ISFED uncovers further false media pages that survived the Facebook takedown
In April 2020, Facebook removed 943 pages, profiles, groups and Instagram accounts engaged in domestic political campaigns in Georgia, for coordinated inauthentic behavior. Among them was a network of false media pages identified by ISFED. The primary tactic of false media pages removed in April was sharing of posts in public and private groups through the use of Facebook profiles working in coordination. Before that, on 20 December 2019, 344 Georgian pages were removed from the platform, due to coordinated inauthentic behavior, including 35 false media pages identified by ISFED. Starting from the 2018 presidential election, false media pages carried out continuous sponsored campaign in favor of the authorities/ruling party and to the disadvantage of their opponents.
Despite two removals of the large-scale inauthentic networks by Facebook, one more network of false media pages continues to operate on Facebook, which unlike the false media pages removed in April, is using sponsoring of Facebook posts in order to target broad audience with selective information. Sponsored content from these pages is visible on newsfeeds of Facebook users whether or not they like or follow these pages. In that sense, the tactic used is similar to that of the false media pages removed in December.
ISFED has found that currently there are five closely connected false media pages, which focus on boosting/sponsoring of posts on Facebook. They are also using other social media platforms and websites. These false media pages became active on Facebook in January 2020 and with altered tactics. However, their primary strategy remains the same: they try to portray themselves as genuine media outlets and engage in sponsored propaganda campaigns under this facade. They create a single coordinated network disseminating content in support of the authorities.
Average number of followers and subscribers of these false media pages is around 5,000, however owing to post sponsoring, their posts have a high user interaction. Half of their posts are sponsored and they account for over 99% of total interactions (sum of reactions, comments and shares) for these pages. Only posts sponsored on the false media pages are those with propaganda purpose and directed toward formation of public opinion. In addition to individual posts, false media pages also sponsor their own Facebook pages.
If in the past, false media pages only existed on Facebook, this time all five false media pages have their own websites that were registered within the same time interval. Websites indicate possibly fake names as authors of articles that they publish. Almost all materials on each of these webpages are published under the same name. ISFED found that materials published on false media Facebook pages and websites are mostly copied from other news agencies, word by word, and without citing the source. Notably, false media pages sometimes disseminate older reports, including in a way that misleads readers into thinking that it is recent information.
In addition to Facebook pages, false media have their own YouTube channels, Twitter pages and Instagram profiles. However, at this stage, presence on other social media platforms has the only function of making the false media pages seem like genuine media outlets on Facebook and other platforms are not used for the purpose of disseminating political propaganda.
The goal of false media pages is to create an illusion of genuine media, disseminate their messages on social media in disguise and influence political opinions of the public. The objective of pages addressed in this report is to provide Facebook users with information in a selective manner, in the form of sponsored posts. False media essentially do not create any information product themselves. Instead, they use news published on genuine media websites. These pages are mostly gathering news that reflect messages of the government, publish them on their websites and disseminate them on Facebook in the form of sponsored posts. In order to create an illusion of media, false media pages also publish non-political content, however those posts are never sponsored.
In their sponsored posts, these false media pages also reacted to removal of the inauthentic networks by Facebook. The sponsored posts highlighted that Facebook removed a network of accounts associated with the opposition party United National Movement but they said nothing about removal of accounts associated with the agency eSPersona, connected to the ruling party. False media pages intentionally omitted this information when copying the material from genuine online media. Amid COVID-19 pandemic, the pages are used for a sponsored campaign in favor of the Georgian Dream - Democratic Georgia chairperson, Bidzina Ivanishvili and government leaders, as well as for dissemination of official statements of the ruling party.