Read this article if you want to:

  • Grasp global trends – Polish and Slovak elections can serve as a microcosm of broader trends in disinformation.

  • Become more resilient by exploring the disinformation playbook deployed by some politicians — from attacking opponents to leveraging AI-generated content.

  • Understand how disinformation can impact public sentiment and political outcomes.

Public sentiments and political outcomes

Poland and Slovakia elected their new parliamentary representatives in the fall of 2023. The elections in both countries were preceded by heated political debate; some parties and politicians used disinformation as a political strategy and as a tool to attract voters. Two states saw a change in power as a result of the elections. This article analyzes and compares the main narratives and disinformation campaigns used in both countries.

In Poland, the conservative, illiberal coalition that has been in power for eight years, led by Law and Justice party (PiS), won the elections but lost its parliamentary majority to the pro-democratic and liberal opposition parties. In Slovakia, on the other hand, the majority of votes went to the populist left-wing Smer party. Its leader Robert Fico created a coalition with the center-left HLAS (Voice) and the nationalist Slovak National Party (SNS). As a result, the pro-Western liberal Progressive Slovakia party lost power.

In both countries, it was unclear until the very last days what the final outcome of the elections would be. However, it is worth pointing out differences in public sentiment. According to a survey carried out in March 2023 by a think tank GLOBSEC, only 40% of Slovaks believed that Russia is responsible for the war in Ukraine, while 34% said the West is responsible for "provoking Russia" and 17% stated that Ukraine is oppressing the Russian-speaking population. These results might imply that Slovak population is strongly influenced by Russian disinformation. According to the same study - 85% of Poles stated that Russia is responsible for the war (West – 4%, Ukraine – 3%). Differences were also noticeable when it comes to the desire to remain in NATO: Poland -94% in favor; Slovakia - 58% in favor. A similar trend was noted in regard to the support for the EU in both countries: 80% in Poland and 64% in Slovakia.

Disinformation as a political strategy – major topics of campaigns

Political scenes in both countries were fragmented with strong figures of party leaders and deeply polarized societies. In line with these characteristics, the election campaigns in Poland and Slovakia focused on attacking each other's opponents. In addition, some political actors began to use disinformation as a strategy for their political gain, playing upon fears and polarization present in both societies. It seems that the biggest spreaders of disinformation were the politicians themselves in both countries alike – rather than influencers, Russian trolls or conspiracy websites1. In some cases, they acted as so-called “useful idiots” and pushed forward disinformation of hostile actors for their own purposes.

  • Attack the opponent

One very common strategy of both countries’ politicians was to attack their opponents, sometimes by using hoaxes or disinformation.

In Poland, PiS focused on creating a negative image of Donald Tusk (opposition leader). PiS has created at least a few campaigns accusing him of wanting to cede the eastern part of the country to Russia in the event of war, being paid by German politicians, wanting to sell Poland's independence to Germany or the EU, and implementing policies that will increase unemployment. The goal of the PIS party was to scare Polish citizens with the possibility of Donald Tusk returning to power, claiming that it would lead to the destruction of Poland. To this end, the most expensive political ad created by PiS was the "TUSK = UNEMPLOYMENT" campaign which cost over 92,000 EUR. It contained a false claim about the unemployment rate under the Civic Platform's government. The court verdict under the special electoral proceeding2 declared this statement to be inaccurate.

Several disinformation attacks and hoaxes were directed towards the specific candidates in Slovakia with the aim of discrediting them. One such incident involved Tomáš Hellebrandt, a politician from the Progressive Slovakia party. In September, during one of his presentations, Hellebrandt collapsed due to being ill. Conspirator Danny Kollár spread false information about Hellebrandt's health, claiming that it was due to the COVID-19 vaccine. This led to the circulation of fake death notices and a fictional funeral announcement, with Kollár expressing skepticism about Hellebrandt's survival. In response, Hellebrandt humorously invited people to his 'funeral' in Žilina. To counter the rumors, the party released a video showing a healthy Hellebrandt exercising in his office, thus debunking the hoax.

  • Repeat Russian narratives when useful – disinformation about the war in Ukraine and refugees

The spread of anti-Ukrainian narratives in Slovakia was alarming as it closely mirrored the propaganda used by Russia in relation to the war. Expert analyses identified three parties that had been disseminating misleading messages: former Prime Minister Robert Fico's left-leaning Smer-SD party, the nationalist Republika party, and the Slovak National Party (SNS).

