Poland Presidential Election 2020: The Pandemic Sows Chaos
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, unprecedented political turmoil surrounds the presidential elections in Poland. With a month to go until the planned election date, neither the final date of the election nor the mechanism for voting has been established. The governing Law and Justice Party (PiS) is determined to push through the election as planned on May 10th, which it sees as the best way to secure Andrzej Duda’s reelection. Duda’s opponents, who have effectively been forced to stop campaigning, have denounced this idea from all sides; the independent candidate Szymon Hołownia equated PiS’s strategy to “doing politics literally over the dead.” No candidate has officially quit the race, but, to comply with social distancing, the campaign has moved almost entirely to social media. To complicate matters further, the government recently announced further shelter-in place restrictions for Polish citizens—the peak of the pandemic is expected in late May/June—thereby making the traditional way of voting inconceivable.
For this reason, PiS has announced a new bill in the parliament introducing voting by mail for all voters. According to critics of the bill, this measure is unconstitutional, impossible to organize appropriately within a few weeks, and irresponsible, since it raises the threat of spreading the virus among postal workers, who would be responsible for collecting the votes. Another newly proposed law would give the Speaker of the Sejm the power to delay the vote during a pandemic, but in practice this amounts to a delay of no more than two weeks, as, barring a state of emergency, the election must be held no later than 100 days before the end of the current term. The opposition parties have objected to PiS’s proposal in the strongest terms. They demand that PiS declare a state of emergency, which would automatically postpone the election until the fall or later. But such a scenario is deeply undesirable for PiS, given the risk of an impending economic recession, which would put Duda’s reelection—previously fairly certain, given his high approval ratings—in jeopardy. One month out, and amid a worsening pandemic, it is not clear how this crisis can be resolved.
In our last post on the Poland election, we explored the amplification tactics one network, “Pantarhei,” used to get its content in front of more Facebook users. In this post, we will do a deeper dive on the subject of coordinated activity on Facebook and describe three more networks—larger and more influential than “Pantarhei”—to show how actors flood the network with content and try to tilt the political landscape on Facebook in their favor. While the pandemic has all but supplanted “normal politics” in Poland, and changed the kind of political content circulating on Polish social media in significant ways, the operators of these content networks remain active. Indeed, Facebook has arguably become even more important as a political arena, since traditional campaigning has come to a halt, and social media usage has gone up worldwide. Coronavirus dominates headlines on the left and the right, but coverage of the virus almost inevitably dovetails with coverage of the adequacy of PiS’s response to it and of the uncertain status of the election.
The “Prawicowy” network
In this context, PiS’s allies in the media have mounted a full-court press to assure voters of the legitimacy of a May 10 election, and PiS-aligned Facebook Pages are doing their part as well. One of the networks we’ve been tracking, which we call the “Prawicowy” network due to its tendency to share links to the website prawicowyinternet.pl, demonstrates the ways in which PiS-aligned actors can flood Facebook with supportive content.
The “Prawicowy” network consists of 23 Pages and can claim a reach of approximately 580,000 followers. The Page names in this network tend to touch upon either patriotic themes (”Jesteśmy dumni z bycia Polakami” [“We are proud to be Polish”]; or loyalty to PiS (“Wspieram rząd PiS” [“I support the PiS government”]); or overt nationalism (“Nie chcę islamizacji Polski” [“I don’t want the Islamization of Poland”]). The content directly supports PiS and pro-PiS narratives and attacks opposition parties (PO, PSL, Lewica, etc.).
In April, for instance, all of the pages in the network shared a graphic showing the Polish government’s reaction to the pandemic as effective, and the EU as unsupportive and passive:
This post appears to have originated on the Facebook Page of Adam Andruszkiewicz, a politician with far-right ties who is currently PiS’s Minister of Digitization. The “Prawicowy” Pages recycled this content without attribution, generating almost as many interactions across the 23 Pages as the original post (~3,000 interactions)—although it is unlikely Andruszkiewicz would have disapproved.
