Freedom without restrictions on the net threatens democracy. Despite this, few people in Poland are worried about online disinformation.
The latest “Cyber Security Strategy of the Republic of Poland for the years 2019-2024” mentioned disinformation on the web only once. Two sentences are devoted to defence against disinformation and manipulative actions, in one of the numerous specific objectives. At the same time, it was noted that the Polish government thinks that “a free and open Internet is an important element in the functioning of modern society”.
It is true that we need a free Internet, but it cannot mean arbitrariness and anarchy. We need clearly defined rules of using the Internet and system thinking about information space. Without them, we are, also as a state, fully dependent on the ways in which the networks can be used by others.
It is not about restricting freedom of expression. If it is possible to lay down rules in the legal codes for using this freedom in such a way that it does not affect the rights of other people, it is all the more possible to lay down rules for using the networks that will increase the security of users, while at the same time ensuring freedom of expression for them. This is also necessary to protect democracy.
Poles are afraid of disinformation
Disinformation in Poland is still talked about little, and certainly, there is no question of a systemic approach to this threat. During the last parliamentary elections, this subject did not appear on the agenda of any party, although research shows unequivocally that Poles are afraid of network manipulation. In 2018, the EU’s Eurobarometer published a survey which shows that as many as 66 per cent of Poles are afraid of disinformation. Also, 57 per cent believe that the most serious threat to the election results comes from the possibility of cyberattacks, and 55 per cent are afraid of the influence of external entities or even criminal groups.
Nevertheless, the only agreement concluded so far between the Polish government and the most popular social media platform in Poland (i.e. Facebook) only concerns the creation of an additional appeal option for users who have been blocked by FB. Now, users can use the help of a special point in the Ministry of Digitisation in case of such a blockade. Unfortunately, one year after the signing of the agreement, it is not clear how this point works, how many times the interventions were undertaken, whether they were successful – journalists from many media tried to obtain such data in the Ministry, but so far without success.
“Only one case of successful intervention is known,” said Deputy Minister of Digitisation Adam Andruszkiewicz. Well, thanks to the ministerial assistance, the fan page “Sebizm Osiedlowo-Radykalny” was unblocked. Today, it functions as “Sebizm – Osiedlowa Dilerka Prawdy” (ed. “Housing Estate Dealer of Truth”). It is a fan page that posts radically ironic, often offensive comments on the political situation. Posts on this fan page are useful to the ruling party in Poland, but not friendly to the Polish opposition.
What does the Facebook Advertising Library give us?
The activity of the Polish government in this area points to the priorities of the current authorities. Unfortunately, the fight against disinformation is not one of them. A different approach was presented by the European Commission, which, before the European Parliament (EP) elections, realised the threat of external influence and negotiated with social platforms so intensively that they applied new rules and tools.
In April 2019. Facebook has made it compulsory to label political advertisements and created an advertising library (“Ad Library”) which displays all paid posts on political, social and environmental issues, including details of who finances them. Although there are many voices saying that the advertising library is more about creating appearances of advertising transparency than real transparency, we know little about it.
We can see, for example, how much political parties spend on online advertising. Facebook earned almost 20 million euros on the campaign to the European Parliament in the whole Union. Advertisements in Poland cost less than 450,000 euros, i.e. almost 2 million zlotys. At that time, the Confederation Liberty and Independence allocated the highest amount of any central party campaign in Poland – 184.4 thousand zlotys to Facebook advertising, closely followed by the European Coalition in the ranking – 140 thousand zlotys. PiS spent only 43,000 zlotys on Facebook, while it spent 386,000 zlotys on Google (including YouTube).
Greater advertising expenditure was incurred by politicians during the autumn campaign for the parliamentary elections. Civic Coalition spent a record-breaking 1.6 million zlotys on Facebook alone and another several hundred thousand zlotys on Google advertising.
Thanks to the principle of marking political advertisements, we also know who in Poland tried not to comply with it – and these are cases that make us think. In the EP campaign, the first one after the introduction of the new regulations, at the beginning a lot of candidates had problems with the proper marking of posts.
However, the candidate of the Law and Justice party, now an MEP, and then Deputy Minister of Justice Patryk Jaki, bypassed the new rules many times. His promoted posts did not have any indication that they were a form of political advertising. Also, the posts were prepared in such a way that they did not contain any of the keywords: elections, voting, list, campaign or candidate – based on which the Facebook algorithm could recognise the post concerning politics. You could only see a picture of the politician, his name and surname and the number with which he stood as a candidate.
Only after the case was publicised and reported to Facebook, after some time the platform reacted and started blocking unmarked advertisements, which finally forced the politician (or rather the people involved in his advertisement) to add a proper label to the posts.
