls due to be held in October this year.
However, the watchdog argued, the network was put to use beforehand as coronavirus crisis proved to be a propitious moment to disseminate disinformation.
ISFED noted that practice of physical distancing due to the infection had led to “increasing reliance” on social media, which enhanced people’s exposure to “internal and external” sources of disinformation.
According to the report, News-Front, an online media outlet, ran articles with “ambiguous” titles that were intended to discredit and spread distrust for the National Center for Disease Control and Public Health (NCDC), its deputy head Paata Imnadze, and the Lugar Research Center, a U.S.-funded laboratory located near Tbilisi.
“As the international crisis unfolds, intensified Russian disinformation campaign in Georgia attempts to distort reality, demonstrate the need to distancing Georgia from the West, covertly attacks democratic institutions, tries to divide the society and amplify artificially inspired topics in social media, through the use of inauthentic interaction,” ISFED wrote.
The watchdog outlined a number of disinformation narratives circulated via social media pages.
According to ISFED, a bulk of disseminated messages dwelt on “Europe’s failure” to tackle the coronavirus crisis, implying that Georgia would not benefit from close ties with the West and arguing for rapprochement with Russia.
Another strain of disinformation tried to disparage Western support to Georgia in combating the virus, downplaying Lugar Laboratory’s role in the process, reads the report. Against this backdrop, ISFED noted, the media outlet exalted Russian and Chinese efforts to help virus-stricken Italy, allegedly left in the lurch by European partners.
ISFED said “malicious” actors tried to capitalize on the controversy triggered by Georgian Orthodox Church’s refusal to shut down church houses and suspend dispensing communion with a shared spoon due to high risks of contagion. The outlet stoked fears about alleged campaign against the faithful under the guise of health emergency, implicating “liberal” groups of the society, ISFED noted.
The watchdog stressed that – through “gross violation” of social media standards – pro-Russian media outlets made concerted efforts to “take advantage of public anxiety and undermine Georgia’s foreign political direction,” and subvert the country in its response to the pandemic.