Fico, the leader of the Smer party, consistently expressed unfavorable opinions about Ukraine. He criticized the support Ukraine has received from the US and EU and doubted the effectiveness of economic sanctions against Russia. In some statements, he indirectly supported Vladimir Putin by asserting that the conflict in Ukraine originated in 2014 when allegedly "Ukrainian Nazis" killed Russian citizens in Donbas and Lugansk, echoing Russia's long-standing narrative. Additionally, the SNS party shared anti-Ukrainian content. Its chairman, Andrej Danko, disputed the historical Ukrainian identity of territories occupied by Russia. Moreover, some national politicians, including Fico, declared an immediate cessation of support for Ukraine if they won.

The new narrative emerged as well, blaming Ukraine for being “ungrateful”, which started with Fico’s statement on TA3 television: "The world is starting to get fed up with Zelensky and Ukraine, because they are ungrateful and still unsatisfied!". Many actors, including Bádateľ, shared quotes similar to his ("Everybody should stop helping the ungrateful Zelensky, take their hands off him and let him eat it up!").

In Poland, direct pro-Russian narratives were rarely present in the electoral discourse. However, other disinformative sources kept sharing anti-Ukrainian narratives and often used historical events, particularly referring to the Volyn massacre and Ukrainian Independence Day, associating Ukrainians with Nazism. The Polish government and local politicians were accused of putting Ukrainian interests above of the Polish ones. At the same time, one of the leading narratives during the summer was that of the worsening of Polish-Ukrainian relations, particularly in the context of grain imports.

Far-right party Konfederacja introduced radical anti-Ukrainian narratives in mid-September (a month before the elections). Additionally, the media reported some Konfederacja candidates' pro-Russian claims. "No social transfers for Ukrainians" was the slogan Konfederacja included in five of its key election messages in the second half of September when party ratings dropped. Radical themes were then incorporated into their narratives. Leaders of the Konfederacja party, Slawomir Mentzen and Krzysztof Bosak, posted a significant number of anti-Ukrainian messages on Facebook. Bosak repeated misleading information about Ukrainians during an election debate on TV, falsely claiming refugees could work for one day in Poland and receive a pension. Karolina Pikuła, also from Konfederacja, centered her campaign around anti-Ukrainian themes, proposing punitive measures for those supporting ‘Ukrainian nationalist organizations’. She further accused the government of ‘Ukrainization’ of Polish schools and favoring Ukrainians over Poles in various aspects of social life.

  • Create an imaginary enemy: anti-migration narratives

The topic of illegal migration was used in both countries in order to mobilize voters. Politicians hoped to ride the wave of anti-migration sentiment prevalent in their societies. Similar narratives evoked stating that countries should be protected from illegal migration for security reasons.

In Slovakia, the issue of illegal migration was a factual concern in 2023, as the country saw around 24,500 migrant entries, mostly from Serbia via Hungary. This led to the reintroduction of border controls in Slovakia with some neighboring countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic. Fico used the situation to criticize the ruling government. He called for more strict migration policies and exaggerated the problem. Narratives accusing migrants of terrorism and spreading disease were present in the party's messages. Moreover, Fico accused the government of carrying out “Soros’s migration policy”. Certain mayors, populists and far-right political parties had also been promoting anti-migrant narratives, which were quickly spread by disinformation networks. These networks shared false stories, for example depicting migrants as thieves who forcibly entered people's fenced gardens to steal fruit from trees or swim in their pools. The police have not reported any such instances of illegal migrants committing crimes or misdemeanors.

The use of migration topic in the Polish electoral campaign was rather surprising since the country at the time did not face new challenges in this area. However, the ruling party's election campaign exploited anti-migrant sentiments already present in the society, emphasizing the false claim that the EU would force Poland to accept Muslims and even that each local district (gmina) would be assigned a specific number of refugees according to the EU allocation policy. What’s more, PiS spent extraordinarily large funds (more than 1 million EUR) on political advertising, some of it aimed to spread anti-migration disinformation. One of the widely promoted election ads used recordings of refugees from 2016, misleading the recipients about the current situation in Lampedusa.