Like the other networks we have been tracking, the “Prawicowy” network relies on such simultaneous posting to get its content to as many users as possible. This can also be an effective way to attack Duda’s opponents in the election:
One of the things that distinguishes “Prawicowy” is that this coordinated posting usually, but not exclusively, revolves around a single website: prawicowyinternet.pl. A third of the links posted to the network direct users to this website.
Prawicowy Internet [“Conservative Internet”], the Facebook Page for which has 136,150 likes, was created by Dariusz Matecki, a far-right activist who has been working for the Ministry of Justice. Matecki is closely linked to Zbigniew Ziobro, Patryk Jaki and Solidarna Polska, a right-wing party aligned with PiS. He came to public attention as a blogger who spread hateful content, including calling for “disinfecting streets from LGBT ideology.” Most pages within the Prawicowy network actively promote the political ambitions of Matecki, who is also a councilman in Szczecin.
In recent months the network has ramped up its simultaneous-posting tactics:
Viewed at the network level, the pattern of coordinated content-sharing is clear; but an ordinary Facebook user visiting one of these Pages over the course of a day would simply see a series of links to prawicowyinternet.pl. Over time, this kind of amplification can have a remarkable effect. An article that might fall flat on several the Pages, for example, can go viral from another, and drive up both the number of Facebook users who are shown the article and the traffic to the website hosting the article. A recent prawicowyinternet.pl article praising a prominent politician’s anti-Islamic remarks, for example, received 600 only interactions on the “Prawicowy Internet” Page; but across the network as a whole, it received more than 2,800 interactions. It is easy to see how this network—and others like it—can flood Facebook with content, generating ad revenue for the website owners while blanketing users’ feeds with political content along the way.
Recently, the Pages have started a push to legitimate PiS’s election plans:
However, pro-PiS actors and aligned websites are not the only ones using Facebook as an amplification tool. Next we will examine how two other networks use similar tactics to serve different political ends.
The “CrowdMedia” Network
While pro-PiS networks amplify content favorable to the party in power, other networks on the opposite side of the political spectrum spread content attacking PiS. One such network, which we refer to as the “CrowdMedia” network due to its affiliation with crowdmedia.pl, comprises 10 Facebook pages, including one of the most significant Polish political Facebook Pages, SokZBuraka [“Beetroot juice”]. SokZBuraka, which is idolized on the left and a bugbear of right-wing media has 900 thousand likes at time of writing and has generated 211.5 million engagements (likes, shares, comments, etc.) over the course of its existence. SokZBuraka’s popularity brings a great deal of scrutiny, and it has been revealed that some members of the board of directors of crowdmedia.pl are closely related to PO politicians. In addition, SokZBuraka’s founder, Mariusz Kozak-Zagozda, was reported to have worked as a promotional representative for Warsaw’s City Hall, currently in the hands of the Civic Coalition; and a Facebook bug earlier this year revealed that another administrator was a member of Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska’s campaign staff. In line with its political affiliations, content from crowdmedia.pl is highly politically charged, as indicated by the names of the Facebook Pages in this network: “You can overthrow Law and Justice,” “I hate Law and Justice,” and “I’ve had enough of Law and Justice,” for example.
The “CrowdMedia” network consists of 10 Pages with a combined follower count of over two million. Since the beginning of 2019 this network has received more than 86 million engagements—most of these from SokZBuraka. Like the other networks we have explored, “CrowdMedia” is marked by simultaneous posting. And like the others, it has ramped up its coordinated posting in the past few months:
As the amount of coordinated posting increased, the amount of content directing users to crowdmedia.pl increased as well. On a given day, the Pages shared up to five crowdmedia.pl links simultaneously. Indeed, starting in late 2019, crowdmedia.pl became the primary domain the Pages in this network linked to. While the network was previously focused—in a less coordinated fashion—on directing users to memnews.pl, a meme-sharing site, its strategy seems to have shifted around this time:
While the content shared from memnews.pl tends, like most memes, to be lighthearted, crowdmedia.pl content tends toward invective. Many posts in the “CrowdMedia” network contain hateful rhetoric:
By posting such content simultaneously, the network can give users who come across its posts the impression that independent Page managers simply saw fit to link to “CrowdMedia” content.
