Challenging Invisible Boundaries in War and Peace: Social Media in Georgia

Bijan Kafi
Bijan Kafi is a consultant on communication for civil society initiatives and has worked in international development aid in countries including Egypt, Central Africa, and Georgia. He currently lives in Berlin.

 

During August 2008 when the “information war” was raging high in Georgia people turned to online media to find desperately needed information. Experience shows that they may become a way to help bridge the boundaries between divided peoples.

Zurab Tchiaberashvili may have expected his job would not be an easy one when he became the first mayor of post-Shevardnadze era Tbilisi. However, he almost certainly didn’t anticipate what it would mean to adhere to the principles he had chosen to pursue in office: to root out corruption in public  administration.
When Tchiaberashvili was presented with a precious gift by a municipal executive in 2004, he resorted to drastic measures. At a publicly-televised event only a day later he confronted the colleague with what he considered to be an attempt at bribery, thus intending to inform the public that he would not tolerate corruption.
By his own standards Tchiaberashvili thought he had done well. The public, however, thought differently. Within days after the event the boards of Georgia’s most frequented online forum Forum.ge were flooded with comments, the majority of which were critical of the mayor’s publicity stunt. Even though Tchiaberashvili later chose to limit the damage by engaging the public from within the new medium, in the eyes of the public his image had taken a beating.
To his surprise the mood of a small but growing part of his constituency – the tech-savvy and well-connected – had turned against him. Tchiaberashvili had unknowingly triggered a crisis and the people it affected had found a medium, relatively new at the time, to make their voices heard quickly and efficiently.

Trackback to Tbilisi

Like Zurab Tchiaberashvili, 25-year old Sian Davies, then a charity worker from Wales, did not anticipate the crisis she was to witness only months after her arrival in Tbilisi in the summer of 2008.
When, following clashes with Georgian forces in Tskhinvali, the Russian army crossed the border of South Ossetia and into Georgia in early August, Davies was in Tbilisi. She was working for a local NGO to avoid precisely the sort of crisis that was unfolding some two hundred kilometers away. In what turned out over the following days to be a full-blown armed conflict Davies became an involuntary citizen war reporter, mainly thanks to the new media.
After commenting on a BBC website and on her blog that, contrary to CNN reports, Tbilisi had in fact not been bombed, international media picked up on the fact that she seemed to be one of the few reliable sources in an unusual information vacuum.“The contrast was startling.  In a world of mass  information you suddenly find yourself in the middle of an information void and people scrambling for the tiniest bits of information regardless of whether they are confirmed or not,” Davies remembers.
The extensive local network of contacts she manages by mobile phone, SMS, email and blogs enabled Davies to stay abreast of the events as they were unfolding, at a time when commercial broadcasting stations had left for the August holidays. Not only were most embassies closed, but many major TV and radio stations had no reporters on the ground.
Within 60 hours the media that had picked up her reports up from her blog had forwarded the stories to other stations and news agencies. These in turn were copied by others. They soon contacted Davies via phone, email, and even Skype to quench their thirst for breaking news. Within the following days she gave 15 interviews for British national and local radio stations, answered questions by email, and gave interviews on Skype to Associated Press. She estimates about half a dozen articles have been written about her, culminating in a radio interview on the BBC early evening news.
The information Davies and her friends received from their friends reached the global public via blog, email and the conventional media. Much of it was further relayed through Twitter, a service then little known in Georgia. Foreign media gladly picked up these bits of information, frequently without questioning their reliability. Even though the relevance of individual reporting diminished as soon as stations brought in their own staff, much information continued to be disseminated through the chain of individual relationships mostly via mobile phones by progressive individuals monitoring sources and redistributing information.

In the information age, conflicts are information crises

During the conflict Georgians turned to the internet, just as they did when Zurab Tchiaberashvili chose to publicize incidents of corruption. Information was either scarce, as it was during the conflict, or over-abundant e.g. after Tchiaberashvili’s announcement. This was online media’s finest hour. As Giga Paitchadze, a Georgian lawyer working in judicial reform and an avid blogger under the pseudonym Dvorsky, believes:“It all started with the war”.
Blogs may have played a significant role in channelling scarce news during the military crisis, but Georgians still mostly turned to online forums. This is where they seem to feel most comfortable.
With 50,000 users Forum.ge is the most popular place for Georgians to discuss topics such as cars, sports, or politics. Some media have gained relevance since the crisis, but places like Forum.ge are still the preferred means for gathering and exchanging news because they best meet people’s information needs and preferred mode of conversation. Forum.ge consistently proves it is an extraordinarily socially powerful institution, as not only Tbilisi’s former mayor had to learn. This influence extends to daily life: search for a Georgian term on Google Georgia and an entry on Forum.ge is likely to spring up, directing ordinary traffic to its boards.
During the crises the forums helped to distinguish the false from the true in the information quickly and effectively disseminated by all parties. Many Georgians were familiar with the services, could easily identify relevant forum boards and were thus able to find in one place information from anywhere in the country. Forums were efficient tools, as they require little hardware, are fully web-based and easy to navigate. Given the suspect relevance of social networks like Odnoklassniki.ru in the recent Moldova crisis, the relevance of technically traditional but socially well-accepted networks should not be underestimated. During crises they serve to compensate for the imbalances in information generation, distribution, and consumption typical of such situations. Traditional media are    notoriously incapable of responding adequately: hourly 15-minute TV shows leave people craving for more news of loved ones, offer no interactivity,   and rely on a small number of sources that cannot be pooled.
The forums enabled people from crisis areas to report on their situations in ways conventional media were unable to deliver. They were also able to bypass at least some of the fallout the propaganda-driven information warfare had unleashed – no wonder that, with such subversive potential, Forum.ge was quickly taken down during the hot days of that August.

