Alternative publishing. Coronavirus and alternative-internet in Poland

Jakub Bodziony · 13 April 2021
According to right-wing vloggers, as many as 500,000 people gathered on 30 August in Berlin to protest under the slogan “call off the pandemic”. A similar event was planned in Warsaw, with participants organising everything via Internet.

The pandemic did not happen

“What a load of bullshit, Minister, whom do you want to enslave? It’s high time we debunked your myths and you stopped whining”, sings the Disco Polo star Ivan Komarenko. Within a few days, the song “Kity i mity” [Bullshit and myths] had 400,000 views on one online portal. This is not Komarenko’s first public statement about the pandemic. He had already been a guest on the internet TV station wRealu24 (440,000 subscriptions on YouTube) twice, and he tried to convince everyone not to wear masks (what he called “muzzles”). On the same channel, the singer Edyta Górniak claimed: “I will never get vaccinated”.

The interview was conducted by Marcin Rola, editor-in-chief and founder of wRealu24, who, like his guests, is also fighting what he calls a “plandemic”. The term suggests that the activities undertaken by governments, international organisations and specialists are a “COVIDian” plot against citizens. In an article entitled “Czy niewolnicy się w końcu obudzą” [Will the slaves finally wake up?], Rola underlines that “We, Polish patriots, believe that it is the duty of the Polish state right now to call off this pseudo pandemic”.

In society, the first media penetration level is mainstream media: the major TV stations, newspapers and online news sites. Under the Polish People’s Republic, the second level were illegal publishing houses, and today sometimes non-profit such as Kultura Liberalna fall into this category. But there is also a third type of media penetration level, which is becoming stronger and stronger.

An online movement against pandemic restrictions had already been launched in March last year. A Facebook group “Nie wierzę w Koronawirusa – Grupa wsparcia / NIE JESTEŚ SAM” was created at roughly the same time [I do not believe in coronavirus – Support group/ YOU ARE NOT ALONE]. It had over 100,000 members, who exchange information exposing the activities of the alleged plotters on a daily basis. Social media gives access to a lot of material from around the world that is supposed to support their vision of the world.

Crazies and “the tin foil brigade”

Such people are often called “crazies” or part of the “tin foil brigade” (in Polish: “szury” and “foliarze”). The latter refers to aluminium foil head coverings used by some people who are afraid of the government influencing society through electromagnetic radiation, and the term has anchored itself as a general description of those who believe in all too crazy plots.

“Plandemic” believers say that mainstream politicians and media hide the true information about the virus from the society. “Just press the red button on the TV remote and the pandemic disappears”, says Rola. In order to give their beliefs scientific legitimacy and in an attempt to shake off the “crazies” and “tin foil brigade” labels, these communities invoke the words of doctors sceptical about the pandemic, both in Poland and abroad.

Indeed, pandemic-nonbelievers are not an exclusively Polish phenomenon. Americans started protesting against social restrictions as early as April last year, some with brandishing guns. What makes Poland special is that our alternative-internet is almost completely dominated by the right wing. Anarchists and leftist radicals play an important role in protests in the United States and Germany. In Poland, they are on the invisible margins.

In May last year, there was a “business owners’ protest” in Warsaw. The quotation marks are intentional, because the majority of the people who took to the streets were simply anti-vaxxers, led by Justyna Socha from the STOP-NOP association, which is against mandatory vaccinations. In August last year, a protest of anti-maskers took place, whilst a month later, a new protest was supposed to take place against the government’s policies, with the organisers hoping for a huge turnout.

Do the Karnowski brothers believe in the pandemic?

The alternative-internet community is extremely diverse, but what they have in common is that they all claim that the pandemic restrictions are an attack on individual liberty. Most do not deny the existence of the virus itself, but instead think that the pandemic is a fabrication and maybe even a Chinese government plot. They often feel superior to others, because they possess the knowledge that the rest of the society lacks (or “does not want to possess”). Witold Gadowski, a former journalist who now propagates his views, like so many of his ilk, via a YouTube channel, has been trying to convince his viewers for months that COVID-19 is not a natural occurrence, but that it was produced in a Chinese lab in Wuhan. Every week, he reaches an audience of 200,000 and the comments section is filled with thanks for “fighting for the truth”.

Most of this content: articles, vlogs, posts on internet live their own life, are of little interest for mainstream media audiences. The only exception to this thus far have been Maciej Pawlicki’s articles in the mainstream weekly magazine Sieci, owned by the Karnowski brothers. The magazine, closely linked to the current government, explicitly suggested on their cover that there was no pandemic. The then Minister of Health, Łukasz Szumowski, reacted strongly and said “if someone sees such plots, they should seriously take care of their mental health”. Consequently, Pawlicki became the hero of the alternative-internet, which accused the Minister of Health of both “an attack on free speech” and a direct attack on the journalist.