Recently, the network has turned its resources against PiS’s handling of the pandemic in Poland. From the outset, the Pages repeatedly criticized the government’s response as grossly inadequate. This criticism has taken on several guises. For instance, the Pages amplify voices accusing PiS of taking advantage of the epidemic. But they also attack PiS for not doing enough: for example, one of the opposition’s attempts to force PiS towards more resolute action against the virus was an amendment to the Polish law providing that the staff of medical entities as well as employees of commercial establishments be tested for coronavirus on a weekly basis. The PiS-controlled Sejm rejected the amendment on the grounds that the fiscal burden of such a regulation would be unsustainable. The CrowdMedia network immediately launched an emotional anti-PiS narrative, accusing Duda’s government of harming and betraying the medical personnel:Posts appearing across the “CrowdMedia” network and accusing the ruling party’s senators of voting against the interests of Polish medics.
The CrowdMedia network has been also making hay with increasing public anxiety over the toll of the virus, launching an online “death counter” which directly blames the incumbent president Andrzej Duda for the coronavirus-caused fatalities, and accusing the Polish First Lady of turning a blind eye to the crisis in a series of inflammatory posts:
These examples—and the activity of the “CrowdMedia” network in general—show that such coordinated tactics are not used by the right and far right alone; they are also used by PiS’s opponents to attack the government’s handling of the pandemic and to damage Duda in advance of the election.
The “Netherlands” Network
We have seen how pro-PiS and anti-PiS networks use coordinated behavior to advance their causes on Facebook. But the largest of these networks, in scale and number of followers, appears to be aimed more specifically at far-right Facebook users. Because this network was distinguished by Page managers located in the Netherlands (see below), we refer to it as the “Netherlands” network.
The Netherlands network consists of 51 Pages. Some of these Pages have names intended to appeal to Polish nationalist sentiment, such as “Lwów jest polski” [Lviv is Polish”] and “Obrońcy Narodu Polskiego” [“Defenders of the Polish Nation”]; others touch upon historical themes (“O tym nie usłyszysz na lekcji historii” [“You won’t hear about this in history class”]); and still others imitate internet culture (“Soczyste Memy” [“Juicy Memes”]). As of early April 2020, these 51 Pages had received 1.97 million combined Page likes, published nearly 3 million posts (as we describe below, a great many of these were duplicates), and, from the beginning of 2019 onward, received over 14 million interactions (likes, comments, and shares). For comparison, the far-right “Pantarhei” network we described in our last post had roughly 564,000 followers and received roughly 888,000 interactions over the same period.
Two major features link these 51 Pages together and distinguish them as a network: 1) a particular pattern of Page manager locations and 2) high levels of coordinated posting.
The Page Administrator pattern for these Pages is remarkably consistent. Most of the Pages fit one of two patterns: they have between 40 and 50 managers in Poland and 1 in the Netherlands, or between 10 and 15 managers in Poland.
