Georgian wrestler and his mysterious “RUSSELL” (or was it “RUSSIA”?) hat hit the spotlight
On February 13, 2019, two Georgian online news platforms, TABULA and On.ge, published a photograph of Jaba Kvelashvili, a member of the Georgian national wrestling team, claiming the Georgian sportsman wore a “RUSSIA” hat during the national team training.
The case sparked four waves of confused discussion among Georgian internet users, some of whom eventually levied allegations of photo manipulation against Kvelashvili.
To paraphrase Clausewitz, many Georgians see sports, art, and culture as a continuation of Russian “politics by other means.” In the aftermath of the 2008 Russian-Georgian August War, Georgian celebrities’ perceived links to Russia have often ignited heated debate among the Georgian public.
The political context and the ongoing conflict between Russia and Georgia, as well as the previous instances in which Georgian artists’ ties to Russia drew the public’s ire, explains why Georgian internet users reacted so strongly to Kvelashvili’s hat debacle.
Recent Instances of Georgian Figures Facing Public Rebuke
In 2013, the Georgian government-funded dance ensemble “Erisioni” toured Russia, sparking boycotts and widespread criticism in Georgia directed at the ensemble. Many Georgians interpreted the tour as a demeaning gesture that symbolized Tbilisi’s capitulation to Moscow. One commentator called it “embarrassing to the memory of Georgian soldiers and civilians killed by the Russian invading army during the August 2008 war.”
In September 2018, the house DJs of the Tbilisi club Bassiani cancelled their performance at a music festival in Moscow in response to the Georgian public’s objections online. Many in Georgia argue that, until Russia ceases to occupy the 20 percent of Georgian territory that it currently controls, Georgian culture and sports icons should not express support for or affiliate with Russia.
The photograph of Kvelashvili wearing the ignominious hat quickly spread on Facebook among Georgian users, sparking mostly negative discussion in the comment sections. The image showed Kvelashvili running with other sportsmen wearing a red and white striped hat, and the angle of coverage displayed only four letters on the hat –“RUSS” — allowing viewers to fill in the missing letters.
Kvelashvili subsequently posted a photo on his Facebook page of him wearing the hat, claiming that it read ”RUSSELL” and not “RUSSIA.” The photo garnered 1021 reactions, 151 shares, and 20 comments.
Kvelashvili’s photo triggered a second wave of discussion among Georgian Facebook users, who criticized the two media platforms (TABULA and On.ge) that originally published the story as well as the internet users who shared unverified information. The BBC briefly covered the story as well, highlighting the error of Georgian news websites.
Two days later, on February 15, a third wave of discussion began after one of the Georgian Facebook users shared a screenshot of an old Facebook photo of Kvelashvili, accusing the wrestler of deceiving the Georgian public. The screenshot garnered 366 reactions, 60 shares, and 80 comments.
The Open-Source Evidence
The 2017 profile photo, uploaded to Facebook on April 17, 2017, and deleted after the third wave of discussions, showed Kvelashvili wearing what appears to be a “Moscow” sweatshirt with the Coat of Arms of Moscow on it. The emblem in the top right of the sweatshirt also clearly includes the caption “Moscow” and matches the shapes and symbols of the Coat of Arms of Moscow, which depicts Saint George slaying a dragon.
The third wave of discussion was dominated by comments that suggested that, if Kvelashvili was indeed dressed in a “Moscow” sweatshirt in the earlier photograph, he may own other Russian paraphernalia — such as the “RUSSIA” hat — as well, and thus the “RUSSELL” photograph was simply a photo manipulation intended to deceive.
The DFRLab could not identify the “RUSSELL” hat presented by Kvelashvili as a branded hat in the Russell clothing collection. An identical hat branded “RUSSIA,” however, was found on the Russian social network VKontakte (VK), on which a user posted a profile picture with a child wearing a “RUSSIA” hat with matching red-and-white stripes and font.
In addition to the matching hats, a closer look at Kvelashvili’s hat in On.ge’s initial photo suggests that the fifth letter following the first four, “RUSS,” does not appear to be an “E.” The vertical line is not followed by three horizontal lines in white, but by the red background.
Georgian Facebook users’ doubts about possible photo manipulation were reinforced after Kvelashvili refused to show the hat to reporters, claiming that he had thrown it away.
Videos Ignites Further Debate
Following the online discourse around the photos, two videos uploaded by a Georgian Facebook user later in the day on February 15 added further fuel to the fire.
Both videos show Kvelashvili training while wearing a hat closely resembling the one from the photos. Interestingly, the angles of both videos display only one side of the hat, the side that reads “ELL.” Neither of the videos indicate the date of their recording. Furthermore, the width of the red-and-white stripes does not match the previous photos; the shape of the hat is different. Additionally, the videos were posted on Facebook within two days of the first wave of discussion, suggesting to Georgian Facebook users that they were shot shortly after the scandal.
The discussions stopped after two videos appeared, with many internet users expressing that they felt the topic had been exhausted. Many Georgian Facebook users commented that they were tired of seeking out credible information on the topic and called on each other to abandon the controversy.
The online discussions on the controversy involving Kvelashvili highlight the public’s vulnerability to potential photo and video manipulation. Controversial photos and videos that circulated from February 13–15, 2019, among Georgian internet users sparked three days of intense and confused discussion. The intensity of the debate highlights how polarized Georgia is, especially when it comes to issues involving Russia, no matter how trivial. These online discussions also contributed to a growing mistrust among the Georgian public of media platforms and the reliability of social-media sources.
In some sense, this mistrust may be interpreted as a healthy skepticism of online content. Skepticism of unverified online information is, after all, preferable to blind faith in such information. For healthy skepticism to be beneficial, however, it must be coupled with a desire to pursue credible information and hard evidence to either verify or debunk a certain interpretation of the facts. This final step was not taken in the Kvelashvili case. On the contrary, for whatever reason, Georgian internet users demonstrated limited interest in sifting through unverified media reports in search of credible information.
Eto Buziashvili is a Research Assistant with the Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab), based in Tbilisi, Georgia.
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