Disinformation and Elections: Summing up 2021 Local Government Elections

07 December, 2021

The results of the information sources monitoring conducted by the Coalition members showed that manipulative information was used as political weapon during both rounds of the 2021 local elections.

Unverified stories and discrediting statements towards the opponents as well as fake, and, in many cases, reputationally damaging information was actively and deliberately spread during the pre-election period. The disinformation was most often published via unauthentic, anonymous, or false media pages on social media networks.

The United National Movement, Georgian Dream – Democratic Georgia and Gakharia for Georgia political parties were the main targets of defamatory campaigns, however Lelo and other opposition parties have also been affected by the messages damaging their reputation. Discreditation campaigns during the pre-election period, on one hand contributed to the raise of radicalization and polarization and on the other - drastically limited healthy debates and opportunity for discussion in the society.

Informational Challenges in Social Media

Unofficial and, in many cases, anonymous campaigns have deliberately damaged the election process, even though pre-election campaigns are supposed to present the election programs and agenda of the political parties and candidates to their voters. Unfortunately, the 2021 local elections official campaign was mostly overwhelmed by discrediting statements. This process was exacerbated by the unofficial campaign on social media, targeted towards damaging opponents, confusing and disorganizing voters with manipulative materials.

Anonymous discrediting campaign in social media was conducted using various tactics. The statements directed against the opposition can be pointed as especially well-organized and damaging, during the campaign. Open discreditation, false media, false support, and false discrediting tactics were all used against the opposition, confusing and deceiving social media users of various perceptions. Given the specifics of the municipal elections, anonymous pages, targeted to certain municipalities were created, which mostly operated similar to false media tactics.

Pages against the government and ruling party for the most part engaged in open discreditation campaign. Fake accounts were identified, including one that administered a false UNM-supporting page.

It’s noteworthy that, alongside the oppositional electoral subjects, media outlets, their managers, and certain journalists critical to the government, became a target for anonymous discreditation campaign. The social media campaign against journalists was unprecedented comparing to the previous elections, considering its scale, intensity, and negativity. In certain cases, pages against the ruling party published posts targeting Imedi TV and POSTV.

During the pre-election campaign (and especially during the second round) the tendency to publish fake quotes in the name of the traditional media outlets critical to the government appeared. To give the quotes more plausibility and in order to confuse and deceive the audience, official logos and visuals of the traditional media outlets were used in said quotes. 11 Facebook pages, supporting one political party or another, while discrediting the opponents, using regional media outlets names were identified during the pre-election monitoring.

Apart from this, election observer organizations were constantly attacked through permanent discreditation attempts conducted through pages acting in coordination. Fake accounts were used organize comments on said pages. Notably, the Central Election Commission representative relied on a false information spread by a fake account to accuse the Civil Election Commission (founded by the Shame Movement and Public Initiatives Association) of spreading disinformation.

Some of unofficial discreditation campaign posts were sexist and homophobic by their nature. This kind of messages could be spotted both in posts directed towards the opposition as well as the ruling party.

Media polarization

Georgian broadcasting media outlets were severely polarized during the 2021 pre-election period. This remains an important challenge, as the majority of population names television stations as their primary source of information.

Political influence over the media agenda raises the polarization level and disrupts healthy debate process. Furthermore, in the polarized environment, journalists become target of aggressive attitudes and physical violence along with human-rights defenders and civic activists. Media, as a democratic institution, has been a subject of attacks for many years both in the digital and physical spaces. This increases distrust towards the institution and narrows the opportunity to discuss problems on the professional circles. Alongside that, the government’s policy of impunity, encouragement of hatred and public attacks on media representatives has strengthened the extremist groups and led to the events of the July 5th. On this date, the authorities did not protect the freedom of assembly and expression, health and safety of individuals and opened the way for violence by the extremist groups. Despite the fact the more than 50 media representatives were injured during the counterrally, the organizers and all participants of the violence have still not been held responsible. This deepens the polarization and the division of the public into camps even more, and hinders media from continuing its professional activity in a safe environment.

Central Election Commission Information Policy

The Information Protection Center of the Central Election Commission conducted monitoring of the TV stations, online media and Facebook pages. Four reports were published as a result of this monitoring. The first two of the reports were published without revealing the methodology of the study. The methodology was not explained in the last two reports either. The definition of terms in the report were problematic as well (for example, reports do not explain what CEC means by disinformation). In order to study disinformation, it is crucial to prove its premeditation i.e., its intent. The report does not reflect how the Information Protection Center studied this component.

Upon publishing two of the reports, the CEC, in its statement, announced that it compiled the disinformation, discreditation, discrimination or hate-speech use cases from specific subjects (a person, a party or an organization, etc.), however the disinformation was still attributed to media outlets. The following reports point, that the quantitative data published by the center may include cases, where media outlets spread information from the perspective of covering a respondent. However, in this case, the media outlet appears in the quantitative data not as a violator of media standards, but as an outlet that was used by a certain subject to spread damaging information. This CEC approach is not correct.

It is worth noting, that CEC Information Protection Center was initially created with the support from USAID through International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES). On September 24, USAID has halted the support for the Center it continued to operate without the US government assistance.

Signing organizations:

The Georgian Charter of Journalistic Ethics

The Institute for Development of Freedom of Information (IDFI)

Investigative Journalists Team IFACT

International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED)

The Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR)

Georgia's Reforms Associates (GRASS)

Media Development Foundation (MDF)

Tolerance and Diversity Institute (TDI)