What is your role in the organization you are leading?
I work for two organizations: the Alliance for Europe, of which I am the co-founder, and the European Front. We established the Alliance for Europe in 2018 to bring together civil society around the importance of the European Union, and to act together. We realised that populists and people who spread disinformation were able to communicate their messages much better. We wanted to do the same on our side. We started with the Vote4Friendship campaign, encouraging people to go to the elections. We aim to show that the best way to fight disinformation is via positive communication. During the European Parliament elections – in addition to this campaign – we launched a network of organisations dealing with the fight against disinformation. We worked with civil society and government administration, and we had constant contact with the European Commission. During the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2015, we observed that disinformation strongly influenced social attitudes. That is why we decided to deal with this challenge. We had a network that we co-created with various organisations, and besides, we also started to create tools for monitoring the Internet.
How would you describe the mission and expertise of your organisation in the field of media literacy/ critical thinking/ fact-checking/ countering disinformation?
Our mission is to show that we are stronger together. By working together, all forces – and I am not just talking about civil society here – but about all people for whom democracy, freedom and European values are essential. Our mission is mainly to support the European Union, although we also look globally and monitor what is happening in the world. Our mission is to unite and give tools to the civil society, demonstrated that we can do more together. We also believe that one organisation cannot do everything, but we should cooperate. Everyone has different capacities and competencies.
The European Front is a coalition of organisations that want to work together for the European Union. We made a research on the attitudes of Polish people towards the European Union, which in 2018 were very strongly influenced by refugees and migrants from Ukraine. Now we can see that also the pandemic is influencing these attitudes. Main project of the European Front was the Keyboard Warriors, fighting against disinformation on the Internet.
What are the primary resources developed by your organization you'd be willing to share? (e.g., reports, analyses, scripts, educational materials, video clips, webinars. Please share the links.)
The primary tool that we are working on is the Social Media Intelligence Unit (SMIU) –
https://www.alliance4europe.eu/2019/03/09/smiu/. SMIU is a tool for monitoring the Internet: both disinformation and hate speech. We operate on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. All the tools we use are legal and in line with the General Data Protection Regulation, which is extremely important to us. In addition to monitoring, we help various civil society organisations build up their Internet coverage. We also teach them how to communicate with the outside world, because communication remains a severe problem. We believe we can combat disinformation with positive communication. Why is disinformation spreading? It is proliferated on a large scale because it affects people’s emotions, and it conveys a simple message. We want positive information to be absorbed in the same way. Besides, we produce reports using the SMIU tool. Our most recent report was on Black Lives Matter. We also have a network of organisations dealing with disinformation. It includes representatives of the administration – not only European, but also American, as well as organisations from all over Europe and companies involved in the fight against disinformation and monitoring. This network has been operating since the elections to the European Parliament. We also conduct seminars, webinars, and workshops, during which we show how to think critically. We are currently applying for funds to build a platform to shape “media literacy” because we want to pass on our knowledge and experience to people.
One of the main tools I use is contact with people, because education is crucial when talking about media literacy, and critical thinking,. The on-line dialogue that we carry in Poland and Europe with high school students, university students, but also with seniors is extremely important, and I hope that we will soon go off-line again.
In your opinion, which is the three most significant current challenges related to countering disinformation in your country?
One of the biggest challenges is to act together, and to adapt the messages to their audiences. The ability to communicate, to reach people. And for this, you need to talk to people in a comprehensive way. We must accept that the way Polish society perceives messages has changed, although this is a worldwide challenge. People prefer simple information, which is usually pictorial, sometimes in the form of a video. Actors who deal with disinformation, whether external or internal, know perfectly how to deal with it. We see what is happening on the Internet, what words we have to use to be visible. We know that our message has to be simple, straightforward. It is important how it is said, but it is also important how the information is visualised, whether it is a simple photo, how many words there are on the social media graphics. This is also what we teach our clients and civil society with whom we work through the Social Media Intelligence Unit.
The most important thing is to reach out to people with positive information, and to enable them to select information. If Internet users write on Google: “Covid does not exist”, then, of course, they receive answers that there is no pandemic. We need to make them acknowledge the fact that Covid is there, and that they have to take it into account in their behaviour. Another problem is related to the Polish Government’s “360” campaign, which is about the manipulation of the society. The government is doing very well in communicating with the Poles, and changing social views. We have seen this in 2015 in respect to the refugees, and now – to the subject of LGBT. The viewers watch TVP, get some pieces of information, and then they see a poster about a similar subject, hear the same thing in the family, and their attitudes change, especially when there is no education. The lack of knowledge is a massive problem. People are more resistant to disinformation if they are aware that such a phenomenon exists at all, that they have to think critically, and be vigilant towards the information they are bombarded with on the Internet, especially if they see it affects their emotions. This is where a yellow light should light up.
