Zviad Adzinbaia is a displaced person from Abkhazia, a region that was part of Georgia until the Russians attacked in two different incidents several years ago. He has studied political science at Tufts University, where he develped a program to monitor and take action against the disinformation campaigns run by Russia. His t-short reads “#suspendKremlin” because his group was social platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to removed all accounts that are controlled by the Kremlin, in view of their history in disseminating lies. For the video, audio podcast, transcript, and comments: https://tosavetheworld.ca/episode-475-disinformation . Then she your thoughts or other information our website page.
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Zviad Adzinbaia, Metta Spencer
Metta Spencer interviews Zviad Adzinbaia, a Georgian who works at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Diplomacy. Born in Abkhazia, Zviad and his family were displaced due to Russian occupation, making him an internally displaced person. Inspired by his experiences, Zviad pursued a career in political science and international affairs, eventually working with NATO, the European Parliament, and other projects. Currently, he focuses on the use of information as a tool and weapon, seeking to counter harmful information operations and promote information integrity.
They discuss the historical context of Georgia’s conflict with Russia, particularly in the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Initially, Russia had recognized Georgia’s independence and sovereignty. However, during Yeltsin’s presidency in the 1990s, Russia started instigating rebellions in Abkhazia, leading to the eventual occupation of these regions. Although the inhabitants of Abkhazia were not Russian speakers, Russia managed to stir them up for unknown reasons, ultimately causing discord and instability in Georgia.
Zviad Adzinbaia discusses the history of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as autonomous regions within Georgia. Under Stalin, these regions were created as a punishment mechanism in case any Soviet republic tried to secede. In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia, resulting in ongoing tensions and the eventual annexation of these territories.
Russia’s rationale for their aggression in the 1990s was to present Georgia as a troublemaker, while in 2008, they claimed to be preventing a genocide. Their ultimate goal was not to reabsorb Georgia but to separate these regions from Georgia and maintain control over them. Russia currently occupies and financially supports these regions, with puppet regimes in place that have no effective control over their home affairs.
Metta Spencer raises the question of Putin’s strategic plan to reassemble the Soviet Union, which has become more evident over time. She points to a recent speech in which Putin expressed a desire to be a 21st-century version of Peter the Great, wanting to reclaim former Soviet territories.
Adzinbaia explains how Georgia and Ukraine are deeply interconnected in Putin’s anti-NATO strategies. He challenges the misconception that NATO wanted to expand eastward, arguing that countries like Georgia and Ukraine were striving to join NATO to ensure their safety. Adzinbaia stresses that it is Russia, not NATO, that has demonstrated expansionist behavior by invading other nations without invitation.
Adzinbaia highlights the need to address Russia’s efforts to spread discord and destabilize other countries. However, the conversation shifts away from the topic before he can provide specific examples of the strategies and platforms Russia uses to propagate disinformation.
Zviad Adzinbaia discussed Russia’s long history of disinformation campaigns, dating back to the Soviet era. He mentioned Operation Infection, a Soviet-era operation that falsely accused the US of creating HIV/AIDS to eliminate parts of the global population, as an example of their disinformation tactics. Adzinbaia pointed out that while some methods have changed, the overall concept remains the same – to diminish the American-led world order and damage America’s reputation.
Metta Spencer expressed concern about the Russian public’s unwillingness to challenge the government and asked whether this issue was unique to Russia or part of a broader problem. Adzinbaia explained that while the US population may have access to diverse information sources, Russian citizens do not have the same opportunity. The Russian government has designated many sources of information and NGOs as foreign agents and recently banned Twitter and Facebook, further limiting access to information.
However, Spencer noted that some Russians still use Facebook and have not been arrested for doing so. Adzinbaia clarified that the Russian government’s application of the law is arbitrary, and if a user is influential or poses a threat to national security, they may face trouble. He mentioned that his organization, the Digital Diplomacy Task Force, advocates for suspending the Kremlin from social media platforms while empowering Russian citizens with tools to stay informed.
Adzinbaia, who is connected with Suspend Kremlinm dissects the issue of state-sponsored disinformation campaigns, particularly those led by Russia, and their impacts on democratic discourse and international relations. He emphasizes the need to differentiate between disinformation, which is coordinated and well-resourced, and individual lies. Disinformation exploits divisions within society for political and geopolitical objectives, while individual lies can be more easily scrutinized and exposed.
Adzinbaia explains how social media platforms and organizations are working to combat disinformation by developing trust and safety measures, employing subject matter experts, and creating multi-stakeholder forums. One of the challenges lies in coordinated inauthentic behavior, where automated accounts, bots, and trolls promote narratives under fake identities.
Suspend Kremlin’s mission is to help clean the digital environment, allowing for legitimate debate and ensuring true freedom of speech. Adzinbaia stresses that their efforts are based on international law, including the United Nations’ International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights, which states that propaganda for war is illegal.
However, there are still challenges in addressing disinformation, as some people continue to consume and spread misleading information due to its appeal to their pre-existing beliefs and biases. Adzinbaia calls for a continued effort from states, institutions, and individuals to fight against disinformation and maintain the integrity of democratic debate.
