Poland Presidential Election 2020: Disinformation Strikes the Military

poland ndp
Elena Cryst

Amid increasing political turmoil and a potential constitutional crisis, Poland was recently targeted by an elaborate disinformation operation. We studied the tactics used by the attackers and discovered a previously unknown connection to the website Niezależny Dziennik Polityczny, which has previously been accused of having ties to Russian intelligence. Some key takeaways:

  • On April 23, 2020, Polish intelligence agencies announced that a disinformation operation had taken place at around noon CEST the day before. The operation began with the hacking of the website for Poland’s War Studies Academy and the publication of a forged open letter on the site.
  • Shortly after the publication of the forged letter, three identical articles based on the letter appeared on the websites lewy.pl, prawy.pl, and ono24.info. The owner of lewy.pl and prawy.pl later attested that these sites had been hacked and that the articles were posted by the hackers; in fact, the hackers did not “publish” the articles but appear to have updated older articles with new content. None of the social-media accounts associated with these sites posted about the articles.
  • At 1:58 pm CEST, fake Facebook accounts associated with Niezależny Dziennik Polityczny began posting links to the fabricated articles in Facebook Groups. We counted at least 57 such instances, but this figure includes public Groups only; if the accounts were active in private Groups as well the number could be higher.
  • Ordinary Facebook users began sharing the articles as well. The headline (“A Scandalous Letter by the Rector of the War Studies Academy: PiS Politicians Are Leading Us to Disaster”) was skillfully designed to appeal to opponents of PiS on the left and the right, and the articles generated significant engagement. According to CrowdTangle data, the articles received 8,513 comments, likes, and shares before they were taken down.
  • At 5:53pm CEST, an English-language article appeared on The Duran, a Kremlin-aligned website, with the headline “Polish General encourages polish soldiers to fight against American occupation.” This article does not appear to have gained much traction on social media.
In the attached report we describe this operation in greater detail and go into the ways in which the actors behind it used Facebook to get this harmful content in front of the intended audience.

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