Interview with Nino Macharashvili

Researcher and data journalist Nino Macharashvili speaks with former Data and Politics co-lead Varoon Bashyakarla about the the state of politics in the country of Georgia in 2021. From offline voting practices that have the potential to be translated online to the history of revolution and hope, this conversation explores Macharashvili’s research and thoughts for the future.

And we just need to know that it could be a possibility, and to learn from other countries' experiences because the political parties are also getting the information and inspiration from other countries. And there is no surprise that it is starting.Nino Macharashvili

NOTE: This interview was recorded in July 2021. All references to the ‘upcoming elections’ refer to the October 2021 elections in Georgia.

About the Speaker: Nino Macharashvili is a co-founder and Director of ForSet based in Tblisi, Georgia. Nino is a data journalist and researcher. Having previously worked at nonprofit organisations, Nino wanted to find a way to connect data professionals and founded DataFest Tblisi. Connect with Nino on Twitter or on LinkedIn.

Listen to the audio:

Please note that this interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Varoon:

I thought it would be nice to hear a little bit of background and historical context from your point of view. What are the relevant political issues today in Georgia? Can you help set the scene a little bit?

Nino:

Okay, I will do my best. Usually when we start, we say there is a tiny country below Russia and next to Turkey, surrounded by other South Caucasian countries like Armenia and Azerbaijan and Turkey and Russia. We had that experience of being part of the Soviet Union for 70 years, but in early 1990s, we regained our independence. And since then, the road of political hardships started in Georgia.

Unfortunately, we had a few civil wars and unrest in the early '90s and the country was deeply in corruption, lots of poverty, economic crisis, and so on. And I think this is important to understanding the psychology of the people.

And the revolution happened in Georgia in 2003 and many things changed in a very, very short amount of time. And for young of people like myself, it was very inspirational because I saw how things that weren’t working started working. It was very inspirational for me but for some other generations, it was harder because they had to adjust to lots of new changes.

So what happened was that the country announced zero tolerance towards corruption and on a lower level, the corruption was fully eliminated. I can say directly and confidently, because of what I had seen in this few years' difference. After the revolution, this kind of attitude totally changed and the reports have identified that there were some signs of high-level corruption, meaning that it would not be something that every other citizen would be able to observe in their everyday lives. But most likely there were still some corruption on a very, very high level.

But for ordinary Georgians, things changed. What was important for young people was that if prior to the revolution we would be collecting some money to bribe the university professors for me to enter the university because this was the norm, no matter how bright a student you were. After the revolution, it changed and we believed that no one could bribe anyone to enter the university and it was totally merit-based.

So this was a huge psychological change in our minds. It was a huge national victory for us to change this course of corruption and poverty and so on and go back on our roots towards European values and becoming part of NATO and the EU. This is what the country aspired to together with the majority of the Euro population.

However, as it happens very often, high expectations are followed by disappointment as well. Even though this corruption was eliminated on the lower level, our expectations of suddenly becoming rich did not really come through. The country was still struggling. More and more also we started struggling with media freedom, press freedom, and human rights as well. And then we had a war with Russia in 2008.

So from this optimism and expectation, the country moved toward disappointment, frustration, even more poverty, war. And in 2012, for the first time in the country's history, we changed the government and a new coalition came to rule. It was also another victory for the country because no matter whether you supported a new government or not, the fact itself that we changed the government through the elections was very rewarding for the country. We believed that finally we had demonstrated that we are a young democracy who has managed to change the government through the elections and we were the first country in our Eastern European region to do that.

And as I mentioned in the introduction, it was an exemplary country for other states. It was the lighthouse of democracy because we demonstrated so many positive changes in such a short time.

Starting from 2012, some strange things started to happen, and when I say strange, I mean, some events that can be interpreted in different ways. There were some concerns that the new government of Georgia was not truly pro-Western and they were more leaning towards Russian influence, even though this had never been announced openly and publicly. After a few years, the situation that we have is that most of the politicians that were known for pro-Western values have left the coalition and now this new composition says that they are loyal towards our aspirations. However, some of the activities that they have been carrying out might be interpreted as the opposite of what their announced wishes are.

For example, on 5th of July, the local activists' groups had planned a Pride Week, the March of Dignity. The history of LGBTQ rights in Georgia is also very painful because in 2013, the attempt to have the march was attacked severely by some local church representatives—but not only church, even ordinary Georgians—because the acceptance and the openness was not that high.

