Full steam ahead

Russian propaganda running up to the Polish elections

Ranging from influencers to opinion leaders and self-proclaimed experts, pro-Russian communities are consolidating in Poland. The Russian Federation not only supports these groups through the Polish-language sources it runs, but also has an influence on the activity of some of the people operating within them.

By mid-2022, the first activities of those promoting pro-Russian statements in the Polish information sphere were clearly perceptible, indicating the growing consolidation of a broad pro-Russian community with political ambitions. The start of 2023, especially the first weeks of the year, only further showed this to be the trend. At that time, there was an intensification of so-called ‘grassroots’ initiatives, the culmination of which was the announcement of a billboard campaign and a series of meetings under the slogan ‘This is not our war’. This campaign was led by Leszek Sykulski, a political scientist and historian who founded the ‘Polish anti-war movement’ earlier this year.

As part of these efforts, greater cooperation began between individuals supporting the Kremlin’s message, and those who had previously only occasionally conducted joint initiatives in the Polish infosphere. At the same time, the beginning of 2023 was the moment when these de facto pro-Russian groups clearly articulated their information agenda, which boiled down to themes such as the fight against the ‘Ukrainisation’ and ‘Americanisation’ of Poland and a fight in the name of ‘peace’. In other words, these groups are lobbying for the suspension of Poland’s support for Ukraine.

New activities, old personalities

Through their activities, de facto pro-Russian groups (officially dissociating themselves from Russia) seek to inspire Polish opposition to Warsaw’s continued support for Ukraine (especially support in the form of military equipment) and opposition to close cooperation with the United States and its NATO allies. These groups have demanded a so-called ‘deep reform’ of the Polish state services – a de facto dismantling of the Polish secret services during a critical moment given the ongoing war in a neighbouring country. They have also stressed the need for Polish citizens to carry out grassroots resistance initiatives.

These concepts and demands basically call for actions of a political nature. Their aim is to convince the largest possible number of citizens that the ruling political party, as well as the other pro-western parties in the opposition, are pursuing a ‘harmful/anti-Polish/traitorous’ policy and that the only alternative (a chance to avoid the ‘destruction/tragedy’ of the war) for Poles is to support the political initiatives of the country’s de facto pro-Russian groups.

The efforts by Sykulski, together with other figures like Sebastian Pitoń (a controversial figure who gained prominence with his opposition to COVID-19 restrictions) and Piotr Panasiuk (known for his anti-Ukrainian discourse), are examples of the growing consolidation within these communities. The joint meetings organised as part of Sykulski’s anti-war initiative clearly indicated the existence of a link between the individuals in question.

The meetings they organised included propaganda and disinformation narratives coinciding with the Kremlin’s objectives, such as blaming NATO for the outbreak of the war in Ukraine or portraying the Polish government as seeking to draw Poland into a war with Russia. Their influence online via portals like YouTube and Twitter helped spread these pro-Kremlin narratives as well.

It is worth noting at this point that Sykulski appears to be the leader of one of the pro-Russian circles. For many years he positioned himself as a serious expert and academic, which gave some credibility to his beliefs until he embraced the most radical propaganda narratives. After all, figures such as Panasiuk seem to focus their activities on supporting Sykulski.

Generally, these activities take place largely on social media (mostly Twitter) and take the form of sharing narratives copied from Russian propaganda Telegram channels. These subsequently infect the Polish infosphere with the most radical disinformation messages. Moreover, the people associated with this group try to discredit those who call out their pro-Kremlin views, claiming alleged links to Ukrainian state services. The narrative of ‘Bandera agents’ has existed for many years on Polish social media and is now an integral part of the activities of networks of anonymous pro-Russian accounts present on social networks.

Panasiuk’s social media, for example, is not limited to the repeated promotion of Polish-language discourse and posts from Russian disinformation sources. Sometimes these posts are translated directly from Russian. Panasiuk also promotes, with particular vigour, posts published by other known pro-Russian accounts. For example, the account of Martin Demirov. Demirov is an online figure who conducts similar activity on Polish Twitter that sometimes resembles the activities of internet trolls.

It is possible that these individuals run networks of anonymous accounts operating on social networks, or that their accounts are part of networks coordinated by a single centre. However, there is no direct evidence of this. The second option seems more likely. In addition, Demirov supports the disinformation activities of Panasiuk and Sykulski by broadcasting Polish-language posts, even though he claims he is not a citizen of the Republic of Poland. The modus operandi of these accounts is remarkably similar, giving the impression that their activity may be coordinated. These accounts support each other and promote pure disinformation messages.

Signs of consolidation

Parallel to this group, there is also another circle of pro-Russian activists in Poland who over the years have been associated with, among others, the Zmiana (Change) political party, the Polish-language editorial board of the Russian portal Sputnik, or the Myśl Polska (Polish Thought) portal. One of the most active individuals within these groups is Mateusz Piskorski – a person permanently involved in promoting content that resembles Russian propaganda messaging in the Polish information sphere. In 2016, he was detained by the Polish security services on suspicion of engaging in espionage for Russia. He was released on bail in 2019. Piskorski gives interviews on a regular basis to Russian-language media involved in disinformation.

It is worth noting that while Myśl Polska, a portal which regularly promotes pro-Russian narratives, is still active in Poland, the Sputnik portal has been shut down. Nevertheless, people associated with this portal continue their pro-Russian activities by running channels on YouTube.

Thus, we have two leading groups in Poland, whose activities pursue the Kremlin’s goals. There are, however, signals indicating the consolidation of these groups. One example is the debate between Sykulski and Jarosław Augustyniak (one of the leaders of the Zmiana party and a contributor to Sputnik), which involved both sides introducing pro-Russian narratives to the discussion.