No network to attract them all

More resilient than locally managed servers are international services that are becoming increasingly popular among Georgians. Social networks like  Facebook expand on the concept of the forum. In Georgia, however, the market for social media is more diverse with specific services seemingly  appealing to specific social groups.
A 2008 study by ACT, a Georgian marketing research firm, identified the major players. Odnoklassniki.ru leads the pack: 91% of Georgian social network users have an account. The service is only available in Russian and is said to appeal mostly to older Georgians, who experienced the late days of the  Soviet schooling system and so are usually fluent in Russian, a language less popular among youngsters. Odnoklassniki.ru clearly mimics the Soviet education system through a strict hierarchical order of clearly identifiable institutions and grades distinguished by geographical location. To complete the winning mixture it is also very easy to use even for those with little computer experience.
While Hi5 seems to enjoy a loyal following among the 15- and -below age cohort, Facebook certainly is the second most popular fish in the pond, although its user numbers of only 6% pale in comparison with Odnoklassniki.ru. It is preferred mainly by pro-Western youth, attracted by its progressive image, sophisticated interface, and extensively networked brand.
“Odnoklassniki.ru has successfully tapped into the local cultural features. It is organized along old Sovietera lines that everyone who experienced those days knows by heart,” says Giga Paitchadze, founder of the Georgian-Estonian joint venture Face.ge, which is currently fifth in the ranking. The relatively new service with its comparatively few users has chosen a different profile by being only available in Georgian and thus attractive mostly to those with little knowledge of a foreign language.
Overall 43% of all Georgian internet users are members of a social network, says ACT, and it is significant that 84% of these reside in Tbilisi.
Politics are among the issues widely discussed on Forum.ge, as they are on Odnoklassniki.ru and other sites frequented by both Russians and Georgians. In the hot days following the August war, the atmosphere on some service boards became increasingly tense. Anonymity made it easier for Russians and Georgians to communicate. Even in times of crisis, over long distances or where other limitations would be a hindrance to direct conversation, the forums made it possible to overcome these obstacles. But it proved to be dangerous, too, when it lowered the thresholds for hotheads to clash.

Using networks to change the mood

A group of Georgian students tried to overcome the limitations by using the services in more productive ways. On August 18 Lika Bakuridze and Luiza Koridze, journalism students at Batumi Shota Rustaveli State University, opened a moderated forum using facilities at a USAID-funded public telecentre. They did so on Odnoklassniki.ru.
In the following weeks others began to use the forum to express their views, share information on events taking place around them, and discuss the expected consequences of the war. The forum extended the individual’s options for disseminating images and personal opinion. “I think the aim of the forum, the spreading of information and evidence of the war (…) is achieved”, Lika thinks.
The students reserved the right to delete posts deemed inappropriate. However, the virtual space showed how the internet is becoming a medium that matters for those taking the initiative. 19-year-old Zaza Mgaloblishvili from Batumi posted the link of a video documenting the destruction of ethnic Georgian homes and an interview with a     representative from Human Rights Watch. Nutsa Mchedlishvili, 26, contributed a link to a video depicting Russian attacks on Georgian military bases. Fellow Ani Tsitlidze created a board named “Blood” where participants posted data on the supply of, and demand for blood transfusions and their locations. These data included the profile of a 12-year-old with a rare blood type and forwarded her contact information. Others contributed addresses where people willing to donate blood would be welcome. Visitors like students Ilia Dzneladze and Goga Kalihava also used the forum to post pictures visually documenting Georgian unity.
In the following weeks the controversial forum logged over 420 posts and the creation of 30 subforums. It has directly connected members of Odnoklassniki.ru with 348 participants and innumerable passive readers from more than 10 different countries.