Since then, eight years have passed and the local groups have been trying to have this March every year, but then to avoid these clashes, they have been canceling, postponing, doing it in small protected circles and so on. And this was the first year when there was a feeling that the society is ready to accept this march without attacks. The groups were also hoping that the police would be able to protect the freedom of expression of LGBTQ groups.

So on the 5th of July Tblisi Pride was still deciding what to do, to organize the march or to cancel it. The violent groups attacked the journalists and up to 50 journalists were severely beaten. Their property was destroyed and the police could not or did not have the order to actually stop this violence.

It can be interpreted in many ways, but the fact is that even though the expectation and the knowledge of this potential violence was predicted and it was there, the government did not mobilize enough resources or they could not. My personal opinion is that it was did not and what allows me to make this interpretation is the way the government representatives were responding to these events. For example, "We do not think that this should take place in the country." Or, "the media shouldn't provoke the violent groups." Considering quotes like that would make it fair to interpret that the government did not really take good enough measures to prevent the violence.

These were horrible events, what happened in Tblisi on the 5th of July. Obviously, Tbilisi Pride decided not to organize the march because I think that they did not really expect this kind of attack on the journalists and government being not responsive to these events. After a few days, one of the TV operators who had been injured during these events died.

So, what these events show is that we are given a very wide range of interpretation. On the one hand, Georgia is an openly pro-Western country that wants to become part of the EU in a few years. On the other hand, we, as a state, fail to protect minorities’ rights, to protect freedom of expression, and it somehow also becomes okay, and the norm, to attack the media. And this is not only from certain far-right groups in the country, but also even from the state representatives.

By all interpretations of the Georgian law, this is against freedom of expression. But for some reason, this is becoming the norm little by little and many people around me fear that what's happening now might lead to the very, very sad and heartbreaking situation that we are observing in Belarus, where attacks on civil society, NGOs, media are happening every day, every month. It has already been almost a year now. And unfortunately, this is ongoing and there hasn't been any efficient mechanism that could stop it. So we fear that, "Okay, if something similar happens in Georgia, then what could happen? What would be the effective solution?"

And a very important vulnerability of Georgian society is its exposure to disinformation. And even the events around the 5th of July, this Pride March, also shows that most of this narratives that we are exposed to are very well aligned to the narratives that come from Russian state-owned media. And they have their satellite organizations and their media organizations who managed to gain followers more and more, and share these anti-vaccination narratives, share hate speech, anti-LGBTQ narratives, and so on. And I think the vulnerability towards these narratives is increasing more and more in Georgia, and this puts Georgia in a very vulnerable situation.

Varoon:

So not to say that it is happening already, or it will happen in this upcoming election cycle, but I think it's a good thing for us members of civil society to realize the potential threat. And I think this is a good transition into a short discussion about what is happening digitally in Georgia. You've done some work on this topic and after that, we can talk about some of the recommendations that you put forward based on your findings.

Nino:

I had been wondering what's happening in that regard in Georgia. I had my assumptions, but I really wanted to learn more about these situations. And then I had an opportunity to work on that as my side project. What I didn't mention previously is that Georgia is a small country. Our population is around 3.5 million and when it comes to digital infrastructure, it is quite, I would say, well digitalized. Internal penetration is quite high, mobile utility is quite cheap and affordable, and more and more people, even in rural areas, are joining social media platforms such as Facebook, which is the most popular, and it's also changing very fast.

Two years ago, for example, I think we had around 1 million active users, but now I think many more Georgians have accounts on Facebook. So when the Cambridge Analytica scandal came out, I remember I was thinking that something similar would not be possible in Georgia because not many people who vote are on Facebook: Facebook was mostly a place for young people and young people are the ones who usually do not go to vote. But since then, in these last two, three years, the situation has changed a lot and almost a majority of people, despite their age, knowledge, or foreign language, rural, or urban settlement, they own a mobile phone. They have mobile internet and they are registered on Facebook. So it has changed a lot and in that regard our country has become more accessible digitally to voters.

However, we also need to keep in mind that when you say that Georgia is a small country, it also means that it is affordable for the political parties to reach these people not digitally but offline. And this has been the practice for many years.

In the pre-election time, my family gets a door knock at least 3, 4, 5 times by these so-called coordinators who are tasked with knowing which families are supportive of which party and so on. And unless you restrain yourself from answering those questions, it's open information for them.

However, what I did not know, and what I found out through my studies, is that this data is not accumulated, to my knowledge. For certain political parties it's not accumulated in a central database, but it's rather accumulated at the poll station level. So each polling station in my understanding has the coordinator and they know what kind of results to expect from that poll station or district or precinct.