For three months, from July to September 2019, the official fan page of the Chancellery of the Prime Minister also violated Facebook regulations, placing advertisements promoting the “No personal income tax for young people” campaign without a label. By 18 September, when the case was publicised, the Chancellery of the Prime Minister spent 22 thousand zlotys on this promotion. This time the advertisements were blocked by the FB from the hill for the lack of a proper label, which did not prevent the fan page users from publishing further paid posts, still without signs.
It is hard to guess where the reluctance to add a label came from. Undoubtedly the money for this purpose came from an obvious source, i.e. the Chancellery of the Prime Minister – and such information finally appeared in the advertisements when the matter became public.
Perhaps in both cases – Patryk Jaki’s candidacy and fan page’s action – the situation was caused only by the ignorance of the people responsible for advertising on the web, but it is impossible not to notice that the accounts violating these Facebook rules, which (although only to a minimum) are to regulate the political advertising market and prevent external influence, were accounts belonging to representatives of the Polish authorities: the Chancellery of the Prime Minister and the Deputy Minister of Justice.
Information sovereignty is exercised by private companies, not by states
If it was supposed to be a sign of freedom on the net, it was apparent. Facebook administrators could at any time block not only advertising but also the accounts themselves.
It is neither the users nor the state, who have sovereignty over information, but social networking platforms: Facebook, Google, Twitter. They are the ones who make the decisions concerning the information space in a given country, and they also decide whether and how to apply sanctions against those who violate the rules.
At the same time, they are commercial entities, i.e. profit-oriented. Although, after the high-profile data sharing scandals, these companies have clearly stated that they represent democratic values, no rational thinker can count on them to put democracy, human rights and the protection of users’ personal data above their profits. Unless they are forced to do so by law.
For such a right to be established, politicians must make a great deal of effort, because it is they who must take on the obligation to establish rules for citizens’ participation in the information space.
This understanding has already appeared both in NATO and in the European Union, and the first steps are being taken. I would like to stress once again: this is not about blocking freedom of expression or introducing censorship, but – as in the real world – about establishing principles for the legal use of information space.
The resolution adopted in October by the new European Parliament shows that there is a growing awareness at European level that the lack of such principles is a real threat to democracy. In the resolution MEPs called, among others, for making the fight against disinformation a key goal of foreign policy and for the preparation of possible legislative actions, which will force on social platforms both the marking of content disseminated by bots and the liquidation of accounts of people involved in illegal activities. With these positions, the EP expresses the need to protect online democracy, just as it is protected in the real world.
Interestingly, this resolution was voted for, among others, by MEPs from the Law and Justice Party, which governs Poland. It was adopted on 10 October. Less than two weeks later, the Law and Justice government adopted a national “Cybersecurity Strategy” for the next five years, in which two sentences were devoted to protection against manipulation and disinformation.
The threat will increase during the presidential campaign
Social networking platforms themselves are also aware that at least to some extent they need to adapt to the expectations of political authorities. In the United States, in particular, this is a hot topic today. It is known that the Kremlin influenced the US presidential election of 2016 and there is widespread concern that the forthcoming presidential campaign may see a repeat of the situation.
Twitter has recently declared that it is giving up all paid political advertising on its platform. Facebook is taking a different path. It decided that it would not block the content of the promoted political posts, even if they were to contain lies. At the same time, in other posts, this is going to mean fax news.
False information will be marked unless it appears in paid political ads – Facebook does not want to take on the role of a censor. This surprising diversity has caused obvious controversy, but despite the criticism, Facebook has not yet modified its ideas.
For solace, Facebook informed that it would mean media controlled by the state. The fan pages would contain information about the confirmed owners of the sites, and would also be a new tool to facilitate the tracking of advertising expenditure during the campaign.
In the US, they have found that the presidential campaign in social media should be subject to special protection. This is a different perspective than the one we can observe in Poland. Although the Polish presidential campaign will begin in a moment, it is not visible that parties or potential candidates are afraid of external interference, nor are they worried about possible internal manipulations.
Yet it is precisely the presidential election, which is the most personalised, which offer enormous opportunities to influence voters through the use of the Internet. Therefore, there are grounds to assume that disinformation strategies will also be used in the Polish campaign – and if any of the parties to the political dispute believes that they can be used only for their own benefit, they may experience a big surprise.
Poland’s sovereignty in the information space does not exist today. What is more, it does not seem that politicians care about changing this state of affairs. Is there a need for a strong shock to change their views? It is possible. However, after such a shock it may turn out that it is too late to build one’s own sovereignty in this new space.