Georgia’s blogosphere

While debate was raging high on the forums, the Georgian blogosphere remained relatively silent. Readers were attracted by some few central blogs like that of Sian Davies, US-based Anna Dolidze, the well-known SOS Georgia mentioned below, or the occasional Russian-language commentator. Blogs originating from within Georgia sprang up in greater numbers than ever before and many remained active after the August events. However, it is safe to assume that blogs as individualized channels for information distribution and sharing of opinion were not of major relevance as a means of citizens’ self-empowerment before the conflict.
That certainly has its root in technical reasons, as ACT’s finding that 81% of social network users are concentrated in Tbilisi shows. Internet access in the countryside is still low. An estimated 25% of the population have internet access in Tbilisi, but outside Georgia’s largest metropolis the figure drops to only 10%.
Other reasons might be economic. Georgian independent media have found it difficult to realize ambitious projects through advertisement-based business models for professional online publishing. Markets for online ads remain small and little openness is exhibited by businesses keen on reaching the masses to use innovative channels. Ad-generated revenue at Georgia’s largest independent political online newspaper, Civil.ge, is still stuck below 1% of its budget – and that’s after almost 10 years of donor-driven funding.
Cultural issues may play a role, too. Forums allow for faster, more direct interaction, whereas blogs require an individual author to write down his thoughts without knowing his potential readership and in a place where it might never get noticed. Forums provide not only a thematic frame for the individual statement, but also a usually well-known meeting place with potentially great potential for attractiveness among a given interest group that is usually still open enough to allow late-comers to the debate. Blogs are essentially more static and less conducive to the directness and speed of interactions that forums encourage. “Georgians like to discuss”, says Giga Paitchadze who has also written the chapter on the freedom of internet access in Georgia for Freedom House study “Freedom on the Net”. “Even when they are unemployed and have nothing to do, Georgians always gather in the streets, talk about things they like, smoke, or play football. Public life in Georgia is a fundamentally social thing.”

Sowing the seeds of love

That seemed to be confirmed by the 180 participants that joined Paitchadze for the first “Barcamp Caucasus” organised with support from the Open Society Georgia Foundation, a major funder of media-related initiatives in the Caucasus and Eurasia. Most of the participants in the event in Summer 2008 were from other countries, with significant attendance from Armenia and Azerbaijan. Only a dozen or so bloggers came from Georgia itself, estimates Paitchadze. “Participation from Georgia was rather weak, and not so much has come out of it,” he adds. “We had done some training even for public agencies before, like the Georgian Institute for Public Administration (GIPA), on blogging and web 2.0, but only to little effect. Somebody once tried to establish blogging at schools, but that didn’t succeed, either.”
Nevertheless, the Open Society Georgia Foundation funded Barcamps in the entire region and has been a staunch supporter of media training for civic engagement. Barcamps have also been organized in Central Asia, for example in Kazakhstan and Kyrgystan. Additional support by international donors has been small: the European Union as a major funder only realized its potential in 2009, again within the framework of an initiative for democratization and human rights.
It is thus difficult to predict if the effects of seminal initiatives like the Georgian Barcamp will last in times of peace. Forums and social networks came to life during the war because of what was essentially a crisis of information. Partisan propaganda resulted in fake, slow, or no information at all and posed real threats to the availability and accuracy of news immediately affecting the lives of individuals. Web 2.0 tools provided a means to fill the void and a “pressure valve” for sharing news, whose sources had become increasingly individual thanks to technology.
After the war life for ordinary Georgians has in many ways become more complicated, especially in the area of inter-ethnic relations, by travel and visa restrictions, import and export quotas and closed borders between Russia and Georgia. Georgians may just find that this situation presents the new media with an opportunity in peacetime too. The anonymity that makes it easy for people to enter flame wars (as hostile interactions on the internet are called) also enables them to engage with one another in the first place – across many kinds of boundaries. This need has only increased after the war and, indeed, Forum.ge is once more as vibrant as it always was.
However, there are signs of lasting momentum. Since the war blogs, too, have sprung up by the dozen. Some commentators have been able to keep up activity, build credibility, and act as anchors for further development. One of these is Anna Dolidze, a Georgian lawyer commenting on developments on her popular Resistance Georgia blog, already a source of independent comment before the war. Recent additions include The Tbilisi Blues and This is Tbilisi Calling. Even Forum.ge has competition from such sites as Forumcaucasus.com, a private initiative aimed at bringing the countries adjoining the Georgian-Russian border closer together, if only virtually.
The Barcamp itself, too, is said to have led to the   development of more regularly updated blogs. There are allegedly even plans for a Georgian blogging engine. Plus, Barcamp Armenia and Barcamp Caspian (Azerbaijan) held in Yerevan and Baku in April and March 2009 quickly followed due to popular demand and in October 2009 the Georgia New Media Forum still saw strong interest from bloggers, social media activists, and journalists alike. Guests included renowned personalities from the US, Europe, and the Caucasus like Onnik          Krikorian (Armenia) or Emin Huseynzade (Azerbaijan). The forum also featured the launch of the Georgian blog catalog blogroll.ge. Another event, the Social Innovation Camp Caucasus, will be held in Tbilisi in April 2010.
The political crisis following the demonstrations of April 2009 showed how much creativity and experience in media usage had developed within just 9 months. Students of the Georgian School of Public Affairs set up blogs with the support of US media trainers, They covered events as they unfolded and received widespread international acclaim. Twitter usage exploded too: international commentators, citizens and media professionals experimented with mobile technologies and collaborated with greater ease and more effectively than before. Eventually, even the Georgian government realized the need to monitor the Twittersphere in a more proactive way. It opened its own Twitter account (@govtofgeorgia) and was able to follow several of the most active commentators from inside and outside the country.

