Digital Propaganda or 'Normal' Political Polarization? Case Study of Political Debate on Polish Twitter

A new report from Panoptykon Foundation and Annenberg's Internet Policy Observatory (IPO), "Digital Propaganda or 'Normal' Political Polarization? Case Study of Political Debate on Polish Twitter," examines the polarization of public debate, the rise of populism, and digital propaganda.

It goes without saying that social media have a growing impact on our politics and society. However, one should be cautious not to confuse observations with explanations. Focusing on fake news, bots, and algorithms, it is easy to miss real agents behind the screens: humans. Not only those who create content and tech tools, but also average users. Can we, as individuals, control and influence the quality or diversity of information we receive online? Is it our responsibility to “consume responsibly”? Are we forced to live inside information bubbles or can we do something about it?

Seeking answers to those questions, Panoptykon Foundation invited researchers from the University of Pennsylvania — Emad Khazraee and Annenberg doctoral student Pawel Popiel — to design a case study of political debate on Polish Twitter (social media venue most populated by political influencers and journalists). Panoptykon and IPO wondered who was creating trends, who spoke to whom and what type of conversation it was. Did influencers with different opinions confront each other? Was the debate manipulated or otherwise influenced by false amplifiers? In September and October 2017, when Polish streets and social media venues were fuming with civic unrest (women protesting against ban on abortion, young doctors fighting for public healthcare reforms, citizens defending independent judiciary), the researchers collected and analyzed nearly one million tweets.

The main findings include:

  • Polish Twitter does not encourage confrontation of opinions. In both political bubbles that we identified, influencers talked about the same topics but hardly ever talked to each other.
  • It is prominent individuals and well-established organizations (politicians, journalists, mainstream media) that shape political discourse on Twitter, not bots. Bots (false amplifiers) can be used for influence-boosting, but on their own, they are not in a position to change or create trends.
  • Using network analysis (without deeper, qualitative analysis), it is nearly impossible to differentiate false amplifiers from professionally managed accounts.

Download the full report.

About Panoptykon Foundation: Panoptykon Foundation is the only NGO in Poland which keeps an eye on those who collect and use personal data in order to influence people: public authorities, intelligence agencies, business corporations. Since 2009, Panoptykon keeps track of new legislation, intervenes to protect human rights, and explains the dark side of surveillance. Personal data became a new currency and a very effective instrument of power. Pervasive surveillance feeds our fears and kills trust. Algorithm-based decisions reinforce stereotypes, leading to exclusion and discrimination. Therefore, Panoptykon helps people regain control over their data and build society that respects freedom.

About Internet Policy Observatory: The Internet Policy Observatory (IPO) is a project at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. The overarching goal of the program is to deepen the reservoir of researchers and advocates in regions where Internet freedom is threatened or curtailed and to support the production of innovative, high-quality, and impactful internet policy research. IPO facilitates collaboration between research and advocacy communities, builds research mentorships between emerging and established scholars, and engages in trainings to build capacity for more impactful digital rights research and advocacy.