Issue 3, 2017. June-July

   

FAKE NEWS IN GEORGIA: THE GOVERNMENT'S PLAN TO TACKLE RUSSIAN SOFT POWER

The government has officially recognized Russian soft power as a major security threat. Investor.ge looks at how significant the threat is and how Tbilisi aims to deal with it.

Sally White

"Georgia officially recognizes Russia's soft power as a major threat" was how Caucasus web-media JAM News heralded Georgia's Strategic Defense Review last month, as though this was something new. Quite understandable-but wrong! Georgia's counterattack has been underway for well over a year now, even if low profile. While the work is underway, NGOs have adopted a wait-and-see stance.

Weaponizing the Media

As everywhere, the extent of Russia's weaponizing of the media, creating "fake news," has grown insidiously in Georgia. Some of it is aimed at nurturing nostalgia, or alarm and discontent, among the unemployed, the older population and in the regions with Azeri and Armenian minorities.

The Georgian Media Development Foundation (MDF), in a USAID- and UNAG-funded 2016 report entitled "Anti-Western Propaganda," found that "the main source of anti-Western messages was the media, which can be divided into two groups: openly pro-Kremlin outlets (Georgia & World, Sakiformi, Politicano) and anti-liberal, ethno-nationalist platforms (Obieqtivi TV, Asaval-Dasavali, Alia) with qualitively identical messages."

Other dominant topics, it found, were "legalization of homosexuality/pedophilia and the perverse mode of life in the West." Many portrayed the West as "a fighter against Orthodox Christianity and traditional values."

As a King's College London report, "Assessing Russia's Power," commented, "The key advantage of Russia's propaganda outlets is that they can easily penetrate the echo chambers of 'communities of grievances.' Their ability to amplify antiestablishment grievances poses a serious challenge both to the domestic stability of Russia's opponents and to the unity of their responses to Russia."

Favorite Targets

Much of Russia's fake news has been aimed at destablising the country's EU relationships. With the EU having granted visa-free Schengen-area travel for Georgia (a favorite topic of Russian skepticism and anti-EU propaganda), it can be expected to escalate further. Georgia's NATO ambitions, too, are a prime target.

A latest flair-up has been a well-publicized notice on the Russian Foreign Ministry's website warning its citizens that it was risky to visit Georgia-the holiday venue of choice for over a million Russians and a valuable source of revenue. This followed Georgia floating the idea of blacklisting former mayor of Moscow Yury Luzhkov after his high- profile visit, not just to Georgia, but to Georgia's breakaway regions.

Challenging the Narrative

So, how is this being countered? Back in March 2015, a European Union Council meeting stressed the need to challenge Russia's ongoing disinformation campaigns in the Eastern European Neighbourhood. As a result, the EU created the East Stratcom Team (named after its role of strategic communication) to challenge Russia's campaigns.

The EU also announced it would devote more money and resources to its East Stratcom Task Force to combat Russian fake news in these Neighbourhood countries, which include Georgia. The increased budget covers the https://euvsdisinfo.eu website, identifying disinformation reports and counteracting them. The Task Force's job was defined as "developing communication campaigns, targeting key audiences and focusing on specific issues of relevance to those audiences, including local issues," as defined by the European Council.

The follow-through in Georgia has been the setting up of StratComs units of its own. Linking in with the EU's task force, the Ministries of Defense and Foreign Affairs have established StratComs units and officers have been appointed in other ministries. There is a coordinating department in the Prime Minister's office that leads on all cross-government messaging. Georgia's StratCom also links in with the media efforts of the EU and U.S. partners in various fields, including the UN and NATO.

Recounting the work in Georgia of the last few months, one of Georgia's EU partners explained that "first there was in-house research on the anatomy of propaganda (i.e. what tools they use; who amplifies their messages; what kind of disinformation they disseminate, etc.). Then there was an assessment of the impact of propaganda and negative narratives..." As a result, Georgia devised and adopted an action plan - together with EU and U.S. - on how best to fight Russia's disinformation campaigns.

Positive and Truthful

"The work has two strands. First, it was agreed not to fight propaganda with propaganda, but instead invest in counteracting disinformation with accurate, positive information.

For example, if the propaganda message was that it was expensive to export agricultural goods to the EU, they started engaging directly with local farmers to explain the benefits of free trade with the EU in simple, understandable language. The second strand is improving the Georgian government's own communications, making it more streamlined, with a strong central narrative and core messages. The work on both of these strands is ongoing," Investor.ge was told.

Part of the latter is the government's news website, Agenda.ge.

This is being picked up regularly by the commercial sector, including international news service Caucasus Business Week, owned by global media group Euromoney.

Also, as the Office of the State Minister of Georgia on European and Euro-Atlantic Integration itself explains, the Georgian Stratcom units are "continuing to carry out media monitoring and analysis." Backing this up, given the importance of "fact-checking," the government is "enhancing capacity" communications and is very keen on "the importance of media literacy in the country and is calling for increases in various projects in this regard."

A New Strategy for Cyber Security

A new National Cyber Security Strategy of Georgia for 2017-2018 will tackle Russian cyberattacks and cybercrimes, identified as a major threat for the country.

Georgia's ambition to join NATO is another Russian target. Here the government has come out fighting in response to NGO and partner criticism that it is not engaging sufficiently with the local population. Extensive work has been carried out with NGOs and international organizations to create a program to "raise awareness in society," including countering Russian propaganda, says the State Minister of Georgia on European and Euro-Atlantic Integration, Victor Dolidze.

"We have reiterated that we do not counter propaganda with propaganda: we fight with civilized, European, Western methods, and this is crucial to raise the awareness of our citizens; [with the] provision of information on the benefits of membership to the EU and NATO; why the EU and NATO and not the Eurasian Union instead.

We would like to bring to everyone's attention that we have an opportunity to better educate our children, to implement more economic and investment programs, to better develop our infrastructure, [and] to ensure our country's economic and political security with stable energy," he added.

Push to Do More

This non-aggressive response upsets some activists. There is a lot of appeal for them in having a Radio-Liberty-type platform beaming out humor and satire to which the Russian leadership is so vulnerable! Or in having something akin to what's found in Georgia's favorite role model, Estonia, where Propastop, run by volunteers, regularly debunks news coming out of Russia, defusing propaganda.

Though the Georgian Media Development Foundation would prefer that ruling party MPs abstain from issuing "confusing contradictory messages," the government's new strategies, as announced, tick all of its boxes, at least. "But," the Foundation adds, "it is essential to see the implementation and usage of these documents in practice."