Voice is no guarantee for independence

The various initiatives by individuals that seem to begin to form critical mass show that online media do play a role in encouraging debate among divided parties and may offer one set of tools to tackle one of the key challenges of the 21st century: divided people and diasporas.
Certainly individual voices “from the field” do not offer automatic protection against the threat of propaganda. They are themselves frequently too uncritical in their reporting or are often accepted at face value by outside commentators because official news is either unavailable or unreliable. As renowned blogger Ethan Zuckerman first noticed, this was a particular concern with both Russian and Georgian bloggers reporting from Georgia, Russia, or even the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Credibility in online environments can also be at stake in less confrontational settings, impacting directly on the legitimacy of elected representatives. When Tbilisi’s mayor attempted to address proactively the criticism voiced by the public on Forum.ge, many initially questioned his identity. “People simply didn’t believe him; they thought he was a fake, that it was not the mayor speaking to them,” says Givi Ordenidze. “He tried to address that issue, but what options do you have in an world that is entirely virtual?”
Some issues, however, may be peculiar to crisis situations resulting in repressive rule under martial law and deliberate propaganda or other limitations to civil liberties. They also pose challenging questions for further research. During the war the then famous blogging platform SOSGeorgia.org, initially founded by two European media professionals working in the country, got financial support and was quickly “improved” by a European PR firm also     serving the government. With professional help its team was able to spend thousands of donated dollars on offline activities such as the production of “SOS Georgia” T-Shirts and the organization of protest marches. However, the growing influence of the private consultants meant that what began as a well-intentioned technical upgrade resulted in the eventual disillusionment of its founders.

Future Challenges

Still, the new social media provide “conversation space” to vent discord in less destructive ways. They can do so if the channels they provide are picked up by people and their grassroots initiatives who perceive a benefit in their information and utility they are unable to receive elsewhere.
Such benefit is naturally depending on the situation and the users. Still, funders too often rely on general assumptions about these benefits when making funding decisions. Givi Ordenidze is a former project manager of Open Society Georgia Foundation’s Civil Society and Media Support Programme and a member of the sub-committee on Civil Society and Media Support. In his opinion it was initially the West European headquarters of the Foundation that were more interested in funding than the local Georgia office as they may have been influenced    by the hype surrounding the alleged democratizing effects of web 2.0. “But you can’t compare Georgia with countries where blogging is possibly the only source of independent news like, say, Iran”, Ordenidze adds.
Funders and supporters could learn from that. There is no general benefit of a technology without a specific context and people making use of it – in ways that are often unintended by their designers. It requires a deep understanding of what purpose certain instruments serve in a given situation and community of activists. Such analyses have to include cultural, economic, social, and political factors. They cannot rely on assumed benefits and comparison studies only. They also have to pay attention to potential drawbacks such as resistance from local workers that might loose their livelihoods due to, for instance, the “benefits” of cloud computing.  
The event-driven principles of modern development aid may not help either. External influences can syphon off funding at any time, like the developments in Iran or Afghanistan. Mark Skogen, project manager for the USAID-funded IREX agency implementing the Internet Access and Training Programme (IATP) in Georgia, suspects as much. “[It] may in part have something to do with geographic priorities. […] We had more telecenters in the past, but are now down to five in the major cities.”
The social media hold the potential to help dealing with one of the major challenges of our time: the plight of displaced people and their diasporas trying to connect and the need for mutual understanding among divided parties. Their virtuality –  or being “less real” – is a lesser problem. What is needed is more research into how they actually “work out” for a given group of people while remembering that is is still the people who bring about lasting change. When Zurab Tchiaberashvili was mayor of Tbilisi, this was precisely what he did. When the technological limits became apparent, Tchiaberashvili did what any Georgian would do:  he invited his critics for dinner.

Most of the time this is how crises are still effectively solved in Georgia. If that is working out for the people involved, then nothing can be said against it. It says a great deal about both the possibilities and the limita-tions of technology. It may just stay like that for some time to come, even though Western donors might wish otherwise.



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