In addition, the Pages in this network show a high degree of coordinated behavior. Although there is no visible connection between the Pages—a visitor who happened to come across one of them would have no indication that she was seeing one node in a network—they often posted the same content simultaneously multiple times per day. In this way, a single article could appear “spontaneously” on up to 51 purportedly independent Pages at precisely the same time. At the network level, the spam-like quality of this kind of coordination is clear:
This was not a one-off tactic or an incidental part of the network’s activity. Out of 299,879 posts published between May 2018 and April 2020, 254,404 were links that appeared more than once in this period. While this appears to be a tactic the network used from the beginning, there was a significant increase in coordinated posting in early 2020:
With 51 Pages posting many times per day, the figures add up fast: from January to April 2020, the network published almost 40,000 posts that were shared more than 30 times across the Pages. At its peak, on February 6, 14 articles were posted simultaneously to 50 or more Pages, resulting in 708 posts for a mere 14 articles. While it might not be visible to the unsuspecting visitor, this kind of coordinated posting is a straightforward technique to amplify content: because each link is shared across up to 51 Pages, it has a greater chance of appearing in users’ feeds—and thus enticing them to click on it. Like the “Prawicowy” and “CrowdMedia” networks, the “Netherlands” network appears to have been primarily interested in driving users to its webpages, where it could earn money by showing them ads. The websites used by the operators of the network for this purpose have changed over time:
The website nczas.com is something of an exception in this list, as it is the web version of Najwyższy Czas!, a weekly with links to Janusz Korwin-Mikke and the Confederation party. The others belong to a type frequently encountered in these kinds of networks: content aggregators that repackage, with scant or no attribution, articles from other websites and present them as their own. What these websites have in common in this case is the type of content they spread: incendiary articles of a far-right nature, with a large amount of clickbait mixed in. Many of them also appear in Anna Mierzyńska’s survey of Polish websites that funnel RT and Sputnik stories into the Polish media space.
The “Netherlands” network has another specific commercial dimension: its Pages consistently advertise “patriotic” clothing from the websites sklepfuria.pl and ultrapatriot.pl.
The “Netherlands” network is clearly a commercial project, designed to sell ads through clickbait and support clothing sales. But it also has a strong political dimension—although its politics can seem a bit ambivalent at times. There are a few themes about which the Pages are not ambivalent: they consistently post anti-immigrant, anti-EU, and anti-LGBT content:
With regard to the election, in particular, it is more difficult to discern which candidate these Pages are intended to support. (Their hostility towards the centrist and leftist candidates in the election is consistent.) Some of the content shared across the network—especially that from nczas.com—clearly favors the far-right candidate, Krzysztof Bosak.
But other content, from wlocie.pl, in particular, favors Duda. And one of the polls such Pages conduct periodically to feel out their users’ stances suggests that the network’s users lean towards Duda:
The circumstances of the pandemic seem to have changed the network’s stance, in particular, since it has made no mention of Bosak’s petition to have the elections postponed. In this respect, the network operators seem to have decided on a tactic of “wait and see” in the case of PiS’s election plans. On the subject of the coronavirus, on the other hand, they have been eager to spread misinformation and crow at the impending downfall of the EU.
The scale and prolificness of the “Netherlands” network exemplify the tactics we have explored in this post: one-third politics, one-third spam, one-third commerce, the network churns out many thousands of posts per week to its two million followers, who typically have no way of knowing that the content they see is part of a coordinated effort. While this behavior does not clearly violate Facebook’s community standards, it goes a long way towards explaining why the political landscape on Polish Facebook looks the way it does, and why certain content is amplified so successfully: a growing number of network like the ones we have described here simply flood the social network with their content, certain that enough of it will hit. Since it is not against the rules, such amplification tactics are tacitly encouraged in the battle for users’ attention.
This is largely a matter of domestic politics. But the chaos surrounding the presidential elections in these extraordinary circumstances provides new opportunities for foreign actors to interfere with the political situation in Poland as well. If the election does take place in May with voting by mail, the validity of the results is bound to be questioned by the opposition, likely engendering yet another constitutional crisis, and Poland, a country already at loggerheads with the EU, will face even more consequences internationally. Undoubtedly, the prospect of the upcoming disorder, both in- and outside Polish borders, is likely to attract foreign actors hoping for the EU's dissolution. As the date of the election approaches, the online debates are likely to intensify. We will monitor developments on Polish social media over the next few weeks, and our next post will focus on narratives around the election and its possible postponement.