The International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy, a local watchdog, released an investigation report on May 4, raising concerns over alleged use of recently removed “fake” Facebook accounts associated with a “pro-Kremlin outfit,” to enhance the public profile of two government entities – the Central Election Commission and the Pension Agency.
The watchdog highlighted that the network of fake profiles linked to pro-Kremlin News-Front Georgia outlet was earlier used to “meddle” in 2018 presidential elections, boosting the image of the CEC, while battering ISFED, a civil society outfit.
ISFED wrote that in May-August, 2019, the same sham accounts were used to raise the profile of the newly established Pension Agency. The watchdog added that fake profiles deliberately spread content aimed at securing public support for the government-backed pension reform.
According to ISFED, “fake” accounts contained a variety of bogus details such as age, sex, and other personal information, and closely resembled authentic users. “[This] rendered their coordination invisible and their concerted action was inconspicuous for Facebook users,” ISFED said.
However, ISFED maintained that “inauthentic activities” were easily discernible, as all twelve “phony” profiles had displayed “identical” behavior – similar wording and messages while posting, liking the same pages, and etc. – which indicated that “they were managed by a single entity.”
The watchdog argued that coordination of these accounts was corroborated by the fact that all of them had “liked” Facebook pages of News-Front and other “fake” media outlets, as well as of the Pension Agency.
Furthermore, ISFED noted, that, twelve “fake” Facebook pages, associated with the said accounts, had been posting one and the same photo- and video-content concurrently.
They tried to disparage CSOs by labeling them as “United National Movement” party stooges, undermining public confidence in independent watchdogs, ISFED said.
The watchdog mentioned that the network was also used to circulate statements of two pundits – “government mouthpieces” – who commended CEC’s activities and slammed the civil society, ISFED in particular.
ISFED stated that, during the 2018 presidential elections, the CEC funded dissemination of Zaal Anjaparidze’s and Gia Abashidze’s public statements via online media. It further called attention to the fact that most of the media content financed by the CEC was also spread by “fake” media pages.
ISFED claimed that the disinformation network was allegedly connected with Magda Kotrikadze, a government employee, who heads the PR department of the Pension Agency. Kotrikadze is “on friendly terms” with the two pro-government pundits, and has collaborated with “fake news” outlets, the watchdog said.
Earlier, ISFED reported that, on April 30, Facebook’s administration removed a “pro-Kremlin” page – News-Front Georgia – and a dozen of accounts linked with it that were spreading disinformation in Georgia amid the coronavirus pandemic.
News-Front’s Georgia, ISFED claimed, carried out disinformation campaigns aimed at widening partisan divides and peddling pro-Russian and anti-Western propaganda among Georgians through “inauthentic interaction” with social media users.
As stated by ISFED, News-Front is a pro-Kremlin network of media outlets, found by Roskomnadzor, Russia’s state media regulator in 2015. Its website is registered in Simferopol, Crimea – Ukraine’s territory illegally annexed by Russia.
ISFED also cited a report by Media Development Fund, another watchdog, according to which the News-Front network is run by Shota Apkhaidze, a resident of Moscow, with alleged ties to a fringe far-right movement “Georgian March.”
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