Berlin - Fake news and media manipulation are a growing problem in democracies around the world. In the US, the 2016 presidential campaign highlighted the power of corporations like Google and Facebook in political elections. During the "Hate News vs Free Speech" conference on 12 and 13 December in Berlin and online, activists and political scientists will talk about fake news and how to combat it in countries including Georgia and Germany. We talked to Eka Rostomashvili, a Georgian who works for Transparency International in Berlin, about the conference. 

Berliner Zeitung: Why are you organising the conference? What is the idea behind it?

Eka Rostomashvili: The conference brings together great speakers – working and based in Germany or Georgia – to debate what we can do about the increasing polarisation of our societies. Georgia happens to be one of the most polarised countries in Europe. Fortunately, it is also a country with a very active and vibrant civil society. In recent years, Germans have wanted to learn more about Georgia and there has been a lot of cultural exchange happening. The excellent books of Nino Haratischwili could be one reason. Another reason I can think of is Tbilisi’s excellent new techno scene which – up until the pandemic broke – regularly hosted Berlin’s best artists.

How is the media situation in Georgia?

Overall, Georgian laws create a favourable environment for establishing media outlets and their operation. However, independence of the media – in particular, of television broadcasters – is not ensured in practice and there are clear signs of interference in their editorial independence. Other problems include polarisation of the media (especially during electoral campaigns) and the use of hate speech and the spread of fake news through the internet. Key broadcasters are either loyal to the government or to opposition parties. Take my family, for example: My father watches a TV channel that’s aligned with one of the opposition parties. My sisters and I would never watch that channel, but we also don’t trust most of other broadcasters. My family is incredibly close and very loving, but we cannot talk about politics.

 Do you have an example for hate and sponsored posts in social media during the last political elections?

In October 2020, Georgia had a high-stake parliamentary election where people voted for the new parliament, which was preceded by a very tense pre-election period. By the way, the opposition parties are not acknowledging the election results and today the new parliament got together for its first session without a single opposition member of parliament in attendance. But before the 2020 election, women candidates were particularly targeted by misogynistic posts. Preliminary analysis by Georgian civil society shows that some of that hateful content was also coordinated. Georgia’s LGBTQIA+ activists have been on the receiving end of hate speech and disinformation on social media but also offline, for several years now but the last couple of years have been especially tough in that regard. During the conference, we will hear from Giorgi Tabagari, the co-founder and director of Tbilisi Pride, who will tell us all about their experience organising Georgia’s first pride event, including the state-sponsored attacks the community had to navigate.

Photo: private
Eka Rostomashvili 

is from Tbilisi, Georgia. She moved to Berlin in 2015 to get her master’s in public policy at the Hertie School of Governance. Rostomashvili is a campaigner with Transparency International’s Berlin-based Secretariat (not to be confused with Transparency International Germany, a national chapter of Transparency International, focusing on anti-corruption in Germany). Transparency International is a global anti-corruption organisation, and the largest of this kind, with national chapters in over 100 countries.

Should Facebook be moderated? Is that a solution?

The debate around the need for reforms to curb misinformation and disinformation on social media has significantly advanced in recent years but regulatory – including self-regulatory – responses are still in their nascence. In part, this is because we need more evidence on the exact impacts of social media on elections and public discourse – evidence that is difficult to produce in a fast-paced technological context.

Some people like Trump leave Facebook and Fox News and find new platforms for spreading hate. Is moderating Facebook from this perspective a good option?

I think many of us watched in awe when President Trump’s tweets related to the election results appeared with a warning-type notice from Twitter. I am not from the United States so it’s difficult for me to say whether Twitter flagging the president’s posts is a good thing for American democracy or not, but from the reactions I’ve seen, many seemed entertained. We need to be wary, however, that what makes sense in one context may not make sense in another. I don’t know if anyone believes that Twitter should now roll out this policy globally and start flagging election-related tweets that may be considered disputed. During the conference we will debate this with our experts as well.

Foto: Disruption Network Lab
The poster.

Hate News vs Free Speech will be held on 12 and 13 December in Studio 1, Kunstquartier Bethanien, and can be seen online. More information: https://www.disruptionlab.org/