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Trolls and bots in the Georgian online space and their influence on the elections

27.05.2020

 Lana Giorgidze

The trolls and bots are spread in the Georgian online space as fast as the COVID-19 and harm the societies and the democratic process in the country as successfully as the infection. 

In accordance to the Media and Information Literacy Lab (MilLab), a troll is a person who acts online without providing a real identity in order to disrupt healthy discussions among users on various websites, forums and social networks. Trolls write aggressive and unrelated comments on the topics interesting to them in the groups created in social networks (for example, Facebook, Vkontakte, Odnoklassniki), blogs, as well as comments section of various web portals with the intent of attracting attention and emotionally provoking users.

As one of the main and most important characteristics, a classic Internet troll always hides a real identity, using a fake social media account and providing either fake or no personal information at all. These may include photos, contact information, data about education, workplace, hobby and interests.

The MilLab also clarifies the meaning of the Bot. According to the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRL), bots are automated social media accounts which pose as real people. Bot management is possible through a kind of network, when one particular user remotely manages tens of thousands of automated accounts.

The Oxford Internet Institute distinguishes one more type of bots – political bots, pieces of software or code designed to mimic human behavior online. They can be used to perform various manipulative techniques including spreading junk news and propaganda during elections and referenda, or manufacturing a false sense of popularity or support by liking or sharing stories, ultimately drowning out authentic conversations about politics online.

Movement “It Is a Shame” created a special website and facebook page, where they disclose trolls and bots. The facebook page “Who Is Who” publishes information about false facebook pages every day, and any facebook user may take part in their removal by clicking “report”. 
By now, the facebook page Who Is Who has discovered 186 face accounts and 123 accounts were removed. 

On May 5, six months before the Parliamentary Elections, the facebook administration deleted hundreds of facebook profiles and pages in Georgia. Among them were 511 pages, 101 profiles, 122 groups and 56 Instagram accounts were associated with Koka Kandiashvili’s “EsPersona” as well as 23 profiles, 80 pages, 41 groups and 9 Instagram accounts were associated with the United National Movement. 

Who Is Who is not the only platform to expose trolls and bots. The web portal “Myths Detector” created by the Media Development Fund promotes identification of false information and provides the society with trustworthy information to raise media literacy of the society. 

According to the Myths Detector, the administrators of the pages and owners of the accounts mostly posted about the news and political issues of the country, like elections, the policy of the government, criticized the activities of the opposition, journalists and local activists. 

Researcher at the MDF Sofo Gelava said that Facebook removed the facebook pages and profiles in Georgia two times as they were inauthentic. 

“In the first case (on December 20, 2019), the Facebook statement read that these pages were managed by the company Panda, which was affiliated with the Georgian Dream. The Facebook statement notified that these pages and trolls aimed to discredit the ongoing demonstrations in front of the parliament building and the activists. The second wave of the Facebook cleansing happened short time ago and they reported about the false pages and accounts affiliated with the United National Movement too.

Above that, hundreds pages and false accounts managed by Koka Kandiashvili’s “EsPersona” were also deleted by the facebook administration. The facebook referred to its previous statement, where they were speaking about the Georgian Dream. Kandiashvili’s scheme also included pseudo media pages, which positioned as media but in reality they were not media,” Sofo Gelava said. 

International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED) published a document with regard the coordinated network of false media pages on facebook operating with political intentions. 

According to the ISFED,  As the parliamentary election date gets closer, waves of disinformation and discrediting content intensifies both from Russian and domestic sources. It is likely that the coronavirus pandemic has caused early activation of the infrastructure created for exerting information influence on election processes. Consequently, a high level of activity of coordinated Facebook pages, groups and accounts operating in favor of political actors is visible as early as 6 months prior to the elections. In addition to pages operating for discrediting opponents, a new closely coordinated network of false media pages has emerged, abusing social media platforms to disseminate their favorable messages and information. Even though on 20 December 2019, Facebook removed majority of false media pages, relatively new false media pages have started employing different tactics for operation. 

ISFED identified a network of false media pages with elements of close coordination on Facebook, which operates in disguise and utilizes common tactics in an attempt to disseminate pro-governmental messages in an inauthentic manner and demonize critical opinions. In addition to dissemination of pro-governmental articles, these false media pages disseminate targeted disinformation for discrediting public figures and opposition leaders that are critical to the government.

All in all, it was revealed that 14 false media Facebook pages employ the same tactic, which indicates their coordination. Majority of these pages were created the same day, on 27 May 2019. In parallel with the Facebook pages, their 14 websites and the same number of YouTube channels are also active. Those too have been created within the same period of time. False media names, design of their Facebook pages and appearance of their websites aim to mislead users into thinking that they are real media outlets.

ISFED also clarified stands behind those false pages: “According to the information posted publicly on her personal Facebook account on March 10, one of the eleven pages created on 27 May 2019 - „Mtavari Ambebi“, is managed by a former journalist of ES Persona publication, Natia Beridze. Her personal Facebook account indicates that she is the editor-in-chief of the agency. In the post published on March 10, Beridze stated that she personally purchased the page and with it she was going to actively start exposing “the National Movement and its satellites”. Notably, Natia Beridze was a key witness in the case initiated against the UNM leader, Nika Melia in connection with the June 20 night. It is worth noting that on 30 March 2020, editor of false media Mtavari Ambebi, Natia Beridze created a Facebook page that discredits Mtavari TV Company - it is called Kuritsa TV and it features memes about Mtavari TV director, Nika Gvaramia. The fact that the page has been created by Natia Beridze is confirmed by the fact that on March 30, the day it was created, the page had a single like and it was from Natia Beridze.”

With the upcoming elections, false information influence the public opinion, which is used by the ruling party and their opposition – United National Movement for their political goals.

“In the context of the elections, use of inauthentic activities on facebook for political goals is very harmful as it aims to manipulate with the public opinion and to misinterpret the reality. These accounts create unreal reality in the social networks and false public opinions about concrete issues, which create the illusion of dominant opinion. Of course, it affects the informed choice of the electorate,” Sofo Gelava, MDF researcher, said.
The organizations fighting against myths and false facebook accounts suggest the society to be cautious not to share false information, they should double check their discussion in the online space, in which pages and groups the information is spread, etc. 

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