Inauthentic Facebook network linked to Georgian government StratCom unit
Network targeted Georgians with narratives claiming support for Ukraine would lead to a Russian invasion of Georgia
BANNER: Georgia’s Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili speaks at United Nations headquarters in New York City, September 18, 2023. (Source: Reuters/Caitlin Ochs)
On May 3, 2023, Meta published its Quarterly Adversarial Threat Report, stating that it removed a Georgia-based network, comprised of 117 assets, that engaged in coordinated inauthentic behavior (CIB). Meta linked the inauthentic network to the Strategic Communications Department of the Government of Georgia, noting that “the people behind this operation attempted to conceal their identities and coordination.”
According to Meta’s report, the people behind this activity used fake accounts to run fictitious personas to make pro-government content appear more popular than it really was. “They also shared criticisms of the opposition, particularly during the most recent public protests related to the now-retracted legislative proposal on the so-called ‘foreign agents’ law in Georgia,” the report said. “In fact, this operation responded to protest developments in real time, including posting in the middle of the night.” The network operators spent $33,500 in advertising to reach a larger audience, it noted.
In March 2023, anti-government and anti-Russia protests in Georgia forced the ruling party to withdraw its “foreign agents ” bill, a replication of a Russian law that requires media outlets and civil society organizations receiving overseas funding to register as “agents of foreign influence.” The Georgian Dream-led government attempted to discredit the protests by spreading narratives raising the specter of another Russian invasion of Georgia, as well as blaming the West for orchestrating the protests in Georgia.
In the spring of 2022, the DFRLab independently identified part of the network that was ultimately removed by Meta in 2023. We notified the company on July 7, 2022, that we had identified assets engaging in CIB, and requested their independent assessment. At the time, Meta concluded that the activity did not constitute CIB, but later changed that assessment in 2023. We have reached out to Meta to comment on the discrepancy.
This is not the first time Meta has linked an inauthentic network to the Georgian government. In 2019 and 2020, the DFRLab analyzed networks linked to the Georgian Dream-led government that were removed from Meta’s platforms.
The “war-dragging” narrative
One prominent narrative that has gained popularity suggests that the West intends to drag Georgia in a war with Russia, potentially leading to another Russian invasion of Georgia. This “war-dragging” narrative emerged in connection with two significant developments in Georgia’s domestic and foreign political landscape: Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine and Georgia’s failed attempt to become a European Union (EU) candidate country.
The Georgian ruling party’s support for Russia following the invasion of Ukraine has heightened tensions between Tbilisi and Kyiv. In the early stages of the war, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili blamed Ukraine for failing to avoid war with Russia and announced that Georgia would not participate in sanctions against Moscow. Garibashvili also stated that Ukraine was being “punished by the war” and that the government of Georgia is maintaining peace, adding that “there will not be any second front in Georgia.” The statements triggered days of pro-Ukraine, anti-Georgian Dream protests in Tbilisi.
In May 2022, the Georgian Dream-led government and pro-government media accused the United States of attempting to pull Georgia into Russia’s war against Ukraine. US Ambassador to Georgia Kelly Degnan stated that the narrative “seems straight out of an FSB [Russian intelligence service] disinformation book.”
Concurrent with these developments, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine applied for EU membership. Georgia was the only country of the three not to be granted candidate status. The EU gave Georgia twelve recommendations to implement by the end of 2022. The recommendations note the country’s democratic backsliding, something the government has long been criticized for. As a result, the Georgian Dream-led government began to target the EU with similar war-dragging narratives applied to the United States and Ukraine. Various Georgian government officials, including the prime minister, have claimed that the EU is trying to pull Georgia into war and that Ukraine was granted candidate status because it is at war with Russia. By making this claim, Georgian officials promote the narrative that Georgians must choose between EU membership and peace in Georgia. In the words of Prime Minister Garibashvili, “If war defines granting of the [EU] candidate status, we do not want a war.” Georgia’s pro-Kremlin political parties and actors have a history of spreading such narratives claiming the West is attempting to pull Georgia into a war with Russia.
The inauthentic network linked to the Georgian government’s Strategic Communications (StratCom) department amplified misleading and false war-dragging narratives.
Georgia’s StratCom department receives financial support from the US and other Western partners. Georgian fact-checking organizations have previously documented instances of the StratCom department targeting local media that are critical of the government. In addition, the Facebook page for the Georgian StratCom department has posted support of the war-dragging narrative, calling a critical tweet from a member of the Economic Policy Research Center “fake.”