But it was mostly done on a piece of paper. You would see these coordinators in the yard of the polling station with this paper and a pen and when they saw a supporter of their party entered the polling station, they would cross out these names. This has been a well-documented practice and there have been many attempts to make this terrible practice go away. But so far, not effectively.

And very recently, one of the active persons who is affiliated with one of the opposition political parties, who used to be in the government, previously said that they have never digitized these results. All this knowledge has been in the heads of coordinators—knowing that ‘this polling station is ours,’ ‘that polling session is theirs,’—but she also announced that they are changing this practice. They are becoming more digital and more data-driven for the upcoming election or in the future.

So my conclusion is that because of the size of the country and because the digital infrastructure is not that well developed yet, yes, we help people on Facebook, but we don't have extra information about these people to actually do this micro-targeting and matching and so on. The political parties still choose to go for the old, traditional methods, invest all their resources in that and try to grab votes through that rather than try to invest in digital infrastructure experiments with these new methodologies.

The only method that has been observed in Georgian elections out of the ones that Tactical Tech and their partners have identified is this mass calling and mass messaging. And even in the case of global calling and global messaging, I have discovered that this is just massively sending out the messages, not being targeted. For example, some people who do not have the right to vote in the country, like foreign citizens, have been receiving the same messages. Personally, I have also received messages about the majoritarian election results in the districts that I'm not registered in. So this makes me think that we have very well-developed SMS marketing services. So what political parties do, they are just like pharmacies or like car oil companies. They just go to the SMS marketing company and say, "I'm giving you this much money. Please send this message to this number of people."

Varoon:

You wrote that some of the election monitors reported that there was a blurring of the line between the party and the state, which reduced voters' confidence. And of course, in a perfect world, the ruling party would not be using the resources of the state for its own reelection purposes. But I think this is one of those areas in which the line can be easily blurred in analog ways, but also in digital ways as well, when information and power are more and more centralized.

And given the fact that this doesn't seem to be a big problem at the moment in Georgia, to prepare for it you suggested to watch the use of data by political parties closely, to omit the legislative loopholes and to raise awareness about these emerging issues among civil society organizations and media representatives further.

People in a place like Georgia in some ways may have the benefit of time for preparing for a future in which these issues might be more urgent, in which they might have bigger consequences. How do you think civil society can prepare itself for these potential outcomes?

Nino:

What I have noticed in my research is that in many cases, in interviews or in personal conversations with the people who work on these issues, because their manipulations are still old fashioned and traditional, their methods of observation are also focused on that. So in many cases they have not even considered this. Watchdogs have not considered some alternative ways of observing and being prepared for these kinds of things.

Even if in the upcoming fall elections one or more of the political parties starts using these digital methods and using personal data for that, it will already be too late if the results and consequences are there. So we need to actually be prepared even now, because we don't know when they will become ready to use these techniques and we at least need to be aware of that and include that in our pre-adoption observations, checklists, Facebook pages or some recent research and so on. And we just need to know that it could be a possibility, and to learn from other countries' experiences because the political parties are also getting the information and inspiration from other countries. And there is no surprise that it is starting.

So I would say that CSOs and journalists can just have their eyes wide open and consider the possibilities of violations in this direction as well. Not only the very old-fashioned ones, having coordinators at the polling station and things like that, which we have seen over and over and over again for last 20-30 years. This is a very well-known method, but we need to also be ready for the new ones.

When it comes to loopholes in the legislation, we do have a personal data protection law and it protects our personal data. However, how effective this law is, is a different question. The biggest problem and challenge in that regard is even our own attitude towards our personal data. Because for some reason, and I don't know what this reason could be, we do not perceive our personal data as an asset. And we are not that literate or we are not that protective of our own data. You would see lots of people sharing lots of personal information on the public setting on Facebook.

Because as I told you many people are just now joining Facebook, right? They might not know the foreign language, they might not be able to read these terms and conditions. No one has taught them that there are different settings, like Friends Only or Public. And they become very vulnerable. If someone asks them to take a photo of their credit card and put it on Messenger, they might even do it. They are very vulnerable because this is very new and they are just now joining the digital space.

And even for a core group of digitally literate people like let's say my friends, people of my age who have been using Facebook or digital tools for last decades or so, we are not that sensitive towards giving out our own private and personal data because we grew up in these circumstances. For example, when I was studying in university, each subject score was publicly published on a piece of paper with my name, last name, my ID number, and the point of the subject. So we grew up in this environment and for us, this is not something of concern.