Ironically, in late August, in the midst of the ruling camp's negative anti-migrant campaign, a scandal involving the sale of visas by Foreign Ministry employees has surfaced. Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Polish consulates have been accused of participating in a widespread illegal scheme through which migrants from Africa and Asia were issued Polish visas in exchange for large sums of money. The scandal was used by the opposition to attack the government.

Soon after, a website, owned by an unidentified entity, has targeted the Law and Justice party. The majority of the website's content revolved around Muslim migrants who arrived to Poland during the time when the PIS party was in power. Quite strikingly, this website adopted a stance similar to that of the opposition party and its leader, Donald Tusk of the Civic Coalition, albeit with a more hostile tone. A group of Polish fact-checkers discovered this website on social media, and investigated its links to the opposition politicians. Within two days of this revelation, the website mysteriously disappeared from the Internet, not through a standard shutdown but by erasing all of its content. This was recognized as a potential attempt of Russia to interfere in Polish elections due to the connection of this domain to Russian IPs.

Anti-immigrant narratives directly linked to the Polish-Belarusian border crisis have re-entered the mainstream media in connection with the release of Agnieszka Holland's film "Green Border" in late September. Although the film was based on true events, the PIS party considered it to be disinformative and an attack on the Polish military and border guards. Government recommended that cinemas publish a message before the film about containing the allegedly false content. The disinformation generated by this event was not only anti-Muslim in nature, but attacked the movie director directly, accusing her of an anti-Polish attitude (reinforced by the anti-Semitic messages, e.g. "disgusting Jewess attacks Poland"). In addition, false information was widely circulated according to which Holland was said to have had ties with Bierut (one of the most prominent politicians during the socialist times) and his entourage since childhood.

  • Try to use AI

During the recent election campaign in Slovakia, fake videos and recordings created using artificial intelligence were used for the first time. These videos were published during the period of moratorium, when the media could only react in a limited way due to the restrictions on publishing reports for or against politicians or parties running for office. As a result, journalists were unable to directly point out the falsehoods in the videos, making it difficult to prevent their spread.

One vivid example of AI-created disinformation happened just two days before the parliamentary elections. Thousands of Slovaks shared on social networks a conversation between Michal Šimečka (leader of Progressive Slovakia) and Monika Tódová (journalist of Daily N). The audio was supposed to be a recording of a phone call in which they discussed how the elections would be rigged in favor of the PS. Shortly after the release, analysts said3 that the recording was a hoax created by artificial intelligence and synthetic voice technology.

The use of AI to undermine opponents has been rare in Poland, with only one notable case reported. The country's largest opposition party, the centrist Civic Platform (PO), has sparked controversy by airing an election campaign advertisement that combined authentic footage of the prime minister's statements with fabricated ones generated by AI.

What does it all mean?

While it is not clear what impact disinformation had on the outcome of the elections, the analysis of the campaigns in both countries clearly shows that spreading disinformation narratives and bending the facts is becoming an increasingly popular strategy for some politicians. This strategy, due to the fact that it is based on existing fears and polarization of society, can be extremely effective while at the same time can lead to further division. It should be noted that the examples presented here are only illustrative and selective - presenting a picture of the entire infosphere in both countries during the electoral campaigns would require additional analysis. However, a comparison of the collected data clearly shows that the disinformation strategies in both countries were similar.

Starting from October 2023 until the end of 2024, 71% of the population living in democratic countries will vote in national elections, including US, Brazil, India, Romania, Australia and so many others. Whether similar strategies will be used in other countries remains an open question, but we must keep our eyes open. By remaining aware of the tactics employed by some politicians and actively working towards a more transparent and honest political discourse, the activists can play a crucial role in preventing the effects of disinformation on our societies.

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  1. 2.The Election Law provides for a special mode of judicial redress for the dissemination of false information during the election campaign. A lawsuit filed under the election procedure is adjudicated by the court within 24 hours.

  2. 3.Such as Daniel Milo, director of the Center for Countering Hybrid Threats of the Ministry of the Interior of the Slovak Republic, Peter Jančárik, analyst from or Jakub Šuster, founder and CEO of startup

Illustration credit: ifriday

This article was created based on research conducted as part of Digital Activism Program with TechSoup’s partner PDCS Slovakia.