Russia’s structures for disinformation campaigns are divided. While in Poland we are capable of accepting the argument that higher gas or fuel costs are the price for freedom, the public opinion in Germany or France is being bombarded with claims it won’t survive this. Even worse, it buys this propaganda. Because of this, Western societies are putting pressure on politicians to make other decisions in this regard, says Michał Federowicz, Chairman of the Board of the Institute for Internet and Social Media Research in an interview with BiznesAlert.pl.
BiznesAlert.pl: Who do you think is winning the information war in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict?
Michał Federowicz: When it comes to Europe, the public is exposed to a great deal of disinformation, and paradoxically it is Russia that is winning the information war, not only in Europe, but also in Asia and Africa. When it comes to Poland, the situation is mixed; on the one hand, we have strong groups that have dabbled in issues such as the pandemic and vaccines. Now they have switched almost entirely to spreading pro-Russian disinformation: questioning the war, refugees and the entire policy pursued by the ruling party and most opposition parties. On the other hand, we have a group that understands the situation and does not allow itself to be manipulated. In the last quarter of 2021, vaccination and pandemic actions were nothing more than preparing the ground for the pro-Russian disinformation that is being spread today. Mostly, this is indirect disinformation, which is aimed at destabilizing, intimidating and, above all, ignoring what is happening in Ukraine.
Russia’s structures for disinformation campaigns are divided. While in Poland we are capable of accepting the argument that higher gas or fuel costs are the price for freedom, the public opinion in Germany or France is being bombarded with claims it won’t survive this, and is buying this propaganda. Because of this, western societies are putting pressure on their politicians to make other decisions in this regard. In turn, in India or Africa, pro-Russian disinformation is very effective, it presents Ukrainians as fascists who threaten world peace. Such a narrative is accepted is accepted there, and in fact there is no other narrative.
Is it possible to distinguish between information warfare and disinformation, or is everything merging into one in the post-truth era?
Keep in mind that we live in a bubble. If we are a pro-Ukrainian community, we read information that the algorithm considers appropriate for us, that is, confirming our beliefs. Meanwhile, Ukraine is only interested in winning the information war in Europe, in specific areas to be precise. But we completely forget about China, Africa or South America. At the same time, a large part of pro-Russian activity takes place in the United States. On the whole, the politicians agree on this, but the social impact is completely different. Notice how many rallies of support there were in France, Italy or Spain. There’s other propaganda.
What was the significance of the pictures from Bucha in this context? In Europe governments have been pushed to take even stronger action on sanctions.
There is no dispute that the events in Bucha were genocide perpetrated by Russians. Any rational politician should say that those responsible for this crime should be convicted. However, Russia is saying at the moment that all of this is fake news, disinformation and a show. In France and Germany, the coverage of these events is being softened. We come to a situation where the media in Poland expose the war in Ukraine, but in the west of Europe it is completely different. Although the British media mostly say what they say in Poland, the message is different in other European Union countries. Therefore, at the very end, it is difficult for us to understand the decisions of the governments of Germany or France; such social pressure doesn’t exist there. In Germany, Russians are protesting against sanctions. The algorithms work differently, and therefore the same events are received in a different way. This algorithm is responsible for what a Pole, a German, a Frenchman or a Spaniard sees. Disinformation centers adapt their tactics to this.
In Poland the order to close Turów (a power plant that the CJEU ordered Poland to shut down immediately as a result of a dispute with Czechia – ed.) was seen as cutting us off from electricity. This was received unequivocally negatively, even in the anti-PiS bubble (PiS – ruling party in Poland – ed.). Meanwhile in Czechia, Germany and France the media showed a smoking chimney and profiles linked to Russian disinformation spread the narrative that Turów was poisonous, which is why it was very bad for the European Union. Western Europeans will see Bucha. However, it is necessary to ask how it will be presented, with what intensity, with what scope. When it comes to the number of mentions about Bucha in Poland there were about 500 publications, in Germany perhaps half as many. The messaging about the war is modulated differently, which is natural, because these countries were infiltrated more by pro-Russian disinformation, and secondly, everything is more visible on the border.
How does pro-Russian disinformation work in relation to energy markets? I am talking about the fact that the EU is planning to gradually phase out imports of Russian fossil fuels.
At the beginning of the war, there was a golden period for pro-Russian propaganda, which was all about scaring people with high fuel prices. We are talking about “Russian trolls”, but a large part of Polish citizens who have different views, acceptable in the discourse, reveal a different side during the war. We are faced with increasingly effective attempts at building a sense of fear and threat, which is to put pressure on Poland to change its energy policy. EU citizens are led to believe that Europe will not cope without Russian hydrocarbons, that the prices will skyrocket, there will be famine and poverty. This Russian propaganda changes depending on the country. Energy companies should have early warning systems, which should constantly monitor the number of mentions on this topic in the media sphere. For example, if on some internet forum, a profile belonging to a mother of two asks “How are you dealing with gas prices? Maybe Ukraine is not worth it?”, it will fuel lack of sense of security. As a result, an extreme emotion of fear is growing, which leads to the belief that Ukraine should surrender. How should energy companies deal with this? First of all, they need to conduct constant analysis and constantly inform their customers about what the situation really is; that it is not refugees from Ukraine who are responsible for the increase in energy prices, but Russia, which has always played with gas prices, regardless of whether it was times of peace or war. Companies need to have a shield that will protect them from disinformation, properly issue messages and respond.
Who are the people who spread pro-Russian disinformation in Poland? Are these Russians using a translator and getting paid by the Kremlin for this?
No, the golden days of trolling from 2014-2016 are long gone, for one simple reason: when maintaining a troll farm, it is difficult not to violate the basic rules of health and safety, that is, sooner or later such things come to light, and it is impossible to control it, it is not very effective. However, in every country there are political groups that want to raise their political capital on the fear of potential energy poverty. People sowing pro-Russian disinformation are mostly supporters of such groups, Polish citizens who have different views on the world. The same people think there’s no pandemic. People are dying in hospitals, hospitals are filling up, and someone will write that it’s a lie. Only words and concepts change, but the message is the same. It’s not even about the rationality of explanation, social media answer difficult questions in a simple way.
So would it be fair to say that today we are dealing with a snowball effect when it comes to Russian propaganda?
Yes, that’s a good description. TikTok was created in 2018. Look at where this platform is today. Back then, when any information had 2-3 million reach, it was a lot. Today nobody is impressed if within 24 hours a post has fewer than 10 million views. Bucha had 25 million. The first women’s strikes in 2016 reached 54 million at their peak. The anti-abortion protests of autumn 2020 had an average of 270 million coverage. The pandemic has boosted social media consumption. 70 percent of citizens derive knowledge from the internet, only 15 percent from the radio. The supply of information has increased, in the evening we no longer remember what we read in the morning. For this reason, we are looking for simple answers to difficult questions. It is hard to explain why prices have gone up. You can talk about market mechanisms, but the average citizen is not interested in this. They prefer a simple answer – the prices at gas stations have gone up either because of the refugees, or the war.
Interview by Michał Perzyński