Are Russian trolls just Russian? Pro-Russian propaganda on the Polish Internet.
By Mateusz Bajek
Analyst, Global Lab., Warsaw, Poland
For a long time propaganda and disinformation activities on the Polish Internet were identified mainly with the functioning of the so-called Russian trolls. The Polish Internet was full of anonymous accounts on Facebook, Twitter, various news portals that systematically and massively cluttered the Polish information space with anti-Ukrainian, anti-Western and pro-Kremlin narratives. However, the authors of the comments from these accounts made so many mistakes in Polish that it was obvious that they were not Poles.
Despite these mistakes, the work of Russian propagandists on the Polish Internet proved to be very effective. However, they succeeded not only in promotion of specific political views, but also in convincing Poles who shared extreme political beliefs that they did not have to be ashamed to speak about what they believe in. As a result, nowadays, alongside the Russian trolls there are also some of the far-right politicians as well as Polish Internet users that spread the anti-Ukrainian, anti-Western and pro-Kremlin narratives.
Under the circumstances when the pro-Kremlin narrative on the Polish Internet is spread not only by Russian trolls, but also by the Poles themselves who believe in it, the fight against such a form of propaganda and disinformation cannot rely solely on defence against fake-news and trolls. In addition to the classic defence methods of the Polish informational space, it seems necessary to convince the Poles about the fictionality of propaganda presented from Russia. Compromising and ridiculing the Kremlin’s narrative may make it possible to reverse the unfavourable trend for Poland when the content reaching the Polish media space from the East is disseminated not only by trolls, but also by Polish citizens.
The analysis of content on the Polish Internet shows that organized propaganda activities started in late 2013 and early 2014 – a moment after the protests began at the Kiev Maidan. The first narrative, which appeared on a mass scale in the Polish Internet, was anti-Ukrainian propaganda, based on the difficult history of Poland and Ukraine (Massacres of Poles in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia in 1943–45). With time, it was joined by anti-Western propaganda (in particular against NATO and the US), and also, to a lesser extent, pro-Russian (pro-Kremlin) propaganda. These views (anti-Ukrainian, anti-Western and pro-Kremlin) were present in Polish society and the Polish Internet even before the Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity, but they could only be found in marginalized political groups, as well as on marginalized internet portals.
It is enough to say that the people controlling the network of commentators (trolls) and spreading this propaganda are foreigners. The commentators who were bombarding Polish citizens with entries with anti-Ukrainian content in this period might even be organized in the entire troll factory. Firstly, this was evidenced by the sudden appearance and large-scale nature of propaganda content, in particular in the form of comments on social networks and on the news portals. Secondly, research conducted by Polish information portals (such as Newsweek Polska) analysing comments under articles, in particular on Russian and Ukrainian topics demonstrated foreign presence. Their authors were freshly created profiles that used VPN network that allowed the hiding of commentators’ actual location. On Facebook, profiles reproducing the Kremlin’s narrative were mostly new ones, using stolen photographs without any content or Polish “Friends”.
It can be said with almost full certainty that the authors of the propaganda content were Russians as in the comments in Polish, it was easy to detect many mistakes (so-called “Russianisms”), common for Russian-speaking people. However, unlike the American Internet segment, where the existence of troll factories has been proven, in Poland’s case, this large-scale commenting mechanism has not yet been discovered.
With time, the foreign (Russian) origin propaganda present on the Polish Internet began to be hidden. People with much better knowledge of the Polish language made propaganda entries. “Russianisms” continued to occur, but they were not so obvious anymore. In addition, the profiles of the people who wrote or commented on the Facebook posts have become much more genuine – it was difficult to figure out that a foreigner, not a Pole, run the profile. In 2015-2016, a large part of the profiles began to resemble the nationalist political trends that were gaining popularity in Poland. Their profile pictures depicted the Polish flag or patriotic symbolism, and their entries had a more aggressive character. Over time, along with the profiles of “Polish patriots” and still popular anonymous profiles, appeared profiles pretended to belong to the retired people with a lifetime of wisdom and experience of living in Poland years before it became capitalistic. Currently, it is not easy to distinguish trolls from a real Internet user.
Alongside the comments, entries on social media and already existing news portals, completely new networks of alternative news portals and blogs promoting the Kremlin’s narrative appeared on the Polish Internet. Many of them were entirely anonymous, which could be the evidence of foreign control over them. The other ones had Polish owners, but very often, they were people living outside Poland. Their characteristic, regardless of the date of the registration, was very frequent direct links to Russian sources, the anti-Ukrainian, anti-Western and pro-Kremlin narrative, which most often appeared only after the Ukrainian Maidan. The names of these portals often referred to the patriotic theme (Free Poland, Faithful Poland), or to anti-mainstream, alternative media (Anti News).
