Conspiracy theories have become increasingly prevalent in contemporary society, and Georgia is hardly an exception. These theories serve as alternative explanations for complicated issues, providing a solid narrative and sense of coherence to those who need them in an otherwise bewildering reality. Thus, they also serve as useful and relatively cost-effective tools for actors that aim democratic destabilization.
Fundamentally, conspiracy theories postulate that specific events are the intended results of actions that were covertly planned and carried out by malicious actors (Pelkmans&Machold, 2011). In Georgia, so-called conspiracies have been strongly linked to the idea of the "new world order," providing a theoretical framework to explain post-Cold War changes in geopolitics and power relationships (Gotfredsen, 2016). It is common to attribute political power and the course of events (in the national as well as the international geopolitical arena) to the actions of covert networks and scheming individuals, who are thought to base political decisions on economic gains and alliances rather than moral obligations and public good.
The proliferation of conspiracy theories in Georgia, mainly through social media platforms, can be attributed to a variety of factors. The gradually diminished trust in institutions after the Rose Revolution, fueled by historical and socioeconomic influences, has created an environment where alternative narratives gain traction (Gotfredsen, 2016). A study by Buziashvili and Gigitashvili published by the DFRLab (2020) underscores the role of social media platforms in amplifying these narratives, further eroding trust and perpetuating conspiracy theories. As an example, by analyzing removed Facebook content, the pair revealed a significant correlation between the online behavior of foreign operatives known to disseminate conspiracies, and certain Georgian far-right groups. Particularly concerning were the anti-NATO and anti-Turkish sentiments amplified through social media channels, indicating a concentrated effort.
Their study highlighted the Alliance of Patriots political party in particular, whose Facebook exhibited an especially hostile tone. Claims such as the Adjara region of Georgia being under Turkish occupation and other instances of aggressive conspiracy theories were disseminated by the group with an agenda, and the principled position of the Georgian Government on the matter appeared to have failed in instilling trust among the party's online following. The two also took note of the the far-right group Alt-Info, which utilized fake news and conspiracy theories to amass a social media following. Their messaging aimed to depict Russia as an inevitable reality for Georgia, irreplaceable by the West or Turkiye.
Such examples serve as a helpful reminder that social media platforms operate in a setting that is largely uncontrolled, allowing the transmission of misleading information to proliferate. Conspiracy theories can flourish and spread widely in this unregulated environment, reaching a sizable audience. Expanding on this, in a study published in 2017, Scott Radnitz of the University of Washington explored and categorized the conspiracies that rose to prominence in the Georgian media space, and listed them follows:
1. There is a single set of people who secretly rule the world, regardless of who is in charge of governments and other organizations.
2. The government assassinates innocent people or prominent public figures.
3. The deliberate, covert actions of some organizations have caused the spread of some viruses and/or diseases.
4. The government supports or engages in terrorism on its own territory.
6. The government conceals its involvement in criminal conduct by using people as pawns.
7. Experiments involving novel medications or technology are frequently conducted the public without their consent.
Radnitz's survey results established that the majority of the Georgian public were at least moderately conspiratorial (2017). This result was later repeated in a more contemporary setting in a project by the USAID Information Integrity program in collaboration with CRRC (Civil.ge, 2023), as 31% of the Georgian participants in their survey believed that the current war being waged in Ukraine was provoked by the West, and 40% agreed that the Ukrainian Government was trying to pull Georgia into conflict with the Russian Federation via the so-called ''second front'', a conspiracy theory fostered within the Georgian Parliament itself (Gabritchidze, 2022).
The rising prevalence of conspiracy theories need to be addressed with a multifaceted solution. This includes initiatives to improve users' media literacy and digital citizenship. Regulatory measures aimed at monitoring and countering disinformation campaigns should be implemented, focusing on transparency and accountability. Restrictive measures may seem easier to enforce; however, online communities have proven resistant to such interventions (Monti et al., 2023).
Disinformation is not just the result of domestic forces; foreign state actors also have an impact. Developing solutions to stop the spread of damaging narratives requires an understanding of how these factors interact. Georgia can foster a culture of informed citizenry and critical thinking by restoring public confidence in democratic institutions, thereby reducing the negative effects of conspiracies on public dialogue and societal well-being.
Pelkmans, M., & Machold, R. (2011). Conspiracy theories and their truth trajectories. Focaal, 2011(59), 66-80.
Gotfredsen, K. B. (2016). Enemies of the people: Theorizing dispossession and mirroring conspiracy in the Republic of Georgia. Focaal, 2016(74).
Buziashvili, E., & Gigitashvili, G. (2020). FIGHTING FOR THE HEARTS AND MINDS OF SAKARTVELO. Retrieved January 25, 2022, from https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/GeorgiaReport-FINAL-v2.pdf
Radnitz, S. (2017). Who Cares about Conspiracy Theories? Evidence From. Frontiers in Psychology. PONARS Eurasia, 2017(499).
Civil.ge. (2023, May 8). Audience Research Indicates Conspiracy Theories Find Traction Among Georgian Population. Civil Georgia; Civil Georgia. https://civil.ge/archives/541134
Gabritchidze, N. (2022). The four horsemen of Georgia’s anti-Western conspiracy. Eurasianet. https://eurasianet.org/the-four-horsemen-of-georgias-anti-western-conspiracy
Monti, C., Cinelli, M., Valensise, C., Quattrociocchi, W., & Starnini, M. (2023). Online conspiracy communities are more resilient to deplatforming.
About the author: CK is a student at the Media Psychology and Communications Master's Program at the Tbilisi State University, and a diplomat currently assigned to an Embassy in Georgia.