The West cannot sit by while Russia exploits social media with disinformation

The West cannot sit by while Russia exploits social media with disinformation
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In the fight between the West and Russia being fought in cyberspace, Russia appears to be winning by exploiting social media platforms to ignite and fuel polarization and tribalism in developed and developing states.

Georgia, once a republic of the Soviet Union, offers a stunning case in point. Russian-backed cyber campaigns there are driving wedges between people, stoking fear and diverting attention from the sale of the country’s key assets — energy, transportation, communication — to Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinThe Hill's Morning Report - Dems to lay out impeachment case to senators next week Overnight Defense: Foreign policy takes center stage at Democratic debate | House delivers impeachment articles to Senate | Dems vow to force new vote on Trump's border wall Putin names successor to Medvedev as Russian prime minister MORE’s Russia. Pro-democracy citizens have pushed back by hitting the streets. Most recently, people protesting the government’s failure to pass promised electoral reforms have joined the pro-Western demonstrations. Those interested in democracy need to step up. 

Georgia shares a more than 500-mile border with Russia, which used military force to invade and occupy more than 20 percent of Georgia’s territory. The Russian government is firing a constant barrage of disinformation into Georgia using Facebook, which more than two-thirds of Georgia’s people rely upon to socialize and obtain news. 

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The McCain Institute and a Tbilisi-based think tank, the Economic Policy and Research Center, have for the past year tracked the online behavior of Russian and Georgian extremists groups, including 43 disinformation pages with more than 700,000 followers. The research discovered that coordinated disinformation and propaganda campaigns promoted consistent anti-Western themes, including skewed presentations of Russia’s historical ties with Georgia; characterization of NATO as a weak organization that is incapable of protecting Georgia; advocacy of LGBTQ rights as a conspiratorial threat to Georgia’s traditional values; and hysterical coloring of greater Western integration as a threat to Georgia’s national identity. 

The ruling Georgian Dream party has asserted that it has had nothing to do with these pro-Russian disinformation campaigns, but it has done little, if anything, to counter them.

Rather than dedicating itself to establishing and strengthening democratic institutions, the Tbilisi government — led behind the scenes by an oligarch with Russian ties, Bidzian Ivanishvili — has bolstered the country’s relations with Putin’s government to retain power and reinforce its control over the country’s assets. Most of Georgia’s energy is in the hands of Kremlin-linked companies such as Inter-Rao, Gazprom and Lukoil. Increases in tax-free imports of Russian chicken, beef and pork are undermining local producers, who are heavily taxed.

For the past few months, Georgians have taken to the streets to protest their government’s cozying-up to Moscow and to call for the adoption of a fully proportional-representation election system for the upcoming 2020 national elections. The government has promised to adopt proportional-representation by 2024

The protests are threatening to weaken Georgian Dream’s tight grip on the country in the next elections. According to a recent public opinion poll by the International Republican Institute, a U.S. nongovernmental international development organization, only 26 percent of eligible voters would vote for the Georgian Dream, which, under a proportional electoral system, would deny any party an absolute majority and put an end to Georgian Dream’s power run. 

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To counter the protestors, official Tbilisi has joined Moscow in using mainstream mass-media outlets to portray the anti-Russia protestors as Russophobes and provocateurs. These efforts so far have not dampened the protests.

The struggle is providing Western democracies with an opportunity to counter Russia’s disinformation by undertaking efforts to strengthen civil society and civic engagement. Some analysts believe the best way to counter Russia’s social media disinformation campaigns is by increasing funding to social media projects that promote Western values and campaigns to allow for efforts to identify and counter anti-West bots and trolls. If this route is chosen, significant funding should be provided to the Western contractors and local nongovernmental organizations to marshal both human capital and technology. 

A second option is to increase support to both pro-Western social media efforts and grassroots movements. Disinformation campaigns often identify and exploit the vulnerabilities of a given society, such as racism, discrimination or nationalism. It makes good sense for Western democracy-development efforts to tailor their technological collaboration and educational, training and public outreach assistance to focus on grassroots movements working to address the vulnerabilities. 

With successful Western assistance, Georgia could become a catalyst for other Eastern European countries — for example, Hungary, Serbia and others — facing similar challenges. Too much is at stake for the West to sit idly by.

Fron Nahzi is the senior director of global development at Arizona State University’s McCain Institute for International Leadership. He worked for more than 20 years in the region on democratic development programs. The opinions expressed in this article are his own.