Metta Spencer 00:00
This is a machine-generated transcript that may contain errors. Do not cite it withoug checking for yourself by watching the video and catching any obvious errors. All right, I’m Metta Spencer and today I don’t know whether we’re going to Georgia or which is the country or to Boston. So let’s let’s talk to my guest who is Zviad Adzinbaia who is a Georgian. and he is also work somebody who works at Tufts University at The Fletcher School of diplomacy or whatever it’s called these days. So hello, Zviad.
Zviad Adzinbaia 00:35
Thank you for having me hello to you and hello, hello to anyone watching.
Metta Spencer 00:40
It’s really a pleasure to, to get acquainted. I know lots of Georgians, but I haven’t met you until about 30 seconds ago. So I as I understand it, you are almost a refugee. That is, I believe, I read something about your early life that you were in Georgia and you had to, your family had to flee because the war came with the Russians. and you are very engaged with the internet and the misuses of the internet by nefarious people and for nefarious purposes. and that’s mostly Russia, as I understand it, right? Have I got it so far.
Zviad Adzinbaia 01:31
Metta Spencer 01:32
Okay. I don’t know where to start with this. But let’s do a little recap of your life. So you were born in Georgia. and by the way on Google, it says you speak this very interesting language what’s it called? Starts with an “m”.
Zviad Adzinbaia 01:49
Metta Spencer 01:50
Zviad Adzinbaia 01:51
Thank you so much for noting that.
Metta Spencer 01:53
Well, you got me started wondering who these people are these Megrelian’s. So I started looking up and and then I got interested in kind of cheese bread that you guys make. Now I want to try making some Megrelian cheese bread. Tell me a little bit about your early life and how you came to be the guy you are?
Zviad Adzinbaia 02:18
Thank you so much Dr. Spencer there are some nuances that you mentioned about my life about the places that come place that come from and I really appreciate that those nuances. I come from Georgia’s Southwestern part that’s called Abkhazia, I was born there Abkhazia as you know, and many in the international audience do know is under current Russian occupation. So it was 1983 when myself as a kid, and then my family and 200,000 other ethnic Georgians were displaced out using force. and that’s makes that makes me a documented internally displaced person. In fact, that’s where I start. That’s where my inspiration and the life story comes from. So when I look at things happening in Ukraine, things happening elsewhere, but you know, immediately in Ukraine, that is resonates with me, because that’s how my childhood was. And that’s where I feel personally committed before being professionally committed. So I grew up in western in an adjacent town Abkhazia Galia region to Abkhazia called Zugdidi, there, there that’s the town where I grew up, and, I start developing my conscience in the, you know, went to school. But what happened was, why I came to be where I am, is that when I was in high school, Russians invaded Georgia again, in 2008. At the time, I was choosing my profession, and there was one quite important thing to me and to my family, and that could be hopefully, perhaps, relevant to many other families here in Georgia is that rebuilt house after we were kicked out of our houses, and we rebuilt our selves mentally, physically, intellectually, because we’re hit and we were kicked out of our homes where we grew up and where we were born. And at the time it was, it was not negotiable, to leave another house, another home that we built for many, many years and at the time, I was choosing. Hey, I am choosing a profession, is there anything that I could choose that will also contribute to my hopes and dreams, which is living in a Georgia which is unified, and which is secure, which is NATO member, hopefully, which is peaceful and so on and so forth. That took me to political science that took me to international affairs as a student, previously and will close here, I and my family we sold fish, in fish, vegetables and fruits in an open Bazaar, I would not imagine I would ever go into Security or international affairs world. I did that for many years. Then, then gradually, it came to the capital of Georgia, Tbilisi, as a political science freshman years after, and then the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, NATO, Defense College European Parliament and other exciting projects in my life, which for which I’m grateful to currently, and I will close here. I am at where information is as a tool, and as a weapon, as a tool where people can really change things for better in hearts and minds where when it comes to improving someone’s daily affairs, improving someone’s businesses, but as a weapon, when it comes to exploiting free speech, or exploiting an aware society, and my colleagues feel passionate and committed to the idea of, on the one hand countering and trying to tackle [inaudible] Information Operations, and try to promote a information integrity as much as possible.
Metta Spencer 06:46
You say you’re from Abkhazia, and I remember the time when the Russians were invading that area, and there’s, as I understand it, there’s Abkhazia or Abkhazia the way that Russians say it, and, and South Ossetia, is that right? And both of those are now are they occupied by Russia? Or is there a puppet regime or what but I have the impression that it’s not under under Georgia’s control?
Zviad Adzinbaia 07:19
Is not, your you noted correctly, it is occupied because there are Russian troops without invitation. Without Georgia’s invitation. In the 90s, when Georgia declared independence, Russia as a nation state did recognize Georgia as that sovereign nation as a sovereign country as did, as was the case with the rest of the world of the United Nations member states. And after that, things happened and there were no reasons for Georgians to secede, as Georgia is quite colorful, a multi ethnic country, which holds a number of ethnicities and several languages, and subcultures, so on and so on for for many centuries now. And in 2008, before Russians had troops called from the 90s, on Georgia proper in those two regions, especially called a peace, peacebuilders or peace makers, peace forces. Unfortunately, those forces were not there for peace. Those forces were there to not let Georgia reunify in any fashion. and those forces were then partially used to invade the rest of Georgia beyond those regions. and according to…
Metta Spencer 08:56
Okay, what was the occasion? What made them decide why, let’s see, who would have been in charge was that in Yeltsin’s time, or?