Of course, we are also more resistant to disinformation if we know the subject, which is difficult with the massive flood of information we are constantly subjected to. It is not easy to filter, to sift through the data. Education is the key. In Poland, there is a lack of appropriate regulations concerning the Internet, and hence the spread of hatred and disinformation. A tragic example is the assassination of the President of Gdańsk, Paweł Adamowicz, which was very much rooted in hate speech.
Could you name three solutions to implement or recommend advice on how to counter disinformation, strengthen societies' critical thinking skills, and build civil resilience to disinformation?
Monitoring the Internet, checking what our opposition is saying, and simplifying communication. Building simple messages and listening to our society, knowing what it wants and what we can offer to it – if we have a vision and can communicate it in a clear and comprehensive way. That is the role of social organisations and the media. Unfortunately, in Europe, it is the populist parties that have mastered the art of excellent communication. They know how to build up their messages and encourage interaction, for example the League in Italy, AfD (Alternative to Germany) in Germany. We monitor the Internet in terms of the divisions in society. The great challenge of today’s world is polarisation, which we observe in the USA, Brazil, and Poland. We must somehow stop this trend.
What are the top three events or dates you have witnessed last year that have caused an intensification of disinformation activities?
The first and most visible event is Covid-19 and the spread of the pandemic. Fear and emotion are an ally of disinformation. People are afraid of the virus. They absorb information and also all conspiracy theories coming with it. This was evident in Italy, where some part of the population believed that the European Union was behind the lockdown and its restrictions. As a rule, if we are afraid of something, we react in three ways: escape, confrontation, or freezing the reaction. In general, the pandemic has reinforced all conspiracy theories, including anti-vaccine, 5G, and so on. The problem is that every conspiracy theory has its own “experts”, in whom their supporters and followers believe. The regulation of Internet poses a question who is supposed to do it, and what is appropriate.
Regarding events abroad, it is undoubtedly the Black Lives Matter movement in the US. There has been an enormous amount of disinformation and attacks on the whole movement. Of course, there was also the election campaign before the US presidential election, because it affects the entire world. In Poland, too, the presidential elections, intensifies disinformation activities. Also the issue of LGBT, around which we have a lot of disinformation and hate speech, and building behavioral change.
In your opinion, which future three dates/events are likely to bring about the intensification of disinformation activities in the future?
Once again, I must mention the US presidential elections and the problem of the vaccine for Covid-19. It will give room for disinformation measures to both Russia and China. Let me make a general remark at this point: why is Russia entering the western world so powerfully? It is because it wants to destabilise and manipulate Western countries and societies more easily. Another important event will be the parliamentary elections in Germany in autumn 2021. There will undoubtedly be a lot of disinformation regarding that subject. Belarus is also worth mentioning because Russia is bombarding Europe with its disinformation to drag individual countries or communities to its side in connection with the internal conflict. The battle around Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan is also essential. In the European Union itself, the EU’s climate policy, and what is happening around climate change, is also attracting disinformation activities.
What are the prevailing disinformation narratives you have observed in the media space this year?
Covid-19, anti-vaccine movements, refugees, and the already mentioned LGBT issues, as well as issues related to the “Czajka” sewage treatment plant. In regards to the European Union, it is Polish Prime Minister Morawiecki and the Polish authorities that have been saying for five years now many things that are not true, such as the claim that Poland is a net contributor to the EU budget, or President Duda’s words about an “imaginary community” (EU). It is also an essential problem that the authorities and political parties focus mainly on campaigns for the next elections and ignore the need to educate society, which puts a question mark over which country we will live in 10 or 20 years from now.
Have you been relying on any fact-checking tools?
Our primary tool, which I have already mentioned, is the Social Media Intelligence Unit (SMIU). It allows us to see in real-time who is most active on the Internet, identify keywords, establish whether someone is a bot, or a troll. The SMIU, which we have been developing for several years, is working well in practice.
In your opinion, who is the best performing actors – in your country and the EU – playing crucial roles in the field of media literacy today, and why?
We want the European Union to be the main actor, especially in financing “media literacy” – and the EU does offer grants in this area, but I do not think these are sufficient. We are still many years behind what Russia is doing about spreading disinformation. In regards to the organisations in our country that fight against disinformation, our environment is too fragmented and individualistic compared to those spreading disinformation. We must look within ourselves for what unites us, rather than divides us. We need to understand that the way we communicate and our better cooperation will result in our greater visibility and effectiveness.
Interview from March, 2021.