Divisive Narratives on Facebook During the 2018 Elections
During the 2018 Presidential election, ISFED identified 52 Facebook pages that were actively engaged in dissemination of divisive value-based narratives, including nationalistic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, anti-Western, anti-liberal and homophobic messages. Their monitoring suggests that these pages aim to incite value-based confrontation and polarization in the society, create irrational fears, influence public discourse and radicalize the society on ideological grounds.
Narratives and propaganda methods of these Facebook pages are identical to those used by the Kremlin in various European countries. In particular, tactics employed by these pages resonate with Kremlin’s efforts to spread divisive narratives that contain conspiracy theories in the Western society. Usually these narratives are in line with the far-right or far-left agenda and run against the liberal discourse. In Europe, these messages are often spread by Russian online media and they also move to different social media platforms. Use of this phenomenon by the Kremlin to manipulate public discourse is perceived in the West as interference with domestic political affairs of a particular country.
Spike in the activity of propaganda pages examined during the monitoring coincided with specific events and dates. During the monitoring, these pages became especially active for the first time in August, on the tenth anniversary of the 2008 war, as well as on the anniversary of the medieval Didgori Battle. Their level of activity also increased significantly after Guram Kashia was recognized for UEFA’s Equal Game award and also, after the government unveiled the initiative to cultivate cannabis for export purposes.
52 pages monitored were liked by a total of 1,176,400 users.2 They published a total of 22,606 posts from June 1, 2018 through January 5, 2019, with a total of 5,160,994 post interactions.3 The number of post reactions4 and shares were nearly equal, while comments were less frequent. The pages published posts mostly in the form of photos frequently accompanied by captions.
Divisive narrative pages can be grouped under six different categories of narratives. Posts with nationalistic and anti-liberal content were published most often, followed by posts that contained homophobic, xenophobic, anti-western and Islamophobic messages. These narratives resonate with narratives inspired by Russia, as identified by EU’s East StratCom Taskforce, which are disseminated in different European countries on a periodic basis.5
Nationalistic messages featured ethnic, Orthodox and (ultra)conservative nationalism content. Messages against Georgia’s neighbors had a significant share, including on the anti-occupation issue, where other neighboring countries were named as occupiers alongside Russia. Among these, anti-Turkish messages were most frequent, portraying Turkey as an enemy of Georgia.
The pages incited xenophobic feelings mostly toward citizens of Asian and African countries. These pages actively campaigned against issuing of residency permits to such individuals, entry of citizens of Iran, Arab states, India, China, Africa and other countries into Georgia, and were trying to link the immigration from non-Western countries to increased rates of crime, citing false facts.
Islamophobic messages were mostly directed against Islam or Muslims of Georgian and foreign nationality. Some of the pages tied Islam with violence and terrorism. They were openly against building of mosques in Ajara and highlighted the threat of Georgia’s “Islamization”.
Some divisive narrative pages contained openly anti-western propaganda. Among the posts that were published, messages against the EU, the Council of Europe and NATO were especially salient. Divisive narrative pages are against Georgia’s integration with NATO. Often the West was identified with immorality.
Notably, some of the pages welcome strengthening of nationalism in Western countries and attempt to draw a picture that Western countries are trying to “escape” from values of liberal democracy. Ultra-nationalist pages referred to the examples of rising nationalism in Europe and cited far-right, nationalist views of leaders of governments of Hungary,
Austria, Poland and Italy. They also support the policies of Donald Trump’s administration. According to this narrative, the West is only associated with Christian culture, which, according to the divisive narrative pages, is endangered by non-Western cultures.
The pages openly oppose the cultural characteristics of liberal democracy, liberalism and those who share liberal values. Propaganda pages confront liberalism with Orthodox, national and traditional values. Some posts were also against multiculturalism. These pages were spreading anti-feminist, sexist and misogynist messages. One of the key messages was the propaganda against abortion. Additionally, campaign against George Soros and NGOs was very active.
Divisive narrative pages openly expressed unacceptability toward LGBTQI community and were against the anti-discrimination law or its application to representatives of the LGBTQI community. Homophobic messages sometimes manifested in violent calls. Anti-LGBTQI narrative was often related to messages against Guram Kashia.
Analysis of political rhetoric of the pages examined by ISFED indicates that they were against the policies of all current and previous authorities of Georgia, with the exception of the first president of Georgia, Zviad Gamsakhurdia. In some cases, facts of direct or indirect support toward the Georgian Dream were found. Some divisive narrative pages openly supported the Alliance of Patriots of Georgia and its leaders.
Ahead of the first round of the Presidential election in 2018, the pages studied most often supported Giorgi Andriadze as a candidate. For the second round, some of them engaged in favor of Salome Zourabichvili.
Divisive narrative pages were also involved in discrediting campaigns against Presidential candidates. Targets of discrediting campaigns ahead of the first round mostly included Salome Zourabichvili, Grigol Vashadze, Zourab Japaridze and Davit Bakradze. For the runoff, the discrediting activity of the divisive narrative pages were mostly targeting Grigol Vashadze.
Pages spreading value-based divisive narratives were mostly sharing the content of the so called alternative, ultra-nationalistic media outlets, alt-info.com and mystar.ge. They also used mainstream media in some cases, including “Interpressnews”, news pages of Imedi TV and the Public Broadcaster.
Divisive narrative pages likely form closely tied networks, with two of them seemingly the most influential. The fact that sources shared by these pages were identical indicates that these pages work as a network. The pages that are allegedly part of a network are actively sharing the content of their respective source as well as each other’s posts. Additionally, pages that make up networks publish similar posts within short intervals.
- One such network includes Facebook pages linked to alt-info.com: Alt-Info; Anti-liberal Club, Geo Pepe, Alpha Dominant, Anti-Paradox.
- Another network was organized around mystar.ge6 and included Mystar.ge7, National Force, Notorious Society, You Are Georgia.
Read the full report here