Zviad Adzinbaia 09:07
In the 90s in the 90s? It was Yeltsin who started a so called rebellion, as is the case now, as is the case now in the Ukrainian regions in the Donbas region.
Metta Spencer 09:20
I see, so they instigated rebellion on the part of people were these Russian speakers in Abkhazia or did they have…
Zviad Adzinbaia 09:31
They were not.
Metta Spencer 09:32
Any rationale for why they were trying to stir them up as, as wanting independence from Georgia?
Zviad Adzinbaia 09:39
The [inaudible] were two autonomous regions within the Republic of Georgia, even under the Soviet Union. and these regions are culturally historically been have been Georgia for many, many years and decades. But under Stalan as was the case with the rest of the region in with them here and in some other parts of the South Caucasus, that in Moldova, here and there, Stalin created those autonomous regions for one purpose, and that one purpose would be if any of the republics would try to secede for any reason, from the Soviet Union, which was a constitutional right, even officially in the Soviet Union to secede. If that would happen, then those republics would be punished. and that’s where punishment came in the 90s. But in 2008, Russia now is a separate state not the Soviet Union invaded Georgia, from the [inaudible] Valley region, then from the Abkhazia region, and the rest of Georgia. That was under Dmitry Medvedev of when Putin was a prime minister.
Metta Spencer 11:02
Okay, so the logic of what they were trying to do differed in the two periods the first time it was. I’m not sure I understand what their rationale was, on these two occasions, because the second time Russia was an independent country. But the first, no, it would have been both both times, Russia would have already been the Soviet Union would have been gone by then. So what was, you know, what was going on in their minds? Why did, why did they try to do this?
Zviad Adzinbaia 11:38
Sure. Yes, Russia was a separate country at the time Soviet Union was recently had recently gone now one and a half years or so at the time in the 90, 1993. The rationale for them was that they tried to convince the rest of the world now imagine the 90s, the West is distracted, there is some things going into Western Balkans, so on and so forth. And Georgia, which was considered to be a troublemaker in the Soviet Union, because Georgia would demand extra rights Georgians would demand the protection of the Georgian language as a, as an ancient language is a legitimate language. and parts of the Georgian statehood so on and so forth. So Georgia
Metta Spencer 12:26
If they were already independent, why weren’t they in control of that anyway? Why would they have to be demanding it from Russia?
Zviad Adzinbaia 12:33
That’s right. So Georgians were known for being so called troublemakers within the Soviet Union, now the Soviet Union gone, Georgians are one of the first to declare independence and for that reason, the earlier cedes to punish anyone who would seek independence came to fruition. And they said, you know, there are now two separatist regions that are going to declare secession from you, because you guys are suppressing them. and then they repeated the narrative in 2008, that Georgians, we’re trying to cause, instigate a genocide against small parts of the nation, therefore, that would justify separatism, and the Russians would come to aid them. And that was the scenario at the time, their
Metta Spencer 13:29
But their goal was not to reabsorb them into Russia, but just to make them separate from, from Georgia.
Zviad Adzinbaia 13:37
Metta Spencer 13:38
That’s why they attacked George. They did they attack Georgia directly, or they just send troops into these two provinces or regions?
Zviad Adzinbaia 13:48
Troops and batons and Chechen and other south of North Caucasian mercenaries. You know, before the little green man lands to the parts of Ukraine in 2014, they were here to fight the Just War, so called Just War for the oppressed. Now, what happened was that usually whoever is oppressed is, you know, trying to secede. Now what happened was the opposite, the minority, with the Russian help, say 20% of the entire population in Abkhazia, with the Russian help expelled from the entire region, the majority of ethnic Georgians, which was 200,000 people, including me and my family. and that’s what happened to Russians wanting to accomplish at least two key objectives. First, to have grip on Georgia, and any future decision that Georgians would make. Whether Russians would like it or not, because Georgia is one of the key players in the region, because of its location, its access to the Black Sea. and one of the region’s Abkhazia is located on the Black Sea, and adjacent to the rest of Russia. It was quite strategic for Russians to have control, effective control. They could not initially say that we want to absorb those territories, but now they’re saying that they’re they’re. They’re signaling that they’re willing to absorb those two regions, as they did.
Metta Spencer 15:38
I’m sorry, absorb, did you say?
Zviad Adzinbaia 15:41
Metta Spencer 15:43
Or they really want to incorporate them into Russia now?
Zviad Adzinbaia 15:47
Exactly. Annex them officially.
Metta Spencer 15:49
And they basically are occupying those two regions now, right?
Zviad Adzinbaia 15:56
They are they’re occupying and they’re they’re even funding the majority of the budgets for those two regions, puppet regimes. and in fact, they’re the the regimes that call themselves legitimate regimes of those so called states, they have effectively no control their own key home affairs.
