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Georgia’s mass vaccination plans were challenged by a widespread disinformation campaign

Vaccine-related mis/disinformation has been widely circulating in Georgian social and online media. Pro-Russian groups, turned-anti-vaxxer, were attacking Western jabs while promoting Russian Sputnik V and blaming the Georgian government for being dominated by the Western/liberal agenda. Moreover, Facebook vlogs published by the so-called “Covid Influencers” showed to be the most popular type of disinformation. The outreach of this whole online campaign, which carried the signs of coordinated behavior, was nearly half-million users.

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, Georgia has witnessed unending waves of disinformation. Usually, people become more susceptible to disinformation and propaganda when there is a crisis, and, indeed, fear, confusion, and uncertainty brought by the spread of the coronavirus, provided a fertile ground for the dissemination of disinformation.

One of the primary targets of coronavirus related dis/misinformation has been the Covid-19 vaccines. In July 2021, Georgia received the promised 500,000 doses of Pfizer Covid-19 vaccines from the USA (as a gift and sign of strategic partnership) and the mass vaccination process commenced at the end of the month. Simultaneously, disinformation flared up with new strength, the anti-vaxxer and pro-Russian groups reinforced their efforts to spread misleading and false information regarding vaccines. As the fear and confusion towards the vaccines were high among the Georgian public, by engaging in anti-vaccine disinformation, the pro-Russian groups aimed at increasing their popularity and political capital.

According to NDI’s latest public opinion polls (published July 2021), a record-high number of Georgian Population – 47%, was reluctant to get vaccinated against Covid-19. And, when asked why most of the respondents (47% of those who said that they will not get vaccinated) responded that they don’t trust the quality of Covid-19 vaccines. The false information about the Covid-19 vaccine safety, creation process, ingredients, and side effects have been widely spread across the Georgian language Facebook and online media.

The report focused on identifying messages spread by problematic online sources (through Facebook and online media) during July 2021. The report demonstrates the possible influence of different narratives by measuring their reach, i.e. potential audience size in Georgian online space.

From July 1 to July 31, 2021, detected 1,466 articles related to COVID-19 vaccines, posted by hostile media sources, with potentially harmful content. 101 articles with false and misleading content from Facebook and online media outlets in the Georgian language were identified. The analyzed articles’ impact on the audience was evaluated at 371,000 potential contacts, as measured by DebunkReach (however this number could be much higher, considering the monitoring process might always have some flaws and that online disinformation is always amplified by offline or people-to-people distribution channels).

In total, around 61% of the dis/misinformation detected where Facebook content, while online media amounted to 39%. Though, going into further details, individual Facebook users came on top of the chart in the matter of spreading mis/disinformation regarding the Covid-19 vaccines (22.5%). Facebook groups, some of them dedicated exclusively to Covid-19 topics, aggregated 21.6% of the total mis/disinformation content, followed by Facebook pages with 11.8%. We have put TV content posted on Facebook in a separate category (4.9%), while in fact it was shared by Facebook users, pages, and groups in different instances.

The most popular (and sizable amount of the content pieces identified) were Facebook vlogs made by the so-called Covid-19 influencers (individuals who become popular for their Facebook video blogs regarding the Covid-19 and vaccine-related issues). We can safely assume, that video content tends to perform much better than text-post and articles shared on social media.

Share of mis/disinformaition sources
Share of mis/disinformaition sources

Within analytical framework, we have identified experts and public figures involved in spreading mis/disinformation regarding the Covid-19 vaccines in July 2021.

Among the content pieces examined, the largest number of the articles were written by Giorgi Prangishvili, an Editor of the political section of the – pro-Russian and anti-Western media. Arno Khidirbegishvili, the editor-in-chief of another pro-Russian media outlet –, was also restless when it comes to manipulating the public about the “threats” posed by the western vaccines while endorsing and promoting Russian Sputnik V.

Zviad Tomaradze, the Head of Georgian Demographic Society XXI and the Chairman of the NGO “Nation and State”, has also been very active in voicing non-factual claims regarding Covid-19 vaccines and the vaccination process in general.

The monitoring process showcased that the dis/misinformative content spread by the well-known personalities tends to garner more public interest when it comes to text posts or articles.

Spokespeople by share of articles
Spokespeople by share of articles

The biggest amount of content pieces identified as dis/misinformation came from - a media with clear anti-Western and pro-Russian editorial policy and a very poor reporting quality.

Facebook group “კორონა მაფია“ (Corona Mafia), was a platform for spreading disinformation and sawing fears about the whole spectrum of issues related to Covid-19, including vaccination. This group worked as a hub for different groups and individuals to mobilize anti-vaxxers and Covid-19 misbelievers. Different protest rallies and activities were planned through this group, though due to the fact that many of the content pieces spread in this group were labelled by independent fact-checkers, under Facebook’s Third-Party Fact-Checking Program, the overall distribution and popularity of the group has been greatly reduced and limited.

Kremlin-sponsored Sputnik-Georgia was also quite active in spreading disinformation and propaganda against Western vaccines while promoting Russian Sputnik V and blaming the Georgian government for deliberately blocking one of the “best vaccines available” because of political pressure from the “liberals”. Other openly pro-Russian outlets, and were also part of the same trend, promoting Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine while blaming Georgia for putting politics over the humanitarian and health issues.

Media sources by share of articles
Media sources by share of articles

Throughout the monitoring and labeling process, we have categorized problematic content pieces into the narratives and sub-narratives. The most frequently repeated narrative detected within the monitoring process was associated with conspiracy theories, such as that: Vaccines are genocide weapons aimed at reducing world population, Covid vaccines are used to insert microchips in the human body, etc. The next category of the mis/disinformation narratives argued that vaccines are a control/domination mechanism used by the governments to oppress unconventional or “freethinker” parts of society. This was followed by false/misleading information about vaccine safety and side effects and non-factual claims regarding the harms posed by the vaccines. In some cases, Covid-19 vaccine-related issues were used as a mask to spread the anti-Western and pro-Russian propaganda.

The narrative application wasn’t limited to a single unit, meaning one content piece could have several narratives attached, therefore the chart below shows the overall frequency of the narratives used by different sources. It should be noted that a significant part of the disinformation narratives spread in Georgian social and online media, were international stories translated into the Georgian language.

Narratives by share of articles
Narratives by share of articles

Some representatives of the Georgian Orthodox Church, especially – Orthodox Parent’s Union (OPU), have been actively involved in spreading false and misleading information regarding the Covid-19 vaccines. OPU representatives voiced vague claims ranging from that Covid-19 vaccines are not “real vaccines” and they don’t trigger an immune response, to questioning the causal relationship between the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the Covid-19 disease.

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This report was written by Georgia’s Reforms Associates (GRASS) in partnership with Debunk

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