Another question is the independence of the court. If this violation happens from the ruling party, mostly likely the court will decide in their favor because there are very, very big questions about the independence of the court, independence from the ruling parties so forth.

Varoon:

It's really interesting to hear how many of these issues are so similar to what's happening elsewhere in the world as well. How do you feel the growth of people connecting on Facebook, as you mentioned in Georgia, is contributing or not contributing to this kind of polarization in the country, or the perception of polarization at least online? Is this a worry of yours? How do you see this growth of people in Georgia being online, meeting the dangers of being politically engaged 24/7?

Nino:

Firstly, we need to know that political polarization has been an extreme problem for Georgia for many years now. And this is an increasing trend in Georgia and I would definitely attribute some of this to some degree to more people joining Facebook and every single one of us being engaged in events 24/7. And for some reason, every single event is very political. Even all the protests, the news about vaccination, every single event becomes a big hype on Facebook and in discussions has some political connotation.

And another problem is that when you have this pre-election mindset from the government's political parties—the ruling party and the opposition as well—their actions are also very often influenced by how I can make the results of the upcoming elections. Even if it's in a few months or a year or whatever, rather than what is needed for the country's political stability.

And this is extremely damaging for the political situation and also for mental well-being. Very often we also lose the boundaries of where the political discussion ends and something else starts. We are in this defensive mode all the time, and even very unpolitical topics could increase this tension between groups of people, and this openness and acceptance of different opinions has decreased a lot. And it's very sad, and I don't know what the solution could be.

Varoon:

Do you think there are lessons for Georgia that can be taken from the revolution of 2003 in approaching the next chapter of challenges, specifically digital challenges?

I'm curious to hear if there are lessons that you think can be drawn from the history of Georgia and overcoming obstacles in the past for the obstacles that confront the country today, or perhaps in the future as well.

Nino:

I try not to draw parallels to 2003 revolution because I really want us to get past the revolutionary road and keep the elections as the source of change in the country.

Lessons learned would be the similarities that I see in the sentiments is that when more and more people start to be openly critical about the status quo, I think it is an indication of a real change. However, I would be more hopeful about the statement if I didn’t see other examples around us. We are like Belarus, for example. I think it is quite clear that the majority is critical against the status quo, but a change is not there. Obviously, Georgia and Belarus have different pasts. Belarus has had the same dictator since the collapse of the Soviet Union, while we have seen changes of the government.

However, it's scary to see that in a country very close to us in terms of not only geography, but also political situation, political past, that there is majority of people willing for change and change is not happening. So naturally, we ask the same question, "If this thing happens here, what guarantee do we have that we will actually achieve the change?" And I don't have an answer to that.

I would just say that freedom of expression is very important and this is something that we need to fight for, to defend.

And I also hope that the standard of Georgian people has been increased and we will not tolerate or accept some of the things that would be normal in other cases. I really hope for that, but I don't know if that would be the reality.

And what I would wish for is more maturity, especially digital maturity and more critical thinking. Not believing everything you see online and resistance towards this information is a good foundation for this digital maturity. I don't know if this term exists or I just invented it, but I actually like it very much, because this is exactly what I think we are missing. Not only among the newcomers to Facebook, older generations, but even people of my age being less emotional and more rational,e Even in how you express your opinions. Is this helping the situation or increasing the polarization even more? Asking these questions ourselves, engaging in these discussions are actually helping the situation and is very important for democratic processes, but sometimes it's fueling even more tensions and disparities.

So more and more people being conscious about making these choices should be something that we should be looking for, especially in the upcoming few months, because I think we will have a very, very hard pre-election time period now. And I'm sure that there will be some methods that are not morally and ethically acceptable that will be displayed, and we need to be ready for that and morally up to the challenge.

Varoon:

Absolutely. So the elections are planned for October. When do you expect the campaigning to really pick up?

Nino:

Officially? I don't know when it is planned, but unofficially, I think the campaign has never been off. Since the previous elections, I think it's been ongoing. Even all these boycotting and negotiations ... all these actions were fueled by the prism of upcoming elections or the potential new elections, repeated elections that were requested after the previous one. So I think Georgia has not been out of the pre-election campaign so far.

Please note that this interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Download and read the research and report by Nino about the Georgian Influence Industry here.

The influence industry is led since 2016 by Tactical Tech’s Data and Politics team addressing the pervasive data-driven technologies used by political groups within elections and political campaigns.

This interview was edited by Cassiane Cladis.

First published: November 15, 2022