Metta Spencer 16:22
Well, okay, so this sounds like the first I don’t know what it was the first but it sounds like it may have been the first kind of move in what is becoming apparent now. As, as Putin’s strategy to reassemble the Soviet Union and collect all these pieces back into his folds. Putin made a speech about a month ago that kind of, I think it really told the truth for once, is he wants to be Peter the Great. And he wants to put everything back together that you know, used to belong. So it should have been what he inherited, but he didn’t get it. So, but apparently, that was the game plan, even before it was declared as such, but it’s clearly the game plan now. Right?
Zviad Adzinbaia 17:15
Exactly. In our daily operations, we use this phrase, truth is power. But what Putin does is the opposite. He says, and who wants the rest of the world to believe that power is the truth. And he believes in Peter the Great, believes in Ivan the Terrible and others. He takes a lot of pride. He wants to be a 21st century version of them, and that’s where we clash. Georgians are the ancient one of the ancient nation. Georgians have their own alphabet, Georgians have their own language even couple languages on the ground, take pride for many things. and naturally, there is a clash. Georgians, one for that reason belong where they feel in that believed to belong to be belonging is the European Union and NATO, and Putin wants to divide and rule divide because Putin wants to make NATO believe that countries with so called internal conflicts cannot join NATO or any other Alliance. and that’s where the conflict stands now. But…
Metta Spencer 18:35
Was he that frank all along I have the feeling that it’s sort of like he blurted it out the real truth the other day, for the first time, that at you know, because it’s completely inconsistent with his other rationale. His real, you know, he’s expressed reason for attacking Ukraine was to protect the people in the Donbas, the Russian speakers in the Donbas and, and, and to, to make sure that NATO didn’t get too close. and I guess they’re I didn’t think they should, NATO should go there, either. You and I will probably disagree about that. But I thought it was a mistake at the time, but it certainly was not the kind of mistake that would justify an any anywhere near justify what he did, and, and in fact, I think it was a fairly small issue. It shouldn’t have been considered a big threat because it wasn’t really a threat. But anyway, but he pretended that his rationale for attacking Ukraine was to keep NATO away and to protect these poor Russians in the Donbas who were being subject to genocide, but I don’t think he’s even pretending that anymore, is he?
Zviad Adzinbaia 20:05
He’s not. He’s, the rest of the world knows where he wants to go where he could not go. Fortunately to so far there Ukraine and Georgia are deeply interconnected there when it comes to Putin’s anti NATO, NATO strategies, that in 2008, the world knows this the NATO’s Bucharest summit promised Ukraine and Georgia a membership, ultimate membership into the Alliance. Now there is as a Georgian, and as a professional who has also spent some time researching and researching NATO, and at the NATO Defense College in a Rome. I would say that sometimes it’s miss, misperceived what happened in terms of NATO enlargement. When we talk about Putin, sometimes, or oftentimes we talk that NATO wanted to expand towards the east, and that’s a major mistake that we make in discussing because it’s not NATO trying to expand. It’s those nations trying to fulfill so many requirements to get there, because they do not feel safe. Otherwise, that was the case with Central and Eastern Europe, first in the 98 enlargement, and then in the beginning of 2000s. And then it was Ukraine and Georgia, NATO was skeptical, actually, to incorporate Ukraine and Georgia into the Alliance, because they would say, you know, Ukraine and Georgia would need to meet those many criteria, and Georgia and Ukraine will strive to get there and carry out those reforms to be qualified. And then Russians would Russians would qualify as an expansion. use that term specifically in their everyday statements. If there is anyone who has an expansionist power, that is Russia was invading, who is coming in without invitation, and it is enlargement when it comes to NATO, because it is so hard to get there. It’s not NATO who makes the first move.
Metta Spencer 22:16
Yeah, okay. Well, I was quite aware of the fact that it was really demand led, rather than the, the initiative coming from NATO, because a lot of the country’s wanted into NATO. And I’ve at the time felt well, that’s that’s not I would feel if I were in Russia, I wouldn’t like it either, frankly. So I could understand the objections, and, and what my thought and many of us who were active in the peace movement, at that period, at the end of the Cold War, were of the mind that what we wanted was to replace all of these security organizations with the OSCE, because countries, Russia was already in it. And all these other countries could, as they became independent, also join, and I guess they did mostly and, and that this, this would be a more acceptable security organization. But it didn’t happen, it didn’t take off at all, and and so I see the dilemma that if I were living in Georgia, I would want one thing, and if I would have at the time anyway wanted to be in NATO. And if I were living in Sochi, I would, I would not want it. So I understand why there was an issue there. But it shouldn’t have been that big an issue. Anyway, we’re talking about how to undo the the worst effects of the breakup of the Soviet Union, and I don’t think we’re going to be able to succeed in doing that. So let’s talk about something where we have some hope of actually making some progress, and that is, I think you’re an expert on disinformation, and especially the Russian efforts to cause trouble in other countries. So tell me what they do and in pretty specific terms, what kinds of messages they try to convey using what kinds of platforms and so on to, to make trouble because I think it’s that’s really what they’re doing is just trying to make trouble. Right?