The massive and coordinated nature of foreign (Russian) propaganda on the Polish Internet had (and still has) its consequences on Polish society. Nevertheless, according to surveys, it did not lead to an increase in Poles’ enmity towards Ukrainians, the West, or NATO. It made anti-Ukrainian, anti-Western and pro-Kremlin views to stop being embarrassing among some circles, and consequently, these views ceased to be hidden from the others. This led to the situation in which Polish public debate against Ukraine and the West, not supported by any serious political force previously, all of a sudden became a base for programs of several political forces, including those represented in the Polish Parliament (Kukiz’15 ) and in the European Parliament (KORWiN). The leader of the Kukiz’15 movement, former singer Paweł Kukiz, who supported the Ukrainian Maidan in 2013, after two years became one of the main opponents of Ukraine in the Polish Parliament. Meanwhile, the well-known libertarian political activist Janusz Korwin-Mikke (leader of the KORWiN party), known for attempting a physical attack on Russian football fans before the football game Poland-Russia (12/06/2012), two years later, in 2014, became a frequent guest at the Embassy of Russia. Anti-Ukrainian and anti-Western slogans also became the characteristic of nationalist organizations (March of Independence, National Movement).
The aforementioned processes were accompanied by a change in the narrative of several Polish media outlets, which in the past presented a traditional narrative for the Polish media environment. The most significant example was focusing on Poland’s history and eastern neighbours on the news portal Kresy.pl, which in 2014 became one of the main sources of anti-Ukrainian and anti-Western narratives on the Polish Internet. A similar transformation was carried out by many other Polish media outlets, directed in particular to the Polish right wing, nationalists and conservatives, as well as to groups such as anti vaccinations. In many media and social circles, anti-Ukrainian, anti-Western and pro-Kremlin narratives have become popular, while opposite opinions: pro-Western sentiments, supporting Ukraine’s independence and criticizing Putin’s imperial policy were frowned upon.
In fact, in the Polish media space, the Russian trolls ceased to have monopoly on the authorship of anti-Ukrainian, anti-Western and pro-Kremlin narratives. Politicians from the Polish extreme right, nationalist circles and many media outlets joined them. Real people who read, listen to, comment on, or talk about the Kremlin propaganda at work, school, in public transport shared their content.
Solutions to the problem and recommendations
For many analysts, understanding the fact that the pro-Kremlin narrative on the Polish Internet is disseminated not only by Russian trolls, but also by Poles who believe in it, has been difficult to understand. For many years, Poland was known as one of the most “anti-Russian” country in the EU, in which almost the entire political class believed in Europe and NATO, not in Kremlin. Consequently, the fight against the Kremlin’s narrative in Poland was not taken seriously, because it was difficult for Poles to believe that people could trust the Kremlin propaganda.
Accepting the fact that many Poles believe in the Kremlin’s narrative, means that we have a necessity of working out a new strategy for countering the Eastern influences. In addition to the protection of the Polish information space, the fight against fake-news and Russian trolls’ activities, we should start convincing Poles about the fictionality of Russian propaganda. Since Kremlin’s narratives’ influence is particularly visible among the young Poles.
One of the most effective methods of combating Russian propaganda is to discredit and ridicule it. Using their experience with Russia and the Kremlin propaganda machine, analysts engaged in dealing with this subject could certainly propose many schemes to debunk Kremlin’s narrative. I, an analyst with vast experience of observing a dozen of elections in Europe and Asia, would like to propose the strategy for undermining one of the foundations on which the Kremlin propaganda machine is based on. This key pillar is the faith in the high approval rate of the Russians people for the Russian politicians’ actions, including Vladimir Putin, expressed in his huge electoral support. The group of volunteers managed by me, under the “Observers in Action” project, was able to prove the forgery of over 40,000 votes during the Election Day thanks to the innovative video observation method used during the Russian presidential election of 2018. Our work has demonstrated that in several Russian cities the real voter turnout, and support for Vladimir Putin, did not exceed 20%! The result of the analysis is published on the www.observersinaction.eu portal where we documented the electoral fraud and presented more than 30 films depicting the truth about the Russian presidential elections.
In order to hide the truth about the actual election results, local administration in Russia falsifies election protocols by providing fabricated results. The demonstration of this falsification, thanks to the use of video observation, is extremely easy. If you are planning to create a video observation mission yourself, you can use a guidance written by Polish and Russian experts “Electoral video-observation. Introduction to the methodology of video observation during election day, based on the case study of Russian Presidential election” (hyperlink: http://odpowiedzialnapolityka.pl/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Metodologia-wideoobserwacji_wersja-angielska.pdf), – the paperwork I worked on as the main editor. Having such a tool at our disposal, and using it effectively (for example by creating and promoting interesting videos showing electoral frauds), we can easily ridicule Russian elections, thus limit the influence of Russian propaganda. This will be effective tool to counter Russian disinformation not only in Poland. Debunking the myth that Russian authorities have huge public approval would be eye-opening for the entire Europe.