Another example involves the publications that appeared in the February 2023 issue of Myśl Polska, the author of which is claimed to be Piotr Panasiuk. However, an analysis of the writing casts doubt over this theory. In my opinion, there are fundamental differences between his social media posts and public statements and the way in which thoughts are expressed in these particular articles.

Yet, it should be understood that even if Panasiuk is not the author of the texts in question, he must have given his consent for them to be published under his name. This indicates a gradual fusion of the groups in question or the existence of an entity/person coordinating the activity of these groups. Hence, it is highly likely that in the context of the upcoming parliamentary elections, these groups will undertake more joint initiatives.

Influencers

In addition to these aforementioned circles permanently involved in echoing Russian disinformation, Polish citizens are also influenced by a number of ‘influencers’ and media commentators, whose controversial views often contain pro-Kremlin messages. On the one hand, there is a mobilisation of so-called independent bloggers who, branding themselves as ‘alternative sources of information’ in order to maintain credibility among their audience, deliberately distort reality so that their message differs from that broadcast by the mainstream media. By broadcasting controversial content (for example, a conspiracy theory) that is diametrically opposed to the messages of traditional media, they capture the attention of the audience. Thus, they are able to use ‘flashy slogans’ and emotive content to strengthen their media position and at the same time make money on social networks.

This type of activity often boils down to promoting unconscious misinformation among citizens, with these influencers driven by ambition and the belief that they have the right to express any opinion they wish without taking any responsibility for their actions. A key factor influencing the content produced by such influencers/commentators is the need to maintain a fundamental difference in messaging between their content and that of leading media. As far as the issue of the war in Ukraine is concerned, this usually results in points of view that, either directly or indirectly, present an alternative to those already existing in Polish and western media.

This is one of the reasons why the notion ‘during war the truth dies first’ is promoted by such individuals. This relativises the fact that Russia caused the war and equates the executioner with the victim. Of course, NATO is often viewed as complicit in the war. The messages spread coincide with Russian narratives and are actively distributed by authors of YouTube channels, alternative portals and so-called influencers who, until February 24th 2022, focused on denying the existence of COVID-19 and promoting the supposed health threat posed by 5G technology. Generally, they support the Russian message to justify the very point of their existence in the media: to present a different vision of reality that is ‘true’ and ‘uncensored’.

The main groups undertaking these activities are Sykulski and his entourage, as well as the group associated with the Zmiana party and Myśl Polska. There are at least two other types of individuals who permanently put forward such messages echoing Russian propaganda. These are those who intentionally or unintentionally disinform for the purpose of financial gain (in the absence of links to the Russian Federation), and those who spread Russian propaganda unconsciously (or consciously) for reasons of political ambition.

It is worth bearing in mind, however, that the ‘independent bloggers’ and ‘opportunists’ in question may in the future become objects of interest for Russian state services, which may transform the motives behind their harmful activities.

Nevertheless, there is one message that is common to all the aforementioned groups disinforming the Polish public and spreading Russian propaganda. This message is the need to ‘fight for freedom of speech’ and ‘fight against censorship’. These individuals share a common interest – in the event that the Polish state engages in a more active fight against Russian disinformation, these individuals will have to limit or suspend their activities, which will result in a deterioration of their financial status and unmet political ambitions. These personal factors encourage a serious proportion of such ‘disinformers’ to carry out their activities and shape their message as appropriate.

Upcoming elections

These pro-Russian communities are clearly consolidating in the context of the upcoming Polish parliamentary elections. The groups in question are made up of people who have contacts with entities linked to the Russian state. We can assume that the Russian Federation not only supports them through the Polish-language sources it runs (e.g. Telegram channels, which are, among other things, a form of trend-setting – providing guidelines on current messages), but also has an influence on the activity of some of the people operating within these groups.

Currently, the greatest risk is related to the Russian attempt to foster resentment towards Ukrainians and Ukraine in Poland, which is expected to result in a reduction of support for Kyiv, and the risk that people associated with pro-Russian groups may enter the Polish public sphere. In my opinion, there will be attempts by people building their political potential directly on pro-Russian, anti-Ukrainian and anti-American propaganda to get into the Polish parliament in the autumn.

If this succeeds, the Russians will have a completely new medium for building influence over Polish citizens. However, it should be emphasised at this point that the pro-Russian activity of these groups is encountering growing resistance among the public. This is indicative of growing popular awareness of the importance of information security. Sykulski’s campaign to restrict the possibility of such groups conducting meetings, and the small number of people attending such meetings, is a good sign that our society will resist the intensification of activities by these groups.

Published 13 June 2023
Original in English
First published by New Eastern Europe 2/2023

Contributed by New Eastern Europe © Michal Marek / New Eastern Europe / Eurozine

PDF/PRINT

Newsletter

Subscribe to know what’s worth thinking about.

Related Articles

Cover for: Empire within?

Empire within?

Estonia and its Russians

Moves to disenfranchise Russian citizens in Estonia come against the backdrop of increasingly radical anti-Russian discourse and a tradition of national xenophobia. An Estonian-Russian responds.

Cover for: Atrocity reflected

Atrocity reflected

Bucha as mirror of the death drive

Russian war crimes have prompted some to attribute such acts to a pathology in the national character. But liberal psychoanalysing often avoids the truly disconcerting cause of our revulsion, argues a Russian philosopher.

Discussion


Notice: Trying to get property 'queue' of non-object in /home/eurozine/www/wp-includes/script-loader.php on line 2876

Warning: Invalid argument supplied for foreach() in /home/eurozine/www/wp-includes/script-loader.php on line 2876