Zviad Adzinbaia 24:44
Exactly. Thank you. Thanks. Thank you for considering me an expert. I mean, we were trying to call ourselves practitioners to not sound overly ambitious, but we do work every day on this topic and really happy to talk about it Russias. There, there are a couple of things that Russians have not changed even from the Soviet Union, take only 1980s, even at the time when Russia is becoming slightly more, Soviet Union is becoming slightly more liberal. At the time, Soviet Union plans, a fake story in a rogue on purpose established newspaper in New Delhi, and starts a narrative, a global narrative at the time that the United States came up with HIV AIDS and wants to spread aids across the world to eliminate some parts of the globe on purpose, and then that starts that, you know, operation later comes to be called as Operation Infection, since it’s related to the AIDS. And that rogue newspaper, which is created by the KGB, super small newspaper that would grow from India that will take off and go all the way to several major African countries and the rest of the African continent. and one or two years after, it starts being reported on the European continent. and in in mainstream United States media. The reason I say this, is that those methods that Russians use now are not as in terms of broader concepts, are not new at all. Because now say, there is, there is an ongoing, not complete yet, a major disinformation campaign where Russians are trying to Russians are accusing United States of running bio weapons labs in Ukraine, and in Georgia, at least in those two countries, and trying to make, make the rest of the world believe that those two countries are fields for the US government to create pathogens and, and cause disruption and human catastrophe in Russia and across the world. So that said, I want to connect those two dots. There are some differences in terms of tactics, there are differences in terms of, in terms of some of the technical manoeuvres. But the the big picture has not changed first, Russia and then you know, as a parent, agent to the Soviet Union, has not changed conceptually, those people who ran those campaigns around those campaigns, now their legacy is there. And first it is to diminish the American lead, liberal world order, and second, for that reason, attack American reputation, with by any means. and anywhere in the world, especially in strategically important countries, like Ukraine, and Georgia. Now we could, I will stop here we could discuss how this technical war is here and there. But Russia wants to use information as a weapon when information could be used as a tool.
Metta Spencer 28:39
Okay, now, that’s interesting. You’re saying this was happening while it was still the Soviet Union? You can’t blame it on Putin another words?
Zviad Adzinbaia 28:49
Unfortunately, the Russian society has been singing the same song as the Kremlin, when it comes to some of the key facts on the ground in Ukraine, around Ukraine costs of the war facts, and some of the some of the war crimes that Russians are committed, most of the Russian population are not aware of those things, and that’s what troubles us every day when we look at this picture.
Metta Spencer 29:22
Well, in fact, that that is the most troubling thing. When you see and here I don’t even want to say it’s just, just Russia because I get just as puzzled by the US population, you know, if they, you know, all kinds of things like not believing in climate change and not believing viruses are dangerous, and not believing, you know, believing guns are just fine and a whole bunch of things that are just strike me as absolutely so crazy, that you wonder how a whole section of the population if not the majority, can believe such things. And, and so but, you know, before I was worried about the US, I was already worried about Russians. For for all the reasons I’ve just given that, that the unwillingness to, to take a stand. I would say, you know, there was there’s, it’s really hard to get a resistance movement going. And it may be you know, that they just got burned by having this horrible revolution, and they thought, well, you know, we’ll do that again. and so let’s go along with whatever they tell us to do because it’s better than then trying to have a revolution, like the one we we had. And maybe that’s the rationale I don’t know. But, but it’s, you know, I was, I remember thinking, you know, at the time that these color revolutions were going on in Europe, people like, you know, you get hundreds of 1000s of people going to Belgrade on a certain day to protest, and to bring down Milošević which they did, and, and some of the other countries, we have similar things. and you, you might in a Moscow, which had I don’t know, 10,000 population civilian or something like that 12 million, you’d get maybe 1000 people. I mean, it just they weren’t on the same level of of a protest. So the, the, the it worried me, and then I thought, well, you know, this, I thought it was something wrong with the Russians, and then I look at the US, and I think it’s a bigger problem than just Russia. So anyway, there you go.
Zviad Adzinbaia 31:45
We may be critical, we may be critical of the, you know, perceptions and thoughts, or popular beliefs in certain parts of the United States in certain segments of the population, but at least they have access to a diversity of sources and diversity of information, which is not the case in Russia. What the Russian government recently did, is a continuation of what they started and it had been fashioned a couple of years ago by designating all the old it different sources of information or awareness campaigns, as foreign agents, or NGOs as foreign agents with Russians now did by Russians I do mean . the Russian Government and the Kremlin is that they banned Twitter, they banned Facebook, and other social media companies?
Metta Spencer 32:40
That is not quite true. I don’t, I don’t think they’re banned because I, I just today, looked. and sure enough, I mean, I’ve got Russians posting things on Facebook. Now, they don’t say anything. I mean, they talk about their dog, or what, what they had for breakfast or something, but they don’t, there’s no way they’re going to talk about anything substantive in terms of geopolitical controversies. But they are there. and maybe it’s because they have these. What do they have these call them, though? Private?
Zviad Adzinbaia 33:18
Virtual Private Network VPN?
Metta Spencer 33:20
Yeah. Is that how they managed to keep on using say, Facebook?
