Geopolitics Non-Military Security

The Georgian government delegitimises the protests with deceptive Facebook ads. The President vetoed the bill on “foreign agents”

Michaela Dubóczi

In early April 2024, Georgian Dream, the ruling party in Georgia, pushed through a controversial law on “foreign agents” in the parliament. It was passed in all three readings and the proposed legislation requires NGOs and media outlets that receive more than 20% of their funding from foreign sources to register as organisations “carrying out the interests of a foreign power.” They would then be required to submit annual financial reports on their activities and could face drastic fines for violating the law.

The controversial bill was introduced on 3 April 2024 and was passed in all three readings (it passed the third reading on the 13th of May by a vote of 84 to 30). After the third reading, it must be signed by the President of Georgia, Salome Zurabishvili. She has already vetoed this controversial law. However, Georgian Dream has enough MPs in parliament to override her veto.

The process of adopting the law has been accompanied by massive protests, which started as early as 9 April. Since the second approval of the law, protesters have taken to the streets of the capital, Tbilisi, every night. Meanwhile, since the end of April, there have been reports that the security forces have cracked down on groups of protesters. According to a report by the Ministry of the Interior, water cannons, tear gas and pepper spray were used, and 15 people, including members of the riot police, were hospitalised in the first two days of May.

The bill was inspired by Russian legislation on “foreign agents”

According to the pro-Western opposition, the law could be used to suppress dissent but also to block Georgia’s accession to the European Union. Meanwhile, several European leaders have warned that the proposed law is “incompatible” with European norms and values. Other countries like Britain, Italy, Germany and the U.S. have also criticised the bill.

According to the Georgian government, the aim of the forthcoming legislation is to increase the transparency of foreign funding. It said the proposal was based on the 1938 US law and other similar measures adopted in Western countries. The US Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) requires foreign agents or lobbyists of other countries to register with the Justice Department’s database. In this case, however, the concerns are linked primarily to malicious Russian activity, which has led to updates to FARA after 2016.

Opponents of the Georgian bill compare the situation more to the Russian legislation, which has been in force since 2012 and severely curtails freedom of speech, legitimate means and channels of civic activism. Moreover, since 2012, only registered organisations could be designated as ‘foreign agents’, but this has gradually been extended to the media, other categories of individuals and associations without legal personality. The drastic expansion was due to the 2022 amendment to the law.

The Georgian Dream, which has led the government since 2012, tried to pass the aforementioned law as early as 2023. As a result of widespread protests, the law was dropped, but the protests were misleadingly presented in pro-government information sources – in line with Russian rhetoric – as being organised and financed by the West.

Lies are being spread about the bill. Facebook ads are helping to promote it

According to the Digital Forensics Research Lab (DFRLab), which operates under the Atlantic Council, Facebook ads have been targeted against ongoing civil protests. The organisation examined Facebook ads originating from the pages of pro-government entities that targeted pro-democracy activists and the West for the period between March 28 and April 26, 2024.

According to the results of the research, the top 20 advertisers included as many as 16 official pages of Georgian Dream, as well as individual members of the government and other pages with pro-government content. The information sources included pro-government media, anonymous sites supporting the Georgian Dream, as well as sites that falsely present themselves as fact-checking platforms to increase their own legitimacy.

DFRLab reports that these 16 pages spent more than $89,000 on Facebook advertising during the specified period. The platform also conducted a content analysis of the published ads. Based on the results, it divided the prevailing disinformation narratives into three groups.

Firstly, there was the aforementioned claim by pro-Kremlin propagandists that the protests in Georgia were organised by the West with the aim of triggering a revolution or a coup. This was followed by the narrative that the protests were demonstrations of LGBTQ+ groups. These have long been linked by propagandists to the notion of a decadent West that is supposedly attacking traditional values and Georgian ways of life, thereby reinforcing fear and a sense of insecurity across the population.

Finally, among the disinformation narratives, according to the DFRLab, was the claim that the West was interfering in Georgia’s internal affairs. As with previous messages, an atmosphere of fear was created as Facebook ads sought to foster the notion of Georgia being stripped of its sovereignty by the West. This narrative has been expressed publicly on numerous occasions by Bidzina Ivanishvili, the honorary chairman of the Georgian Dream.

These findings suggest that the ruling party is taking a coordinated approach to promoting these narratives, seeking to delegitimise the protests themselves or the public’s efforts to prevent the adoption of the Foreign Agents Law in its current form. Critics also argue that the crackdown on the protests and subsequent enforcement of the law may undermine the democratic orientation of the state and jeopardise its potential integration into Western structures.

One of the main factors in the shift away from democratisation may be the activity of the Georgian Dream, which has been involved in improving relations with Russia in recent years. These were disrupted by the 2008 war, after which Russia declared Abkhazia and South Ossetia independent states and diplomatic relations between the two republics were disrupted. The warming of relations in recent years is the work of a party whose leader, Ivanishvili, has made a fortune in Russia and, according to opposition politicians, serves Russian interests. Thus, as long as the Georgian Dream remains in power, we can expect a rather friendlier relationship with the Russian Federation and, as it turns out, a copying of pro-Kremlin propaganda.

Photo credit: by uskarp from Getty Images/Canva.com

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