The qualitative analysis of more than 500 Polish-language articles on Polish online portals under examination, where the content is coherent with Russian propaganda, reveals the presence of narratives influencing the perception of European and other issues. This is extremely important considering the fact that European Parliamentary elections are imminent.
Within the framework of the presented research, we were able to distinguish a group of EU- and Russia-related topics frequently discussed between January and February 2019.
Some of these topics are: Brexit, the situation in Venezuela, the Franco-German Aachen Treaty, relations between Russia and Belarus, the current situation in France, and the developments affecting the Chinese company Huawei.
The examined portals have taken considerable efforts to disseminate a range of very particular narratives.
These narratives are related to security, Transatlantic cooperation, and Russian foreign policy, including: growing distrust towards the USA, Europe (and some European countries, including Poland), German hegemony in Europe, the necessity of Europe-Russia cooperation, and the necessity of a Russia-USA-EU alliance against China. It coexists with a narrative showcasing Russia as a dangerous nation equipped with new weaponry, undergoing army mobilization and capable of responding to the so-called offensive actions and provocations of the West.
At the same time, the Kremlin is portrayed as the side that has to defend itself, react to hostile actions, but the one that wants dialogue, stability, and normalcy on the international level.
Curiously, the Russia-related content is rarely positive on Eurosceptic portals. Most of them are neutral or negative, while repeating the Russian narrative on the West. Those actions make the identification of the threat more difficult for the readers.
When it comes to the narratives on Ukraine, the country and its corrupt politicians are portrayed as the ones responsible for escalating tensions with Russia and Kiev’s actions are presented as a threat to the OSCE mission, peace in the region, the EU, and its own citizens.
Similarly, Ukraine is depicted as an American or Western pawn used to provoke Russia. The anti-Ukrainian narrative is placed in a social and historical Polish context. What’s more, there is a clear message that Poland should remain neutral in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict to avoid the risk of Russian retaliation.
The bifurcation of the messages regarding Russia is worth noting. On the one hand, it is shown as a peace-seeking, stable actor. On the other hand, it is depicted as a hegemon rivalling the US and capable of responding with war when provoked.
The internal situation in Poland and in the EU are very important issues. The messages concern the loss of Poland’s sovereignty or independence; corrupt or Western puppet politicians in the ranks of the ruling party and the opposition, who are thus serving foreign interests and reinforce the status quo, and who, driven by prejudices and populism, cannot see the necessity of close cooperation with Russia. In that imagery, the EU plays the part of the second coming of the Soviet Union that gives the illusion of democracy.
The existence, procedures, and the decision-making process in the EU are depicted as a threat to the citizens of member states. Brussels benefits Germany and disregards the needs of smaller countries, while the growing power of Berlin exposes that equality and partnership are mere fictions.
The loss of popularity of pro-European parties and the growing popularity of Eurosceptics even prompted some to suggest that we are witnessing the last presidency of European Parliament. Some Polish portals are promoting Eurosceptic parties playing a marginal role in Polish politics. The Russian Sputnik asks for a comment of only one candidate for the European Parliament – who used this opportunity to criticize the EU and Polish politicians twice, but favours cooperation with Russia.
The most dangerous narratives are those related to issues shown as inevitable: a) an economic crisis in the West, b) the fall of the EU, c) the Third World War. These strongly influence emotions and offer a narrative tailored for various groups of readers.
The most vulnerable group is young people.
It is worth mentioning that the portals that publish content coherent with Russian propaganda in Poland share the publications of each other, promoting authors, politicians, scientists, and experts with Eurosceptic tendencies. Even in their neutral publications we can find references to other articles with controversial titles that may skew the context and influence the reader in a certain way.
Legal, Ethical and Policy Issues
The Polish-language Sputnik Polska functions as a news aggregator, selectively publishing news stories from both Western and Russian sources – mainstream as well as alternative media.
Moreover, there are further challenges in terms of blocking the dissemination of certain narratives that favor the external interests of particular agents. Those challenges are:
The modus operandi and policy of companies such as Google, Facebook or Twitter, whose algorithms and the content pushed by them are problematic, especially when we take into consideration that some dubious media and contents are available in the Google Play shop;
Following journalistic standards, respecting copyright laws and obeying the law in online media: many media portals create sensationalist clickbait titles to boost readership that can skew the worldview of the readers, especially taking into consideration their habit of skim reading, low attention span and the fact that they often do not finish the articles.
Additionally, many fringe web portals whose content overlaps with Russian propaganda illegally use the news published by the PAP (Polish Press Agency, a licensed press agency), imitating and/or modifying its content;
Poor knowledge of the information space and the consequent susceptibility to disinformation among the most vulnerable social groups, such as teens, students and older people who are incapable of coping with the swiftly evolving information environment;
No actions inspired by the biggest state and private media outlets aiming for enhancing the media awareness of potential voters to prepare them to correctly identify information threats in the pre-election period;
No new actions taken on the state-run website bezpiecznewybory.pl (English: safe elections) despite the imminence of EP elections;
The prevailing misconception in many professional groups dealing with information security that mislabels the whole spectrum of information threats as disinformation, while using fake news as an umbrella term for disinformation cases. This misconception results in problems with the identification of and proper reaction to those threats.
Given the aforementioned factors, it is crucial to ask how much Polish society knows about information security and information threats, which is an important task for journalists, administrative staff, and academia. The messages delivered by Russian propaganda have been consistent over the decades.
The current situation strongly indicates that the narratives concerning the problems affecting the EU and EP elections will increase quantitatively and qualitatively. It creates particular challenges for Poland in terms of strategic communication and its society’s resilience against disinformation.