Zviad Adzinbaia 33:27
That’s right, if you’re there now, two factors, at least one, if you’re a Russian, citizen, and national, and you’re still using state, Facebook or Instagram, you’re either not in Russia now, and you just moved to a neighboring country to have access. One of the countries is Georgia, the other is Armenia or Azerbaijan or any others, the Baltics, or you have VPN, which still, not everybody knows how to use a virtual private network, or not everybody has access to VPN. And third, even if you access Facebook, using those two ways of connection, you’re still unable to say something that is critical to the government, of the government, because you may directly go to the jail, to jail. So..
Metta Spencer 34:26
Have they, I talked somebody just yesterday, this is a current issue for me because I’m planning a new, a new project. I’ll tell you about it in a minute. But I just talked yesterday to somebody who’s trying to set up more contacts between dissidents, if you will, in Russia or anybody in Russia, and outsiders. and they, he says that he hasn’t heard of anybody who’s actually been arrested for this. Um, they talked about sending people to jail for 15 years, if they, if they say anything public about it, but he thinks that they haven’t been actually arresting people. And if you know that they have been that it’s important for me to know that because, what I’m planning to do, and you might even want to participate, I would be happy if you do. I’m trying to get all of my Facebook friends and I have about, oh, I think 50 or 70 people in Russia, who are Facebook, friends of mine, that doesn’t mean I actually know all of them. Because I don’t know how we got to be friends. But you know, we are, sort of, but I don’t know them all. And we’re going to, I’m going to invite them to participate in my global townhall, which I do on the last Sunday of every month. That I get anybody in the world who wants to come on Zoom, and we just have an open conversation. and I’ve been having people from Russia and from Ukraine, in small numbers, but I, I expect I’m reaching out to them now and inviting more of my Russian and Ukrainian acquaintances to join in just to have a conversation about whatever is on their mind. It doesn’t have to be about geopolitics. Sometimes we talk about other things, you know. Anyway, if I’m going to get people in trouble that way, then I should know about it.
Zviad Adzinbaia 36:27
Yeah, there. We’ve seen people, even beyond Facebook, we’ve seen people being arrested in front of the Kremlin for just holding an anti war banner. It’s not even anti Kremlin, it’s an anti war. It’s just stop the war, even it is criminalized now in Russia to say that Russia is waging war.
Metta Spencer 36:49
Yeah. Yeah, that was, yeah, that was true from the very beginning. In fact, I know of a case where a girl just holds up an empty sign, you know, blank, cardboard. and she gets arrested anyway, because it’s clear what she means. But, but that I mean, he was saying that you still can use Facebook, and not get arrested.
Zviad Adzinbaia 37:12
The cases are arbitrary, as much as the Russian application of law. It is arbitrary to decree [inaudible], if Russian government thinks that this particular user is influential enough or important enough to local or national communities, that could cause some sorts of explosion of the topic nationally, then that person will face trouble. Unfortunately, what Russian government has done is a major move in terms of controlling not only limiting but controlling the speech. First, they banned all major Western platforms. and they I believe they have designated Facebook as an extremist organization against, you know, versus the Russian, citing Russia’s national security interests, so on and so forth. But what they have also done is that they have maintained the government and diplomatic accounts on those platforms to spread the version of information about anything else that they want. That’s why I’m wearing this t shirt, which says suspend Kremlin, and we are my organization. The digital diplomacy task force that I established with my colleagues and friends, international friends, is a response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is arguing that it is arguing and trying to convince three major platforms Twitter, Google and meta that it is the Russian government to be suspended as a state actor, as someone who is promoting propaganda war, war propaganda, but those platforms and everybody else should do their best to enable regular citizens with every tool possible to inform them about the war in Ukraine or anything else that is, that is going to help them be more informed as citizens. That’s why we are advocating for suspending the Kremlin, but empowering the citizens.
Metta Spencer 39:28
Can that be done technologically I mean the Kremlin can just open an account in the name of, you know, Joe Blow or you know, anybody and, and continue doing what they’re doing?
Zviad Adzinbaia 39:42
At this point. It is pretty visible and evident, that official Kremlin accounts, many of them do have labels, you know, recognizing them as important players on those on those platforms. They do have so far pretty influential, official accounts of the Kremlin have this embassy, of the other embassy that is essentially justifying everything that the center says. So the first move that we argue is right is to deplatform them, suspend them, until they change the behavior that they’re displaying now, and that leads to real life harm, and the loss of children’s lives, and so on and so forth. And then there’s the other angle that we call and Facebook, for instance, calls coordinated inauthentic behavior, when a state player like Russia creates some difficult to identify accounts or networks of accounts, at the time. So there are some systems and processes that those companies have to recognize them and then to remove them if they are trying to promote a certain narrative or disinformation against that person or against another state entity that is illegal.
Metta Spencer 41:05
Okay. Is there reciprocity? Does the US or do any of the NATO countries do anything that would be comparable to this kind of disinformation campaign?
