Tuesday, February 05, 2019

New Georgian study offers insights on Russian disinformation

[Note: This article originally appeared in Eurasianet.]

A study recently conducted by the Caucasus Research Resource Centers-Georgia confirmed widely held beliefs that pensioners and those with low levels of education are most susceptible to media manipulation. The findings suggest that Western efforts to counter Russian disinformation should focus on those groups in Georgia.

Another major finding of the study is that a solid, growing economy is perhaps the best antidote against disinformation.

The study, which was funded by USAID, was designed to enable policymakers to gain a better understanding of who in Georgia is susceptible to believing anti-Western disinformation. During the post-Soviet era, Georgia’s steadfast efforts to move closer to Western institutions, including NATO and the EU, have been a major source of tension in its relations with Russia. The two countries fought a brief, and from Tbilisi’s standpoint, disastrous war in 2008.

The CRRC-Georgia study can, in turn, help policymakers lay the groundwork for better-targeted Western initiatives to counter Russian disinformation, with the aim of reinforcing public support for Tbilisi’s embrace of Western values and institutions. Another aim is to foster a better understanding of attitudes and trends in order to reduce the odds that any new initiatives misfire and stoke the polarization of society.

CRRC-Georgia researchers pored over demographic data and developed an algorithm to hone their ability to predict whether individuals were at risk of being influenced or not by anti-Western disinformation; whether they already held pro-Russian or isolationist views; or whether they held pro-Western views.

The results showed that 55 percent of the sample size held pro-Western views, 36 percent of the sample size was ambivalent, uncertain, or inconsistent in their views and 9 percent held pro-Russian or neutral opinions.

The only mild surprise in the ensuing analysis was that a citizen’s residence in the capital Tbilisi was “no longer a significant predictor of at-risk status.”

Age is a major factor when it comes to consuming and believing disinformation: the older an individual is, the more susceptible he or she is to fake news.

“The results suggest that while one in five 18-24-year-olds are at-risk of being influenced by anti-Western propaganda, one in three people over the age of 65 are,” according to the findings.

Ethnicity also appears to have important implications for the effectiveness of disinformation. “Slightly under one in five people in predominantly ethnic Georgian settlements are at-risk of being influenced by anti-Western propaganda, while one in three are in predominantly minority settlements,” the report stated.

Those with a secondary education or better tended to be relatively impervious to disinformation, in terms of shaping attitudes about public affairs, the findings suggested.

Of those in the sample who were found to be at risk of being influenced by disinformation, many were worried about economic developments. “The economy may be a slightly more important issue for those who are at-risk, suggesting that messaging about the economy and actual economic improvement are likely to be important for this population,” CRRC-Georgia researchers wrote.

Russia’s weaponization of information has disrupted political processes in the West in recent years, including the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the Brexit campaign in the UK.

Policymakers in the West have only recently started to focus on crafting strategies that address Russian digital mischief-making.

The EU has invested in strategic communications aimed at countering Russian disinformation in Georgia and elsewhere. The CRRC-Georgia findings may help Western policymakers tweak initiatives so that they are more targeted, and thus, stand a better chance of achieving strategic objectives.

Efforts to counter Russian propaganda can take two broad forms – demand-side and supply-side. A supply-side strategy involves blocking disinformation at its source via the disabling of the source’s ability to distribute content. A demand-side strategy, meanwhile, aims to inoculate news consumers from the potentially pernicious effects of disinformation.

When it comes to the use of supply-side tactics, there are troubling ramifications for democratic societies that are built upon fundamental rights such as freedom of speech and access to information.

Given the supply-side dilemmas, developing demand-side initiatives that address issues relating to Russian state-sponsored disinformation would seem to offer a better, although potentially more difficult way forward.

Dustin Gilbreath is the deputy research director of CRRC-Georgia. The views expressed in this article represent the views of the author alone. The article was written within the auspices of the Russian Propaganda Barometer Project funded through the East-West Management Institute’s ACCESS program.

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