During recent protests in Tbilisi, a right-wing mob hunted down journalists. For Tamar Kintsurashvili the incident was the result of disinformation campaigns that she and her team combat.
Hundreds of people gathered in front of the Parliament building in Tbilisi in support of the journalists who were attacked during the city's Pride parade. One journalist was later found dead under suspicious circumstances
Tamar Kintsurashvili is the executive director of Georgia's Media Development Foundation and editor-in-chief of the online fact-checking portal "Myth Detector", which debunks fake news and enhances critical thinking. She is an associate professor of media ethics and research methods. In this interview, she talks to us about the protests in Georgia and how she and her colleagues tackle disinformation campaigns.
Tamar, the incident in July was related to a Pride march which was later called off. Fifty-three journalists were injured, some of them very seriously. One cameraman, Alexander Lashkarava, was first hospitalized, then released and later found dead in his home under circumstances that are still unexplained. Where does all this hate come from?
First, it's important to say that this is not primarily about LGBTQ rights. In our view, this is more an expression – or rather the result – of anti-Western and anti-liberal narratives in Georgia which are spread by various ultra-conservative, clerical or nationalistic groups on the internet and in certain media. This also includes the targeted use of misinformation to stir up emotions which ultimately lead to outbreaks of violence.
In this case, the attack was directed less against pro-LGBTQ protesters, but rather against journalists, who are often portrayed as representing anti-Georgian values. The police were present at some of these incidents but did not intervene. When state institutions fail to protect citizens from violent extremist groups and organizers of the pogrom who are openly calling for violence seem untouchable, the message that comes across is clear: There is no protection for minorities and there is none for journalists. We increasingly feel that we are home alone.
What kind of false or misleading reports are we talking about and who is spreading them?
One example is the discourse surrounding the death of Alexander Lashkarava. Although the investigation is officially still ongoing, the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Georgia gave a statement a few days after his death listing potential reasons and hinting at a narcotics overdose amongst other things. Even before the official MIA statement was released, personal information on Lashkarava was shared on social media.
Fellow journalists pay tribute to Alexander Laschkarawa, a TV reporter found dead soon after violence broke out at a Pride parade in July
The State Inspector’s Service has started an investigation to trace who passed on this information. Based on the leak, Lashkarava’s death was connected to opioid overdose by various players, including members of the violent groups who had originally attacked him. The sentiments were picked up by pro-government media outlets and Facebook accounts posing as unbiased information platforms, one of which was created on the day of Lashkarava’s death. We investigated and reported on the case on our fact-checking and myth-debunking platform, Myth Detector.
In your view, why doesn't the government take more decisive action against these groups?
Georgia is a very conservative country and the Orthodox Church is extremely powerful. This is probably one reason why Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili stated prior to the attacks that it was "unreasonable" to hold the demonstration, which could lead to "civil confrontation." He later said that 95% of the population did not approve of the Pride parade and claimed the organizers were linked to the opposition.
So, in light of this complex situation, how exactly do you go about fact checking?
We do fact checking based on open sources. As a first step this means finding out who the sender of the respective message is and then doing a discourse analysis. By gathering information, for example about the owner of a social media account and the primary sources he or she uses, we can put their claims into context and shed light on their intentions. Currently there are a lot of fake accounts, especially on Facebook, pretending to be credible news providers. We have been able to expose a number of these accounts. As a third-party partner of Facebook, we do research, label false content and provide audiences with alternative information. Since this has high visibility and Facebook was not regulated in the past, some people think that we are responsible for closing down pages or causing all kinds of trouble for them on Facebook, which is not the case. We only do the fact-checking and labeling. There is a lot of insecurity and some misunderstandings, leading to hate speech and harassment directed against us.
Example of how content labeled as false appears on Facebook. Users can click on the link to see an explanation and access the corresponding article on the Myth Detector platform. This case refers to a story claiming that Ukrainian police had refused to protect an LGBTQ parade, which was not true.
Looking ahead, what are the prospects of getting disinformation under control in Georgia?
In the short term, the situation is likely to get tougher, especially for local media. Local elections will be held in Georgia in October, and we assume there will be a lot of disinformation surrounding them. NGOs, including fact-checkers such as ourselves, will most probably again be portrayed as anti-Georgian elements or foreign spies.
Our biggest concern is that at some point we will see conditions like those in Russia, where organizations that are fully or partially funded from abroad are forced by law to register as "foreign agents." But in the medium and long term, I believe that we can do a lot to counter disinformation. Georgia has a vibrant civil society and any changes in legislation, including amending laws on freedom of speech and information, would be a step back into our authoritarian past. So we will fight back and defend our freedom and the legislation that makes our country unique in this region.
"Myth Detector" is supported by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).