By: emmi kivi
October 13 2023
(Source: iStock, credit: djedzura)
On October 15, the Polish electorate will vote in the country’s parliamentary election. This election follows an intensive and fierce campaigning period after which the over 30 million registered voters face a primary choice of rule by Jarosław Kaczyński’s Law and Justice (PiS) party, vying for a third term, or the opposition, the Civic Coalition led by the leader of the Civic Platform (PO), Donald Tusk, who was the President of the European Council between 2014 and 2019.
For the next four years, the voters will select 100 members of the Senate and all 460 of the Sejm, comprising the two-chamber parliament. Gaining a parliamentary majority is difficult for both parties. During the election campaigning, the Law and Justice Party was predicted to be the largest party. According to recent polls, PiS holds 34 percent support while the Civic Platform 30 percent.
Since the 2019 parliamentary elections, the gap between the two parties continues to tighten in a climate of war and military build-up in Europe, the COVID-19 pandemic, double-digit inflation, and a rising budget deficit. However, PiS is not losing its votes to the Civic Platform. Smaller parties, namely the centrist agrarian Third Way party, the New Left, and the far-right Confederation, have roughly a ten percent support in the polls leading to the parliamentary elections.
The upcoming elections in Poland will occur in a highly divided atmosphere due to various contentious political and economic issues; the public discourse is dominated by topics related to the migrant crisis at the border with Belarus, the rule of law, and the EU’s influence over Poland, corruption and the use of public money as well as personal freedoms.
Ahead of the high-stakes election on Sunday, Logically Facts took a closer look at Poland’s misinformation and disinformation landscape. We conferred with experts and local fact-checking organizations on the challenges of securing the integrity of elections and initiatives taken to build trust and provide accurate and reliable information to the electorate in the turbulent information environment.
After Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, COVID-19 disinformation accounts changed overnight to anti-Ukrainian messaging targeting Ukrainian refugees in Poland. Examples of these disproved narratives include Ukrainians replacing Poles in the Polish labor market and Ukrainian students being prioritized in Polish schools. These campaigns attempt to plant fear and doubt in the Polish public and divide Poland and Ukraine over unresolved historical issues, prominently the Volyn massacre. Other prominent Kremlin-fabricated claims about Poland include its alleged plan to regain territories now belonging to Ukraine and launch a military attack on Belarus.
In the second quarter of 2023 and into July, the frequency of false content regarding the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which had a significant presence on Polish social media, declined. Domestic political issues took center stage as the fall elections approached.
Givi Gigitashvili, Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, explained to Logically Facts, “External disinformation aims to exacerbate existing tensions within Polish society. Russian and Belarusian pro-government actors demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of anxieties and fault lines that divide Polish society. The ultimate goal of this effort is to create rifts within Polish society ahead of elections. Secondly, foreign disinformation also aims to weaken democratic institutions and Poland’s adversaries see it as a way to weaken Poland.”
Beyond false narratives, foreign interference attempts have taken the form of digital infrastructure exploitations and hack-and-leak operations, Gigitashvili added.
Anna Gwozdowska, an editor at FakeHunter, the Polish Press Agency’s fact-checking website, disclosed to Logically Facts that “there are at least two kinds of false narratives, which are specifically addressed to Polish internet users and successfully amplified by Kremlin influencers in Polish social media: senselessness and high costs of the wall on the border with Belarus/ alleged cruelty of the Polish border guards towards illegal migrants and a growing resentment between Warsaw and Kyiv due to the dispute regarding the export of Ukrainian grain, which is allegedly the proof of bankruptcy of the Polish policy of strongly supporting Ukraine.”
Furthermore, a representative of the Polish National Research Institute (NASK) told Logically Facts that many narratives concerned “potential disinformation on the electoral process.” For example, in August, pro-Kremlin sources proliferated claims alleging that the elections would be rigged in favor of the ruling party. Starting in 2022, a significant amount of conspiracy emerged that the election would be manipulated by using Ukrainian refugees. In reality, the Electoral Code mandates Polish citizenship as a prerequisite for participation in parliamentary elections.
Just three days before election day, Polish voters were targeted by a false text messaging campaign impersonating the Law and Justice party's election team, Polish authorities reported on October 12.
Election mis- and disinformation campaigns have become a malaise for European elections. When effective, false information may undermine confidence in fair elections, the legitimacy of a democratically elected government, and, consequently, its ability to conduct effective policy-making. Furthermore, it may lead to political misconceptions that reduce political engagement, distort citizens’ self-interest assessment, and curb enthusiasm for political participation.
“Russian and Belarusian malign influence tries to foment chaos and uncertainty ahead of elections. They try to achieve this by exploiting the current polarization to induce distrust towards Polish government. Polarisation also makes it easier for false or deceptive narratives to enter the public discourse and creating confusion by adversaries is used to undermine the fabric of a society,” Gigitashvili said.
The Parliament of the Republic of Poland (iStock, credit: ewg3D).
Poland faces disinformation from both internal and external sources. Additionally, the governing party has taken a tighter grip on Polish media outlets to spread pro-government news and hampered the functioning of state institutions, most notably the judicial system. Roughly 40 percent of Poles suspect that the upcoming elections’ results may be falsified, according to a July survey by Polish newspaper “Rzeczpospolita.” Only 18 percent of respondents believe there will be no irregularities in the elections.
