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When Fake News Is Official News

Demonstrators hold banners "Free Parliamnent, Free Media, Free Poles" during a protest in Gdansk, Poland, Dec. 17, 2016.
Demonstrators hold banners "Free Parliamnent, Free Media, Free Poles" during a protest in Gdansk, Poland, Dec. 17, 2016.

How can Poles distinguish fake news from the real thing when the country’s own public broadcaster has been accused repeatedly of airing objectively false information?

In the information wars being waged across Europe by Russia, and supplemented by the continent’s highly partisan fringe parties of left and right, Poles increasingly are finding themselves in an unenviable position with solid media ground eroding fast.

Like many European countries, Poland is being targeted by Russian propagandists with disinformation campaigns aimed at poisoning the country’s political discourse, according to analysts.

They say large numbers of fake accounts started flooding Polish Facebook as well as other social media sites and news portals as soon as the Maidan protests erupted in 2014 in neighboring Ukraine. And the activity has not let up since with Russian propagandists focusing on fomenting anti-Western, Polish nationalist and anti-Ukrainian sentiments, often working in tandem with political organizations already on the fringe of the political spectrum in Polish politics, of left and right.

But at the same time the Poles, who nearly 40 years ago launched the anti-Communist Solidarity movement that helped spread political freedom throughout eastern Europe, are being buffeted by domestic political marketing companies employing the same ‘fake news’ techniques of made-up stories, troll factories and harassment campaigns used by Russian propagandists.

Press Freedom in Poland

Trust in established media is not being helped, say analysts, by the recent actions of Poland’s ruling party, the right-wing PiS (Law and Justice), which is cracking down on press freedom. The PiS government quickly took control of the country's public broadcaster, after being elected into office, and is now taking aim at foreign-owned media companies. It also wants to oversee the distribution of funds to NGOs, moves that have been condemned by the European Union.

In its 2017 annual report on press freedom around the world, Freedom House, a U.S.-based pro-democracy policy research group, rated Poland only “partly free” because of “government intolerance toward independent or critical reporting, excessive political interference in the affairs of public media, and restrictions on speech regarding Polish history and identity, which have collectively contributed to increased self-censorship and polarization.”

And while curtailing press freedom, PiS has been accused of running social media campaigns of its own that are more successful, but also more aggressive and misleading, than political rivals, including the use of paid ‘haters’ or ‘trolls’ on social media platforms and news portals and the use of automated social media accounts able to spread memes rapidly and to cyber-bully opponents relentlessly.

“On Twitter, suspicious accounts with no profile photos that engage with other users on political issues have been termed ‘Szefernaker’s Eggs’ after Paweł Szefernaker, a Secretary of State in the Chancellery of the Polish Prime Minister who has been referred to as PiS’ ‘internet genius’,” according to Robert Gorwa of Britain’s Oxford University.

Propaganda Analysis

In a study for the Oxford Internet Institute on “Computational Propaganda in Poland,” Gorwa notes PiS has pursued an “extraordinarily effective online resurgence,” out-maneuvering political party rivals.

In an analysis, he found higher levels of so-called bots, or automated accounts, on Polish Twitter than analysts had previously thought. He found that there were more than twice as many suspicious PiS or nationalist accounts as left-wing ones and that the right-wing accounts were far more prolific in posting.

While the left-wing or moderate accounts tended to retweet or like stories from more established media organizations and prominent politicians and journalists, the PiS and nationalist-aligned fake accounts perpetuated “fringe points of view and spread political disinformation from untrustworthy channels or partisan blogs posing as legitimate news outlets,” he concluded.

They also often broadcast highly inflammatory and xenophobic content. “For example, the right-wing accounts were observed widely sharing content from @wPrawopl, an account created in May that claims to be a news portal, but on closer inspection seems to be the personal project of a Polish YouTuber that spreads inflammatory stories and conspiracy theories such as ‘How the Jews helped the Germans murder the Jews’ with a stated mission of ‘teaching Poles the truth.’”

Other inflammatory material of the nationalist-aligned accounts include framing immigration in Europe as a holy war akin to the Crusades.

Media activists in neighboring Ukraine have noted a similar corruption in their country, too, with Russian propaganda techniques of troll farms, bots and fake stories now being used by domestic political rivals and oligarchs against each other.

Targeted cyber-bullying is rife, too - and not only by fringe extremist parties.

"We are seeing targeted social media hate and harassment campaigns by Ukrainian troll factories,” says Tetiana Popova, a former Ukrainian deputy minister for information policy. “Now the troll farms are being used against anti-corruption journalists and activists,” she says.