The Republic of Georgia is a country under ideological, existential, and practical threat – a make-or-break chapter in a highly complex history of Russian efforts to influence and undermine its political and social destiny. Georgia’s accelerated efforts to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union have further exacerbated its strained relations with Moscow within the context of the growth of Western regional influence. At the same time, Georgia is decades behind in digital strategies and tools to manage this information-based aggression and counter these destabilizing, and anti-democratic, anti-Western influences.
The USAID Digital APEX Defense Against Social Media Attacks and Disinformation Campaigns program was initiated in Tbilisi in the second half of July 2020 as a complement to work already in progress through the International Republican Institute (IRI). Through the APEX program, Agenda was contracted to provide specialized training to political parties in Georgia in the run-up to that country’s October 2020 general election. The objective was to build capacity within Georgian political parties in various aspects of communications, including disinformation, social media usage, and crisis management. Despite the logistical challenges created by the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, which had delayed the start of the APEX program in Georgia, our team developed a series of remote and hybrid learning modules to ensure participation among eight opposition parties.
The Agenda training program was divided into two rounds each consisting of two modules. Round 1 consisted of identifying and countering disinformation and learning how to use our proprietary analytics dashboard. Round 2 consisted of understanding and navigating social media and the digital information space along with preparing for, managing, and recovering from crises. All first- and second-round trainings were live and in-person, except the dashboard training, which was conducted via video conference with U.S.-based experts.
Our strategy to deliver these trainings in a hastened hybrid format was largely successful. In total, we trained 80 individuals from across eight participating parties on the essentials of each discipline, with follow-up online survey instruments delivered to each participant. Based on the results of those surveys, there was strong validation on the effectiveness of the trainings and a clear indication that participants would welcome follow-up training opportunities. Seven of the eight parties subsequently won election to Parliament in the October 2020 elections and APEX considered the Georgia program a model performance.
Building off our work with the APEX program in 2020, IRI awarded a contract to Agenda in May 2021 to support its USAID-funded Consortium for Elections and Political Process Strengthening programme – the program our 2020 work was designed to complement. This new contract provide additional training in strategic and political communications to six Georgian political parties as they prepared to contest the October local government elections.
Planning and commencement of the contract were significantly delayed by the political crisis that had ensued following those earlier elections. We approached the project knowing that in the limited time we would be given by each of the parties, we would have to first assess their individual needs, and based on those, almost immediately deliver training and consultation. We therefore focused on weaknesses we could discern in each party and, narrowing around those specific challenges, we designed our training around issues and deficits that we found common among the parties.
We conducted the work across 31 days in June and July, during which time we trained 63 people, largely from the parties’ communications teams. We conducted assessments of each party by observing IRI’s initial two-day workshops with each party, then scheduled our own two-day workshops with each party.
We delivered our workshops in two modules. The first workshop focused on strategic and political communications, with an emphasis on the importance of a political strategy and on how to develop effective messaging; the second focused on better use of social media and the creation of key audience profiles. Each module included presentations, discussion, and exercises. We also provided brief recommendations on political strategy to each of the parties, which were designed to accommodate and support their electoral positioning and objectives.
Without exception, liaison officers from all the parties reported that the participants had found these exercises valuable and were highly appreciative of the trainers’ knowledge and expertise in general and the insights and recommendations they provided.
Ultimately, Agenda is proud of our work with USAID and IRI and believes that these projects succeeded because we married our local expertise and engagement with innovative and actionable approaches that were culturally, linguistically, and geographically relevant.