Introduction

In addition to providing highly-tailored solutions for consumer and brand intelligence, Zignal’s Impact Intelligence platform can also map and analyze inauthentic narratives that undermine public efforts to promote good governance. Leveraging this capability, our data research team discovered a concerted disinformation campaign by a network of social media accounts. These accounts are suspected of supporting the Russian regime to distort and vilify the international community’s efforts to help Eastern European countries promote rule of law, good governance, and economic development. 

In particular, pro-Russian entities appear to attack the NDI (National Democratic Institute) and the IRI (International Republican Institute), among other NGOs (non-governmental organizations). While these disinformation campaigns are not new, this analysis illustrates the network dynamics of such campaigns and illuminates specific frames the agitators use to attract and resonate with local influencers. We chose to focus on Georgia due to the onslaught of Russian aggression it has experienced since it gained independence through its Rose Revolution. It is particularly important for the region, as Georgia has parliamentary elections scheduled for October 2020, and the Kremlin appears to be meddling in Georgian internal politics

 

Background

Georgia peacefully regained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and continued to chart its way to political and economic modernizations with the 2003 Rose Revolution. However, the 2008 Russo-Georgian War demonstrated that the Kremlin was experimenting with disruptive information campaigns designed to trigger ethnic unrest and justify a military intervention. To date, Russia occupies over 20% of Georgian territory. 

The Kremlin has consistently alleged that U.S.-based think tanks are meddling in Georgian politics. The incumbent Georgian Dream Party, which came to power in 2012 promising to improve ties with Russia, appeared to echo the Kremlin’s propaganda. The Kremlin’s allegation is far from the truth. In contrast to Russian propaganda, the NDI and the IRI provide polling surveys to inform the Georgina population. The NDI also publishes reports to inform and empower Georgian CSOs (civil society organizations), as well as documents key activities the Georgina Central Election Commission conducts. In contrast, the Kremlin routinely finances pro-Russian organizations in Georgia

 

Zignal Analysis

Zignal Labs ingested data based on variations of Georgia’s country name, as well as its emoji flag. All mentions of Georgia were ingested in Georgian and Russian, while English mentions were collocated with local terminology to avoid mentions of the state of Georgia in the United States. To avoid false positives, we also blocked high-volume themes like “soccer” and “Eurovision.” 

Zignal Labs looked at publicly available data talking about Georgia from November 2019 through late February 2020. The data shows that Russia supported disinformation narratives to attack the credibility of the United States and promote the understanding that Georgia’s economy is closely tied to Russia. For instance, we discovered an actively promoted narrative, citing a 2018 story published by the Strategic Culture Foundation, that the current political climate in Ukraine is the result of actions by former president Barack Obama, Eric Schmidt (current chairman of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Innovation Advisory Board and former Google CEO), Jared Cohen (CEO and founder of Jigsaw, an independent unit at Google that builds technology to address global security challenges), George Soros (former hedge fund manager and philanthropist), and the CIA. 

How and Why the US Government Perpetrated the 2014 Coup in Ukraine,” a story found on strategic-culture.org, suggested that the U.S. used Georgian snipers to start the coup. Strategic Culture Foundation is registered in Moscow, and is described by Politico and Euromaidan Press, amongst others, as a Russian propaganda organization. During the window we examined, The Strategic Culture Foundation published at least 15 additional stories that involved Georgia, 11 of which also discussed NATO. 

Screenshot of the abovementioned article from The Strategic Culture Foundation.

“Georgia in Panic: Low Money Diseases from Russia’,” is how Google translates this blog post on LiveInternet.ru. It connects “depressing” statistics by the Georgian National Bank (not verified by Zignal’s research at time of publication) and says Georgian politicians are at fault. While the blog post can’t be connected directly to any known misinformation source, its narrative clearly takes the position that Georgia is reliant upon Russia and should maintain the historic partnership between the two countries.

Our data also revealed a political battlefield of protests and arrests that suggest Russian influence on the Georgian political process. In June 2019, anti-government protests in Georgia set the stage for election reform. The protesters demanded majoritarian MPs be replaced by proportional MPs, a better way to represent the large number of diverse political parties in Georgia. This system gives the largest party, the Georgia Dream Party, much more representation than its rate of support in Georgia. The Georgian Dream Party responded to these requests by promising a shift to proportional MPs by 2020, but the required constitutional amendment failed to pass in the November 13, 2019 vote. Protesters returned to the streets that night. 

On the other side of the coin, we saw a different protest occurring outside the American Embassy on January 26, 2020, when the Alliance of Patriots of Georgia called for the NDI and IRI to be shut down in Georgia, alleging their polls were falsified (NDI and IRI polls are often used to support election reform). A RT article describing the protests cited an expert at Moscow State Institute of International Relations saying both NGOs are American ideological organizations working across many former Eastern Bloc countries. The Alliance of Patriots of Georgia is likely supported by Russia 

Tweets (in Russian and English) promoting the abovementioned article from RT.

The leaders of the Georgian Dream Party restarted discussions on election reform after the November 2019 protests. But discussions fell apart on February 2, 2020, when opposition leader Gigi Ugulava was sentenced to more than three years in jail for embezzlement, a case of double jeopardy. The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee condemned the sentence. 

The arrest prompted the opposition to stop attending election reform talks, and the Spring Session of Parliament started without any opposition MPs on February 4. As of February 24, 2020, the opposition says it will not return to the reform talks unless Ugulava is released.  

With election reform talks stalled, the former Russian Embassy hosted the annual meeting of the Coordinating Council of Associations of Russian Compatriots in Georgia (KSORG) on February 18, 2020. The meeting, led by Sergey Pshenichny, Chief Advisor to the Department for Work with Compatriots Abroad of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, made plans for the current year and distributed funding from Russia. 

 

Conclusion


Zignal Labs’ analysis shows examples of disinformation narratives used to not only influence Georgia’s political reality, but also promote instability within the country. Election reform talks were still stalled as of February 24, and the Dream Party has the leader of the opposition in jail. Meanwhile, Russia is paying their local Compatriots to promote Russian interests. As the 2020 elections draw nearer, the political future of Georgia is far from certain. We expect to see continued pro-Russian narrative campaigns try to influence the Georgian parliamentary elections that will take place this October. 

This vignette highlights how Zignal technology allows users to detect and map trending inauthentic narratives in key strategic countries – before they become a threat to political and social stability. Zignal’s network visualizations, in particular, can provide rapid analysis both at the macro (network topology) and micro (narrative interactions) levels, to inform and enable agile responses to externally induced attempts to influence elections. 

For more information on this analysis, and to learn how Zignal can help you map and analyze inauthentic narratives, please contact Chris Miller, Research Program Analyst at Zignal Labs (chrismiller@zignallabs.com) or Doowan Lee, Senior Director of Research & Strategy (doowan.lee@zignallabs.com).