In 2021, the International Society for Fair Elections And Democracy (ISFED) reported on the pages and the groups within this network and also observed that the pages were “managed or coordinated by the employees [of the] Strategic Communications Departments.”
Inauthentic network assets
When Meta announced its decision to de-platform the network, it noted a total of eighty Facebook accounts, twenty-six pages, nine groups, and two Instagram accounts. Beyond Meta platforms, the individuals operating this network appear to also manage five external websites and a Telegram channel promoting the Georgian prime minister. In addition, the assets promoted Bidzina Ivanishvili, founder of the Georgian Dream party. This is noteworthy as Ivanishvili claims to have officially left Georgian politics, and the ruling party denies his role in ruling the country.
Five of the six Facebook pages initially identified by the DFRLab in 2022 were dedicated to promoting Ivanishvili, Prime Minister Garibashvili, and the Georgian Dream party. One of the pages, Geoauction.ge, posed as an online shopping platform but has been dormant since 2021. At the time of writing, three of the six pages remain active.
Two pages, Irakli and Bidzina Ivanishvili for Georgia, amplified posts within minutes of each other sharing comments from the prime minister warning that Georgia could become a “second front.” The posts all shared a similar, but not identical, description. Posts from June 13 included a link to the Telegram channel Irakli & Supporters. The Telegram channel was created on March 13, 2022, but was no longer available as of July 18, 2023.
Notably, the Bidzina Ivanishvili for Georgia page sponsored up to 150 posts, amounting to just under $15,000 spent on Facebook and Instagram ads. It is not clear where the funds for these advertisements originated.
The About section of Irakli and Bidzina Ivanishvili for Georgia listed two websites, Ivanishvili.ge and Forgeorgia.ge, as well as an email using the domain Raketdeba.ge. Despite an attempt to anonymize the identity of the website owners, historical domain records indicate that Beka Mchedlishvili, deputy head of the Georgian StratCom department, registered the website Ivanishvili.ge. Mchedlishvili previously held a position at the Georgian Ministry of Defense. Mchedlishvili’s Facebook account appears to have been removed in Meta’s takedown. In addition, ISFED also identified Mchedlishvili as central to their investigation.
Historical domain searches did not provide registrant information for the remaining two domains, but forensic analysis demonstrates that the websites were centrally managed. All three websites shared the same Google Analytics source code, and there is evidence that the websites may have copied code from each other – Forgeorgia.ge used source code also used on Raketdeba.ge, and Ivanishvili.ge used code also seen on Forgeorgia.ge. The three websites also used the same WordPress theme and similar WordPress add-ons. Additionally, the Facebook link on Forgeorgia.ge redirected to the Bidzina Ivanishvili for Georgia Facebook page.
The DFRLab found that the Irakli and Bidzina Ivanishvili for Georgia pages, in addition to other accounts in the network, managed eleven Facebook groups that promoted the Georgian Dream-led government. The accounts often coordinated in resharing posts from the pages into the groups and promoted different statements promoting the war-dragging narrative from Georgian Dream leaders.
The group ღარიბაშვილის ფაქტორი (“Gharibashvili factor”), which promoted the official Facebook page for Garibashvili, was created on July 26, 2018 under the name დასაქმება და ვაკანსიები თბილისში (“Jobs and vacancies in Tbilisi”). It changed its name to “Gharibashvili factor” on April 30, 2021.
In addition to promoting the Georgian government’s war-dragging narratives, the accounts in this network also amplified various news articles, including ones with an anti-US framing. For example, the inauthentic account ნინი გრიგოლაშვილი (“Nini Grigolashvili”) amplified the Kremlin narrative that claims Georgia is becoming a “vassal” for the United States. The account also disseminated footage from a demonstration organized by pro-Kremlin actors, including members of the Georgian branch of the Kremlin outlet News Front Georgia. According to the US State Department, News Front, which operates in multiple languages including Georgian, has ties to Russian security services and is “one of the most blatant Russian disinformation sites.”
Five accounts demonstrated signs of inauthenticity. These accounts had empty timelines or only promoted Georgian Dream and were engaged in smear campaigns against pro-democracy activists and political opposition. The accounts also used images stolen from other users or elsewhere on the internet.
Cite this case study:
Sopo Gelava and Eto Buziashvili, “Inauthentic Facebook network linked to Georgian government StratCom unit,” Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), September 20, 2023, https://dfrlab.org/2023/09/20/inauthentic-facebook-network-linked-to-georgian-government-stratcom-unit.