How to microchip humanity

Bill Gates, who has become the new global villain after George Soros, is now the nemesis of the alternative-internet, both in Poland and abroad. The Microsoft founder, and one of the richest people on planet, also runs a foundation, along with his wife, which concentrates on charity and medical activity. Gates has been warning for years about the threat of a pandemic that would lead to an international crisis. In one of the episodes of the Netflix series “Explained”, in October 2019, he said explicitly that the next virus would most probably be developed in China and its “wet markets”, where live animals were sold.

The accuracy of this forecast led to distrust by alternative-internet sphere. For many people, he became not an authority, but one of a handful of people who want to benefit from the situation. Today they believe that Gate’s activities, and he is the second biggest donor to the World Health Organisation, are part of a bigger conspiracy puzzle. The billionaire is currently donating a lot of money to the development of coronavirus vaccine. The combination of Gates’ statements about the threat overpopulation and about “digital certificates”, containing information on whether someone has been vaccinated, has antibodies or has recently been tested, is explosive material for some. The solution itself is supposed to make it possible to travel between countries during an ongoing pandemic. But the idea was picked up and discussed on internet fora all throughout the world. Some users claimed that the certificates would be on microchips implanted under the skin.

In a few short (illogical) steps, just putting together the pieces of the puzzle and adjusting them a little, leads to the claim that in fact, the pandemic is a plot developed by the powerful of the world in order to make a fortune on mandatory vaccinations and control the population through microdevices. Such theories, made of scraps of real information and figments of the imagination fuel fear in society.

The Confederat ion party is leveraging the pandemic

The Confederation Party MP Grzegorz Braun has called for a ‘wanted’ notice for Gates. On his YouTube channel (104,000 subscriptions), he has frequently recommended the book “Corona, False Alarm? Facts and Figures”, which he has described as a “fascinating read”. He believes that the government’s actions are “a massive political-propaganda operation for strategic perception management”. Braun was the Confederation Party’s delegation head when they participated in a protest in Berlin in August to “fight the plandemic”. “Masks are a way of taming us. But for what? I do not even dare to guess”, concludes Braun in one of his pieces. He does not dare to guess, because he does not know, which shows that the theory is not coherent. But one such disturbing thought might be enough to arouse the authentic doubts of his audience.

The Confederation Party is the political outlet for alternative theories about the pandemic in Poland. Their MPs were present during the “business owners’ protest” in May last year. But the reality is more complex. Not all representatives of the party have taken the side of the “crazies” and “tin foil brigade”. Krzysztof Bosak clearly realized that too much radicalisation can deter voters who feel that the pandemic is real, but are simply tired of the restrictions. At the other end of the spectrum, Braun, along with Jacek Wilk, appeal to those voters who are more prone to conspiracy theories.

Just as in the case of the German AfD, the pandemic has become a new discussion topic for the Confederation Party and a spark for action. They are decidedly against the government and it likewise helps distinguish them from the main opposition parties, who are simply demanding a responsible health policy from the government. This is how the extreme right appeals to both the “doubting” electorate and to voters fishing around for the next global plot that is aimed at murdering some part of the population.

Second wave plotters

Scientific knowledge about the pandemic is still rudimentary and superficial – we are learning new things about the virus virtually every day. Conspiracy theories about the pandemic are especially appealing because they fill the gaps in our knowledge. Experts must be cautious, but sometimes they are forced to act by trial and error. As a result, singers or amateur vloggers pose as authority figures.

This situation can elicit a wry smile of sympathy, but it should not be underestimated. As new technology continues to develop, the alternative media will likewise become stronger and stronger, and subsequently the risk of spreading unverified and false information will also increase. There is always someone trying to use this phenomenon in politics. Today, Poles are one of the most sceptical societies towards COVID-19 vaccines. In one survey, which looked at 27 countries, we are the last but one, followed only by Russia. Plus, we have recent experience of politically motivated conspiracy theories – in 2017, 30 per cent of Poles believed that the Smolensk disaster was not an accident, and in March 2020, 50 per cent of those who voted Andrzej Duda in the presidential election likewise doubted the official version of the events.

Inappropriate governmental policy has possibly impacted the attitude of Poles towards vaccinations. The President declared that “he would not vaccinate himself against the flu, just because”, whilst the prime minister and other cabinet members had failed to follow the restrictions on numerous occasions. Vague interests of Minister Szumowski on his holiday in Spain right after his warning that citizens should forget about their own holidays, served as a fuel for alternative narratives. It was dangerous too, given that the annual flu season was right around the corner and could have overlapped with the pandemic. Underestimating the necessary restrictions can have very serious consequences for public health systems.

Two conclusions can be drawn right now. The alternative-internet should not be ignored or underestimated. This information sphere has not been examined by the mainstream media. The narrative about traditional media as “gatekeepers” to the public debate is politically attractive, but seems out-dated. Secondly, putting everyone questioning the government’s work into one bag, along with the “crazies” and the “tin foil brigade” is a mistake. During the protests in Berlin, there were hundreds of people for whom government restrictions meant a loss of income.

Alternative-internet in Poland consists of hundreds of thousands, probably millions of users building their own, alternative media realities. Isolating them and making them a laughing stock can provide a momentary sense of security, because this is how you can control the message. But hermetic information bubbles should be pierced, not ignored.