American University

Polish Polarization and Conspiracy: Social Media, Democratic Decay, and the Construction of Separate Worlds.

By Conor Gleeson

The Polish authoritarian-friendly government led by the Law and Justice Party has created an environment conducive to spreading institutional distrust, anti-Semetic conspiracies, and paranoia in order to support its grab for unilateral power. It has seized control of public TV and radio broadcasting stations to promote its views and staffs government positions with staunch party loyalists. Authoritarian practices aim to control people and to sow confusion, ignorance, prejudice, and chaos in order to undermine public accountability.1Their base argument is that the reforms of the Polish government in the 1990’s were unfair because they allowed too many former Communists to recycle their political power into economic power. The Law and Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski has repeatedly painted the incumbent Polish government structure as undemocratic and laced with lingering “red spiders” or Communists from 1989. This reaction is only marginally based in reality as Law and Justice’s initial run on power nationally from 2005-2007 was stymied by both local and national government, particularly the independent judiciary. As a result, Law and Justice took a sledgehammer to the courts as soon as possible once it regained power in 2015. In order to maintain and support their assault on Poland’s established constitutional order and judiciary independence, Law and Justice utilized their control over the media landscape to fashion an alternate reality that would support their actions.

The deceptive TV ads or radio shows produced by stations such as Telewizja Polska promote an alternative reality where the previous government was incompetent or corrupt while Law and Justice has been successful. The segments portray conspiracy theories where Muslim immigrants pose a direct threat to Poland’s Catholic national identity but most prominently a series of arguments about the Smolensk conspiracy, which posits a nefarious plot that brought down the Polish president’s plane in 2010. Rather than an overworked, stressed pilot trying to land a plane in heavy fog, the conspiracies attribute the tragedy to Russian plots or Law and Justice’s domestic opposition. The truth does not matter to these news distributors, simply creating so many alternate possible explanations that susceptible listeners simply stop caring about the truth in favor of the one they and the Party finds most expedient. Faced with information overload, consumers resort to cognitive shortcuts that tend to steer them toward opinions that fit what they already believe.2As a result, individuals who accepted the Smolensk theories, no matter how outlandish, could be conditioned to accept anything Law and Justice news organs told them, creating a solid political base that had no connection to reality and thus was unlikely to be disturbed by new or inconvenient truths about Law and Justice’s dismantling of Poland’s constitution. The lies also offered younger adherents to Law and Justice a new reason to distrust the political and media establishment as the possibility of “Red Spiders” became more and more remote. Furthermore, loyalists were also offered prime positions in the government or administration based not on meritocracy but solely on loyalty. As a result, statements by Mr. Kacznyski that “parts of our reality which must not merely be modernized but ploughed over” do not raise the alarm in Poland that they should. 

Authoritarianism such as Kacznyski’s thrives by taking advantage of another characteristic of media: its inherent insecurity. Politicians, activists, and journalists rely on social media as much as anyone to gauge public opinion and determine what issues or concerns are worth addressing. Media platforms that limit the perception of opposing views or are more interested in promoting themselves than promising the truth offer avenues for authoritarian-friendly messages to reach and manipulate the populace. Insecurity is also the font that created Law and Justice in the first place when the Solidarity party dissolved in 2001 into the centrist PO and the anti-elitist Law and Justice. Its messaging appealed to those who felt that they deserved better and that well-connected insiders among government and business were succeeding more and at a faster rate than they should have. Such resentment-based thinking was exacerbated by images in 2015 of the Syrian Refugee Crisis and fears of a Muslim invasion that never materialized. Indeed, compared to its counterpart authoritarian populist countries, Poland did not suffer an economic downturn nor was it forced to contend with large numbers of refugees. Nonetheless, Law and Justice was still able to use a powerful media narrative to create an alternate reality where economic strife and a fear of foreign influence was rampant. The moribund center-left PO party failed to properly gatekeep and prevent Law and Justice from taking power, instead splintering into two camps which prevented them from entering Parliament and gave an unprecedented absolute majority to Law and Justice. With the loss of Pro-European elites in government, guardrails to limit xenophobia and other heavily conservative aspects of Polish society no longer existed, giving Law and Justice free reign to act as they wished. They began by dismantling the independent judiciary and have continued into further limitation of media, most notably a 2017 law that prohibited discussion of Polish responsibility for the Holocaust. Legal and political constraint is portrayed as an inhibition of the people’s majority will while Law and Justice leaders often hold multiple government positions. 

While there has been significant external and internal resistance to both Law and Justice’s actions and its narrative, the damage to Polish civil society will remain. Law and Justice lost local elections in the fall of 2018 and could lose further Parliamentary elections in 2019. Supranational EU pressure from Article 7 threatens Polish EU votes and its reception of external aid which flows primarily to Law and Justice’s poorer more rural supporters. However, society has been permanently divided into ideological camps by Law and Justice’s media strategies: the demand for “revolution” against “elites,” and  the dreams of “cleansing” violence have split families and colleagues down the middle, with reconciliation unlikely if not impossible. One citizen whose parents listened to a conspiratorial, pro-government station called Radio Maryja emphasized the rhetorical disconnect. “I’ve lost my mother, she lives in another world.”Creating such worlds is how authoritarian governments gain power and in a fragmented and divisive media environment, it is easier than ever to accomplish and utilize to begin the process of democratic destruction while citizens stare enraptured at the shadows on the wall of their cave. Similar to Plato’s famous allegory, they too may violently resist attempts to remove them, no matter how real or beautiful the light of reality proves to be.

  1. Marlies Glasius, “What Authoritarianism Is … and Is Not: A Practice Perspective,” International Affairs 94 (May 2018): 515–33.
  2. Jennifer Kavanagh and Michael D. Rich, Truth Decay: An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in American Public Life (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2018), www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2314.html.
  3. Anne Applebaum, A Warning from Europe, the Worst is Yet to Come, The Atlantic (October 2018), Accessed February 01, 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/10/poland-polarization/568324/
  4. Deibert, Ronald J.”The Road to Digital Unfreedom: Three Painful Truths About Social Media.” Journal of Democracy, vol. 30 no. 1, 2019, pp. 25-39. Project MUSEdoi:10.1353/jod.2019.0002


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