On December 20, 2019, Facebook removed 396 assets on its core platform, including pages and groups engaged in coordinated inauthentic behavior focusing on Georgia, with a particularly pro-Government or anti-opposition angle in terms of content.
Ahead of the late 2020 parliamentary elections, the political situation in Georgia is extremely and increasingly polarized. An allegedly unfair 2018 presidential election, excessive use of force against protesters, and a perceived failure to fulfill promises by Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire oligarch at the head of the ruling Georgia Dream Party, brought thousands of protesters to the streets in late November as they believed hard-won democratic reforms to be at risk. According to the latest International Republican Institute opinion survey, the ruling party has lost popularity with its support falling from 26 percent to 23 percent, while 41 percent support the united opposition parties. Meanwhile, 68 percent of respondents said the country is moving “in the wrong direction,” with 71 percent naming the poor economic conditions within the country as the main problem facing the country.
It was in this political setting that Facebook removed pages linked to the ruling party within the Georgian government, the Georgia Dream Party. In its announcement, Facebook stated:
These Pages posed as news organizations and impersonated political parties, public figures, activist groups and media entities. The Page admins and account owners typically posted about domestic news and political issues such as elections, government policies, public officials, criticism of the opposition and local activist organizations. Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities and coordination, our investigation linked this activity to Panda, an advertising agency in Georgia, and the Georgian Dream-led government.
The DFRLab had access to a subset of 261 assets of the overall set prior to removal but could not directly corroborate Facebook’s assessment about the governmental affiliation nor its connection to Georgian advertising agency Panda.
The DFRLab did find, however, that the pages targeted a domestic Georgian audience, spreading divisive socio-political content that promoted Ivanishvili and his allies in the government, attacked opposition parties and civil society, and attempted to discredit Georgia’s Western allies, particularly the United States.
Not so newsy outlets
Among the set taken down by Facebook were pages focused on religion, breaking news, and, more broadly, disseminating memes. The number of followers of the removed Facebook pages ranged from as few as 400 up to around 11,000.
In a majority of cases, the pages attempted to camouflage themselves as online news outlets, in part through names like “Daily Info,” “NewsHub.ge,” “TodayNews.ge,” and “OnTime.ge.”
While these pages ostensibly looked to be named after off-platform websites, none of the eponymous URLs appeared to be available off-platform as independent websites.
In many instances, the pages presented Ivanishvili as a benevolent leader protecting Georgia, with posts about him, in many cases, receiving more than 100 reactions and 40 comments, on average.
In addition to promoting Ivanishvili, the removed pages also shared articles that had a specifically anti-American sentiment. Some of the articles promoted included one about the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, who has been accused of sexual misconduct, while another post amplified a story about a U.S. navy sailor who killed two people at the navy base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. While both stories were true, the pages only posted stories of a similar nature that reflected poorly on the United States and its government and military.
These pages appear to have all been created in a two-month period between November and December 2018 and to be managed by anywhere from five to nine administrators each, all of whom appeared to be based in Georgia.
Targeting opposition leaders
In addition to the supposed news outlet pages, Facebook removed pages targeting and discrediting local opposition parties in Georgia.
Some of the removed Facebook pages fueled confusion and division around one of the most sensitive topics for Georgians — the 2008 Russia-Georgia August War. Kremlin outlets, pro-Russian Georgian parties, and Ivanishvili himself have all claimed that Georgia’s previous government and ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili were to blame for the August War.
Others pages in the set published an interview with a government-affiliated platform POSTV blogger, Guri Sultanishvili, who has accused civil society organizations of being tied to the opposition parties. In the interview, Sultanishvili states that the opposition’s actions — implying the long ongoing protests against the ruling party — are close to a “psychiatric state.”
Facebook removed 396 assets involved in coordinated inauthentic behavior that targeted Georgia, and all of those that the DFRLab had access to appeared to be run out of the country. The pages attempted to promote a specific political agenda by promoting the ruling party and its leader, Bidzina Ivanishvili, in part by portraying themselves as ostensible — though not being in actuality — news outlets. The pages also tried to discredit opposition leaders. This takedown comes at a particularly heated time in Georgian politics, ahead of the late-2020 parliamentary elections.