Zviad Adzinbaia 41:19
No, my answer is no. Because those countries, every, every NATO member country has, in the worst case scenario, better accountability than any other player that is with Russia, or that is in Russia, and any spread of disinformation, we may argue that the Western countries are promoting narratives. Otherwise, what what are they define as strategic communication, but those narratives and those match messages are scrutinized by 10s, of fact checkers, and national and inter governmental and international players. and that’s what is legit, our organization, our colleagues, the analysts that we deal with every day have no problem engaging in the process, a Western politician may well lie, and we have seen that, but there is also a free media that will expose the lie that will fact check the lie. When it comes to Russia, Russians have designated everyone who could, who could fact check them, Russians have designated everyone like that, as an extremist or an as an agent, and have driven them out of Russia. So at this point, the short answer is no, the western state actors and the West as a collective community does not choose disinformation as a tool, or as a weapon.
Metta Spencer 42:56
Okay, fair enough, I tend to believe you. But there is this thing about if you look at the, if you compare this, the narratives of coming out of out of the, you know, the networks or the official US major publications, it’s going to look quite different from anything that would come out of, out of Russia, either RT or any other and in fact, not just Russia, but Russian allies I think it’s true. You, there’s certainly a slant, and this I don’t think you’d have to pay Western journalists to have to exhibit that slant. I don’t think you’d have to control them or even it directly tell them what to do. They will automatically present a certain point of view, just as I’m going to automatically present my point of view, and you can, you know, you’re going to somebody else will say that I have a bias. Well, I have a point of view anyway, and whether it’s more accurate or more truthful than somebody else’s point of view, I think is an interesting question, and if somebody really catches me as in a flagrant distortion of truth, I hope they tell me about it and make sure that I get disciplined for it.
Zviad Adzinbaia 44:33
Exactly. Sometimes, there is this simple comparison between what constitutes disinformation and what constitutes a lie. So I myself am not, I’m not chasing lies, because we are human beings. and we are imperfect. and we lie or we say some things that is coming out of our biased selves, or we have interesting saying some some things in a certain way. When it comes to disinformation we’d like to distinguish here and define disinformation. In fact, it’s been defined for a couple of years now as such, disinformation that is a is mostly, but not necessarily a state sponsored, coordinated, consistent, and well-resourced effort, using information tools using technology tools, and sometimes even intelligence tools that big countries can afford, afford only to do internationally. So these are a menu of tools used in chunks in clusters, or together to achieve political and geopolitical objectives. So if someone lies, um, I’m going to leave it up to the audience. But if someone uses those, so deeply sophisticated methods, strategy and tactics and means, and money, to achieve political objectives, at the expense of human exploitation, at the expense of exploiting everything that is possible, that is the problem. and that’s what we are trying to deal with. That’s what a lot of players in the European Union in the rest of Europe, and many of my colleagues and organizations in the United States are trying to deal with. If they’re if someone is lying, it’s easier to scrutinize, it’s easier to expose the person, sometimes those people do get away with it. But ultimately, it has less real-life effect, and it hopefully does not lead to someone’s loss of life. And…
Metta Spencer 46:55
Okay, the impression I got from reports of how the Russians were trying to influence American politics, suggested that this was a year or two ago, that what they seem to be doing is finding groups of people who have some real issue with each other that they don’t get along. And they may have good or bad reasons for being angry or hostile to each other, and they just go in and stir it a little bit and just make exacerbate it by using stronger language and pitting them more and more against each other. And there was I believe, I heard of a case where they actually got a, organized a group of people, I, maybe it was some ethnic group in the US can’t remember what population it was. They had a meeting in public, and, and they confronted another group. and both groups had been in fact, created by the disinformation campaigns that had been used to whip up their antagonism toward each other and they met in the street. Yeah. Now, I don’t know that’s true. I can’t even remember the details. But it was an amazingly well, I think convincing notion that you if you if it hasn’t been, it’s possible to do it, what do you think?
Zviad Adzinbaia 48:26
It is, unfortunately, possible. and unfortunately, it was possible too when it happened, it happened a couple of years ago, and it is pretty much confirmed now that Russia has internet so called Internet Research Agency, aka troll and major troll factory and disinformation warehouse. I would say that is managed by someone called the Yevgeny Prigozhin, that’s a major Russian oligarch directly related and managed by the Kremlin. And they did organize one notorious, but many besides that, in the in the United States and beyond the United States, and they did manage those two separate meetings. Now, one thing that was noticeable is that people went there American citizens went there was genuine concerns about domestic affairs, and major frustration that I watched some reporting media, media reporting about this, and one citizen get asked, “Did you know that the rally you just joined recently was managed and organized by the Russians” and that woman was angered and angry and she said, “No, I did not go I did not want to believe that I went somewhere to protest something. and I didn’t know it was organized by the Russians”. It was not organized by the Russians and the Russians, that’s the strategy, the divide and rule, Russians want we to have, us to have empathy towards anything that is institutionally democratic. A gathering, if an expression, so on and so forth and then they try to understand the audience’s and as deep as possible so that they could exploit their weak [inaudible},, that is coming from ethnic grounds to the religious grounds to some, any other political divides, and then they go and exploit as much as possible. Good news is that it’s more known now. We know better the sources and means and ways and methods of execution and planning of the Russian government and any other government that may engage in it. It’s easier to detect now, unfortunately, there is some cost paid already, by the Americans by the rest of the international population, that became victim of such instigated handmade human made so called crises.
