Russian disinformation campaigns have become notorious around the world for their ability to cause chaos. And while some suggest Moscow’s motives begin and end with creating havoc, the reality is that Russia has clear strategic goals in mind.
The Kremlin employs disinformation operations to weaken its competitors overseas, to maintain influence in its own neighborhood, and to keep President Putin in power.
In Georgia, Russia’s neighbour to the south, all three of these objectives come together in a laboratory.
The US government-funded Lugar Lab in the Georgian capital Tbilisi opened in 2011, as part of an ongoing effort to strengthen bilateral ties. It has been a recurring character in Russian disinformation campaigns, designed to undermine a burgeoning partnership between Washington and Tbilisi.
In 2018, Dilyana Gaytandzhieva, a Bulgarian journalist and frequent contributor to Kremlin-affiliated media outlets, published documents on her personal blog. She filmed an investigative video asserting that the US embassy in Georgia and the Pentagon were running a secret military programme, trafficking human blood and testing deadly pathogens on Georgian citizens inside the Lugar Lab. Like many conspiracy theories, this one should have been lost in the ether of the World Wide Web—but that’s not how Russian-backed disinformation campaigns work.
Gaytanzhieva’s posts bounced around pro-Kremlin and anonymous social media accounts for two days, before suddenly surfacing on Russian-backed news outlets RT and Sputnik. Both channels have millions of viewers.
The Lugar Lab conspiracy theory received the thinnest veneer of credibility it needed to thrive from a pro-Moscow Georgian politician. They cited the work of an American journalist, who just happens to write for the Kremlin-affiliated publication Veterans Today.
Once this story wormed its way into the information ecosystem, the Russian Defense Ministry seized the opportunity. It issued a statement claiming that the “US undertook a secret biological weapons testing programme in Georgia, killing at least 73 people.”
From there, in an effort to be first rather than to be accurate, multiple western outlets, including Fox News in the United States, picked up the story. This completed the life cycle of the Lugar Lab disinformation campaign, from fringe narrative to mainstream news, at a dizzying speed.
This is how Russian disinformation penetrates and shapes public discourse—in this case, fuelling anti-American sentiment in Georgia. There is no perfect solution to combat this challenge, but there are steps to be taken to mute its effects.
First, we must recognise that disinformation targets our beliefs, biases, fears, and emotions. If we understand our own vulnerabilities, we’ll be better prepared to spot the tactics used to exploit them.
Second, consumers must take accountability for the information they share. Disinformation is only effective when it is spread by trusted sources, so before sharing information with friends and family, we should take the time to evaluate the source, the context, and the veracity of the claim.
Finally, we must invest in our collective resilience. If Russia has mastered the game of online manipulation, that is, in part, because we’ve made it so easy for them to play. Supporting local journalism, promoting digital literacy education, and tamping down our partisan politics, are ways we can help ensure that Russian disinformation falls through the cracks.
We each have a part to play. By redefining the rules of engagement, we can help bring this game to an end.