The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) stated following the 2020 Polish Presidential elections that while both candidates could campaign freely, biased coverage by the public broadcaster tarnished and mudded the elections. “The political polarization and the lack of impartiality in the public media coverage detracted from a well-run election,” said Thomas Boserup, the head of ODIHR’s Special Election Assessment Mission, on the findings of the election observers.
On August 17, the Sejm adopted a resolution to order a referendum to be held the same day as the Parliamentary elections. Marcin Kostecki, a senior analyst at the fact-checking organization Demagog, told Logically Facts, “The questions that Polish citizens will answer in the referendum held on Election Day also say a lot about the main narratives of this election. The ruling party has formulated these questions in such a way that they attack the largest opposition party. In these questions, Law and Justice alleges that Civic Platform, if it came to power, would privatize state-owned societies, raise the retirement age, remove the barrier on the Polish-Belarusian border and welcome thousands of illegal immigrants.”
The political rivals, Tusk and Kaczyński, have made personal jibes against each other and are responsible for risking the integrity of the elections. Indeed, personalized and fierce claims against each other have saturated the election campaign of the two largest parties. The government and opposition have focused their campaigns on the disasters awaiting Poland if their party loses the elections. Both sides use manipulation techniques and misleading or false information to amplify their message online and offline.
Left: Leader of the opposition coalition, Civic Coalition, and the party leader of the Civic Platform, Donald Tusk. Right: Jarosław Kaczyński, the party leader of the ruling Law and Justice. (Source: Shutterstock, credit: DarSzach and TomaszKudala.)
Additionally, during the campaign, PiS and government leaders accused Tusk of favoring immigration, causing high unemployment, and selling the country to both Germany and Russia. In response, Tusk and his supporters argue that democracy has declined under PiS rule, and this election is crucial to safeguard democracy, the rule of law, women’s rights, and LGBTQ rights in Poland. Tusk also warned that the PiS government is conspiring to remove Poland from the EU (against the population’s support of the membership). According to a Demagog’s report, the two main parties have chosen polarization as their strategy, leading to an “us” versus “them” dichotomy. This may lead voters to suppose that there are only two options in the election. Consequently, in Poland, mis- and disinformation tend to adopt “anti” rhetoric, aiming to generate sentiments against specific entities – most commonly against the government, migrants, the EU, and Germany.
The declining trust in the electoral institution results in the growing use of the argument of their unfairness in disinformation campaigns. According to a July survey by the Central European Digital Media Observatory (CEDMO), a quarter of Poles are satisfied with the functioning of democracy in Poland, while roughly half of the Polish population do not believe in future change – despite who wins the elections.
PiS continues to enjoy popularity among older and rural voters thanks to boosting social spending and introducing social allowances. Civic Platform is popular among urban residents. The Polish election voter turnout has been steadily increasing since the 2011 parliamentary elections. In the last elections, around 61.74 percent of the electorate used their right to vote, but especially young voters were disappointed by the choice between the two main parties. A 2023 survey of first-time voters shows that the far-right Confederation will be a likely choice for the discouraged youth.
Pursuing dissonance may profit in the election campaign, but in the long term, it may undermine the populace’s trust in public institutions and aggravate societal divisions. Internally, a lack of trust within society exacerbates the spread of false or misleading information, amplifying the impact of disinformation tactics and foreign interference.
Gwozdowska affirmed to Logically Facts that “Poland, due to its history and experience in dealing with Russian/Soviet propaganda, is to a certain extent resistant to Kremlin’s disinformation campaigns.”
While harnessing fact-checking organizations in protecting the integrity of elections, de-bunking or fact-checking electoral misinformation alone will require further action for a healthy information environment. Access to reliable and timely information, social media interventions, and national regulations are important in securing a fair and free information environment, especially during elections.
In addition to keeping a keen eye on the Polish misinformation front, Polish fact-checking organizations are geared up to respond to false news. For example, Demagog has established a special tab for the polls to public debates, political statements, and promises made by candidates from across the political spectrum. Kostecki explained that Demagog had prepared for the intense election period by establishing important partnerships with one of the largest radio stations in Poland, Radio ZET, and Google News Initiative.
Other efforts include those by NASK to establish the Safe Elections project, Bezpiecznewybory, with the support of Google, Meta, and TikTok. A NASK representative disclosed to Logically Facts that “The Safe Elections project aims at short- and long-term information and education activities in the context of one of the fundamental acts of democracy - parliamentary elections.”
Screenshot of the front page of the Safe Elections project website. (Source: https://www.bezpiecznewybory.pl/)
The website makes current and verified information regarding the electoral process available to the electorate and assists in recognizing information manipulation techniques. It also functions as a public place for collecting verified knowledge of the elections and election procedures and reporting cybersecurity incidents and harmful content.
Both allies and adversaries are closely monitoring the results of the Polish parliamentary elections this Sunday. The outcomes will determine the country’s future path but steer the developments in European alliances as well, but will first and foremost be borne by the electorate themselves. “One key conclusion that emerges after the first months of the election campaign is the widespread interest in the topic of elections itself - it is clear that the public is concerned about the upcoming election,” the NASK representative concluded.
Ensuring the integrity of democratic elections and their processes is paramount. If the state institutions fail to establish trust in the electoral system, it creates a void that foreign actors can exploit. The absence of trust weakens the system and leads to public anxiety and uncertainty. Building and maintaining trust in elections is essential to safeguard the legitimacy of the political process and to protect against external interference and domestic unrest.