Metta Spencer 51:15
Yes, I hear that, I’m glad to know that you think there, you’re getting some handle on it. But I, I’ve read that if some people thought, all you had to do was, let’s say it with Facebook, if you could put up a thing saying this is disputed information. This is not, we have reason to think this may not be true, and you post that along with the post, this is a warning that this may be what they call fake news. But then it turns out that people are just as willing to believe it anyway, that as if you haven’t told them at all, so don’t bother because it doesn’t help. Is that the case? And if so, what’s the next best thing to do about it?
Zviad Adzinbaia 52:05
Exactly, there, another good news is that they are now increasingly more awarness, because of that, there is a lot of trust and safety measures and guidelines created, there are a lot of good people working, good caring and experienced professionals, across platforms in the civil society, in the media, that are trying to generate some mutual benefit in terms of collaborating and creating multi stakeholder forums and so on and so forth. So, because of that, there, it is a lot easier now to detect a coordinated effort there that is trying to exploit human nature that is trying to exploit a certain community anywhere in the world companies have national analysts, they have subject matter experts, more and more to try to prevent or if not preventable, try to reduce the effects of such of such an effort, there is one thing that is called coordinated inauthentic behaviors. We also mentioned recently, where someone says that you know, it is a person and that someone is not that person. and that’s why…
Metta Spencer 53:23
Is that what they call bots?
Zviad Adzinbaia 53:26
Bots and trolls and it may be, it may be you know, automated accounts that where one person can manage 10s of accounts or more. But also human beings, but they also use fake identities to promote a certain narrative, certain themes, certain belief in a community. So, there are now two ways one human being sitting in those companies and platforms and the other is automated effort that is trying to understand that sort of behavior, tried to mitigate it, or try to eliminate it as much as possible. So it is there, but the human as much as, as much as we are imperfect, as much as we’d like to consume information compared usually with a junk food. We know that junk food is harmful to a degree to have, or to this and to something else.
Metta Spencer 54:31
Sorry, we know that what is?
Zviad Adzinbaia 54:34
Metta Spencer 54:36
Junk food, oh, I’m sorry.
Zviad Adzinbaia 54:37
Exactly, so we know it, but we still consume it, so that I say because we will also now I believe and we knew it desserts to a degree we know now that some sort of information may not be accurate, but it’s appealing to me. It is appealing to my pre existing beliefs and biases, and feelings, and I do not necessarily need to check the accuracy of that information. That’s the feeling. and it’s going to be a continued battle because of it because states and institutions and schools and everybody else was responsible to public safety and public education will have to do that work for life.
Metta Spencer 55:26
So your job as suspend Kremlin is to try to promote some changes in the platforms and try to get them to cut off the worst offenders. Is that about it?
Zviad Adzinbaia 55:43
Yes, thank you. Thank you for mentioning that again. We are committed to helping as someone we’re trying to be our position ourselves as diplomats in digital affairs, digital diplomats, digital diplomacy.Task force, wants to accomplish two things, one, to try to clean the environment as much as possible, help do that, and doing that is only possible if we allow legitimate debaters, honest citizens who really wants to voice their ideas and their concerns and their points online as much as they would do it offline. And if someone wants to portray themselves as democracy, democratic debater, then these people should abide by some rules. What the, what the Kremlin is now doing is that they’re suspending their citizens. They’re banning everybody who’s critical of them, but they’re trying to promote their narrative that is leading to real life harm. And I want to add one thing here is that we’re not doing this because of our based on our feelings, we are taking action that is that is rooted into international law, such as the United Nations, International Covenant on political and civil rights that says that propaganda for war is illegal. And there is other measures that is coming from those technology and social media platforms, the trust and safety guidelines and everything else. So that we do not want to walk the fine line where we take an action and or based on our arguments, someone takes action, and that leads to some ramifications that would limit someone’s freedom of speech. But at the same time, true freedom of speech would be problematic and hard to ensure, if there were so many disruptors in a coordinated fashion that would hate every angle, and every segment of the freedom of speech. And that came to, you know, that our effort is intensified by the fact that Ukraine is the target now and Ukraine is a battlefield not only for legitimacy of you know, and sovereignty reasons, but also for testing how we could endure and how we could fight back.
Metta Spencer 58:27
Thank you so much. I certainly wish you well, and I’m really grateful to you for this enlightening conversation. So carry on, and let’s that stay in touch because I think what you’re doing is extremely important. Bless you. Thank you.
Zviad Adzinbaia 58:43
Thank you so much, it’s an honor to be here with you.
Metta Spencer 58:47
See you again. Project save the world produces one of these shows three days a week, and sometimes more. This is episode number 475. You could watch them or listen as audio podcasts on our web site tosavetheworld.ca. Eventually, we post the transcripts there too. When you get there, look around. We have conversations going on there about six global issues, plus potential reforms in governance, economics and civil society. To find a particular talk show enter its title, or episode number in the search bar, or the name of one of the guest speakers, and after you’ve watched scroll down and share your thoughts about the show. Project save the world also produces a quarterly online publication Peace magazine. You can buy a single copy, or subscribe for $20 Canadian per year through pressreader. Just go to pressreader.com on your browser, and in the search bar, enter the word peace. You’ll see the cover of the current issue and buttons to click to subscribe.
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