In a society where people love nothing more than a freewheeling, hours-long chat with friends, the trend seems anomalous. Statistics indicate gregarious Georgians are turning to Facebook for news and information.
Over the past year, Facebook use in Georgia has grown prodigiously -- a fifth of the country’s 675,540 members have joined during the past six months, meaning that now nearly 15 percent of the country’s Internet users are on the network, reports Socialbakers.com, which tracks social media statistics. Though well behind neighboring Turkey and Russia, the rate places Georgia slightly ahead of Azerbaijan (518,800 users) and well beyond Armenia (214,740 users) for Facebook use.
Despite Georgians’ growing fondness for the social network, media analysts say Facebook is not about to become a tool that can generate social or political change in the South Caucasus country. But that hasn’t stopped some politicians from trying to capitalize on the trend. For example, one small Georgian opposition party, the Free Democrats, says it is now using Facebook to mobilize activists and spread its message ahead of next year’s parliamentary elections.
For a party with limited access to national television channels and a low advertising budget, Facebook is the natural alternative for reaching voters, said Vakho Avaliani, spokesperson for Free Democrats leader Irakli Alasania, Georgia’s former ambassador to the United Nations.
“National media covers parties that are under UNM control and the control of the government,” Avaliani alleged, referring to President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement. “That is why we put our video on our Facebook [profile page]. … Right now, more than a half a million Georgians are on Facebook and we must [reach] these people.”
Rather than an emailed press release, Georgian news agencies used a Facebook post by Alasania for their coverage of his recent, controversial meeting with billionaire government critic Bidzina Ivanishvili, Avaliani noted.
In part, that could speak to Facebook's intrinsic nature as a social network. “For those who seek information, I think Facebook is a treasure because whatever happens in Georgia, it is on Facebook,” commented Hatia Jinjikhadze, media support program manager at the Open Society Georgia Foundation, which promotes new media development. [The Open Society Georgia Foundation is part of the Soros Foundations network. EurasiaNet.org operates under the auspices of the Open Society Foundations, a separate part of that network.]
The Caucasus Research Resource Centers (CRRC) Regional Director Hans Gutbrod agrees that social media in Georgia has the potential to compete with television, but cautions, that it will require “a double leap” for politicians to maximize that potential. Internet access remains relatively limited in Georgia (37 percent of the country’s 4.47 million people are web-enabled, according to the CRRC), and politicians need to be “savvy” about connecting with others in real time, Gutbrod noted. “[T]here is one leap to actually have access and it is another conceptual leap to make the most of that, and really keep your ear to the ground and then use the entire range of social media,” he said.
Out of five Georgian political parties and politicians contacted by EurasiaNet.org via Facebook for this story, only the Free Democrats responded.
While Internet use is steadily growing – 5 percent of some 2,009 Georgians interviewed by the CRRC named the Internet as their primary information source in 2011, compared with 3 percent in 2009 --television still dwarfs the Internet as Georgians’ primary news source – the choice of 88 percent of CRRC’s respondents both years.
Larger parties, including President Mikheil Saakashvili's UNM, have established a Facebook presence, and Parliamentary Speaker Davit Bakradze has even staged parliament events for his Facebook fans. But most political leaders do not utilize the social network as a means for two-way communication with the public.
That may have something to do with Georgian Facebook users themselves. “Our general citizen’s life is overwhelmed with political information,” elaborated Giga Paitchadze, a media specialist and program manager at G-Media, a US Agency for International Development-funded media development program, managed by IREX. “There are too many fights, too many alliances and breakups … it means that if you are going online and want to share some information, you don’t want to talk about [politics],” Paitchadze said.
Over time, though, Facebook “likes” could turn into political action on Georgia’s streets or at the polls, added Tamuna Kakulia, a project director at the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs’ School of Journalism and Media Management.
“Previously, we were sitting in the kitchen with a cup of coffee, chit-chatting -- you have no idea how fast information was distributed,” she said. “From the kitchen, we went to the Facebook sphere. Right now, we are sitting in the Facebook sphere and again chatting. But not doing.”
Georgian voters, she argued “need to be brought to the edge in order to react.” But once they reach “the edge,” she predicted, “the population will react.”
Molly Corso is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.