Global and Local Conspiracy Theories in Poland in the Time of COVID 19

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In the latest instalment of our COVID-19 series, Franciszek Czech and Paweł Ścigaj, at Jagiellonian University’s Institute of Intercultural Studies and Institute of Political Science and International Relations, show how belief in conspiracy theories in Poland has increased across the political spectrum since the pandemic began.

Conspiracy theories have always been present in Polish politics. Nevertheless, they have never drawn as much attention as in the current decade. In 2010 the President of Poland Lech Kaczyński and 95 other top Polish officials died in an air disaster near Russian city of Smoleńsk. It is always hard to believe that important people die in ordinary accidents. Additionally, the accident took place in Russia, treated suspiciously in Poland for historical reasons and governed by cynical Vladimir Putin. Conspiracy theories quickly became employed in local politics and contributed substantially to the overwhelming distrust between two main political parties: conservative Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość) headed by Jarosław Kaczyński, twin brother of the late president, and the liberal Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska), led by Donald Tusk, which was accused of slowing down the investigation into the crash or even helping Russians in a plot to assassinate the president. In this way, the international dimension of the 2010 presidential airplane crash conspiracy theory lost its importance in favour of its local (i.e. national) aspect.

Now, the issue of local and global contexts of conspiracy thinking in Poland returns again as a consequence of the current COVID-19 pandemic. On the one hand, we face a global health and economic crisis which fuels various conspiratorial speculations. On the other hand, the presidential elections in Poland were initially to be held on 10th May 2020, but were postponed due to the pandemic until 28th June while the second round was scheduled for 12th July. It is hardly surprising that in such circumstances many conspiracy theories went viral in Poland and the media provided us with details of many alternative explanations of what was really going on. Journalists have even taken up the international buzzword infodemic and claim that surfeit of information about a problem viewed as being a detriment to its solution is “even more dangerous that pandemic itself”. There is no doubt that the number of conspiracy theories in circulation is high, but the most intriguing question is this: how popular are various widespread global and local conspiracy theories in Poland?

To address the question we designed an Internet survey of a representative sample of adult Poles. The survey was conducted in late May 2020. According to its results, the general tendency towards conspiracy thinking, measured by 7-item scale, had risen considerably. For example, 73% of the respondents accepted the statement that “seemingly accidental situations, such as economic crises, are in fact carefully planned”. For comparison, only 41% agreed with the same claim in 2014. In a six-year period the number of people who had a low tendency towards conspiracy thinking (i.e. who agreed with up to 1 statement out of 7) decreased by half and reached only 12%. At the other end of the spectrum, the number of people with a strong tendency to believe in conspiracy theories (acceptance of 5-7 statements) rose by 8% up to 45%. In the light of these results one may say that Mark Fenster is not far from being correct in his general diagnosis that “we are all conspiracy theorists”; it should be added, however,  that we are not all conspiracy theorists to the same extent.

In terms of political views, the far-right Confederation (Konfederacja, 11 MPs) party has definitely the most conspiracy theory-oriented electorate. As Figure 1. shows, 68% of their voters have a strong tendency to believe in conspiracy theories. The second highest percentage is observed among non-voters, who seem to claim that the political class as a whole is untrustworthy. Contrary to popular belief, the number of conspiracy theorists among Kaczyński’s ruling United Right (at the governing coalition of Law and Justice and smaller rightist parties, with 235 parliamentary seats) is average and similar to supporters of the oppositional  Left (Lewica, 49 MPs) and Polish Coalition (Koalicja Polska, 30 MPs). The inclination for conspiracy thinking among United Right supporters decreased after five years in power, during which period anti-establishment rhetoric became less successful. Nevertheless, the smallest number of conspiracy theorists was found among the most educated voters of the central-left Civic Coalition (Koalicja Obywatelska the coalition of Civic Platform, as formerly led by Tusk, and smaller parties, with 134 MPs).

It is worth remembering that in Poland the pandemic coincided with the 2020 presidential elections, ending a two year long period of political campaigns involving elections to the European Parliament, Polish Parliament and also local governments in Poland. In other words, Poland underwent several months of hard political debate, sometimes brutal and full of discriminatory and dehumanising language on both sides. The atmosphere of distrust and hostility between the ruling party and the opposition reinforced all sorts of anxieties and fears caused by the coronavirus pandemic. 

In the context of such a deep political division it is hardly surprising that Poland became divided in terms of believing in conspiracy theories. Older and more conservative supporters of the ruling coalition and the newly reelected President Andrzej Duda believe largely in global COVID-19 related conspiracy theories. For example, 57% of them agree with the statement that the coronavirus was designed as a biological weapon in order to decrease the world’s population by reducing the number of elderly people. In comparison, among voters of the biggest oppositional group, Civic Coalition, 34% accept the same claim. 

On the other hand, the liberal electorate of the Civic Coalition (and other oppositional parties) tends to approve primarily local COVID-19 related conspiracy theories. 89% of them subscribe to the claim that the “Polish government began to reduce lockdown mainly to hold the presidential election in May 2020”. Among supporters of the ruling coalition, 30% have the same opinion. This shows that the supporters of the United Right are not a monolithic group. It is possible that some of these voters remain skeptical and back the government due to its social policy. 

This pattern of a global-local division is observed also in the context of other questions. Two of them are illustrated by the figure below:

Only the voters of the anti-system Confederation escape the pattern. Apparently, they belief in both global and local conspiracy theories. More than 3 out of 4 of them believe simultaneously that “the Polish government is using the coronavirus pandemic to limit democracy” and “the scale of the coronavirus pandemic is exaggerated in order to enhance the purchase of drugs and not always safe vaccines”.

Summing up, it seems that Poles are increasingly united in believing in conspiracy theories, but divided in terms of their content. Such unity-in-diversity suggests that situational factors cannot be omitted and are not less important than psychological and ideological ones. The uncertainty of disruptive times not only makes conspiracy theories more popular but also encourages people to synchronise them with a broader worldview and select the most fitting explanations. 

The full report (in Polish) is available here:
http://www.ism.uj.edu.pl/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/covid-narracje-spiskowe.pdf

Franciszek Czech is a political scientist and sociologist based at the Institute of Intercultural Studies, Faculty of International and Political Studies, Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. His research interests include problems of political culture and conspiracy theory. He is a member of the COST Action interdisciplinary and international research network Comparative Analysis of Conspiracy Theories in Europe. He recently published the article Saturation of the media with conspiracy narratives: content analysis of selected Polish news magazines (2019). Beyond political culture and conspiracy theories, he is interested in research on globalisation as well as the contemporary political situation in the Philippines and other Southeast Asian states.    

Paweł Ścigaj is a political scientist at the Institute of Political Science and International Relations, Faculty of International and Political Studies, Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. His academic interests are in political psychology and political sociology, particularly dehumanisation, mechanisms of intergroup conflicts, and conspiracy theories. 

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