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Polish Election Brief 3: Crunch Time Communication – A Virtual Glimpse into the Final Week of Poland's Elections

The result of Poland's parliamentary elections on 15 October could well set the nation on a new political trajectory. Although the incumbent Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS) party garnered the largest share of the votes, a dearth of coalition possibilities means it is likely to hand over the reins of power to the Civic Coalition. This multi-party alliance, headed by Donald Tusk, the leader of Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska, PO) – the principal party within the Civic Coalition – has ardently advocated a pro-democracy, pro-European, and social-liberal agenda. This shift hints at a potential rebalance after nearly a decade of increasingly autocratic governance, a period in which the Polish government often found itself at loggerheads with the EU.

To unravel the nuances of this election result, we investigate the campaign's final phase, focusing on the online activity in the week leading up to the election silence on 14th October. We focus on the Facebook and X (formerly known as Twitter) campaigning strategies of three pivotal parties – the incumbent PiS, Civic Platform, and Confederation (Konfederacja), a far-right party long seen as a potential kingmaker, and one that strongly influenced the electoral discourse, but whose vote share fell short of expectations. A detailed examination of these parties' online behaviour during those pivotal days highlights significant differences that may have affected the elections’ outcome.

Key findings

  • Online activity surge: PiS, Confederation, and Civic Platform amplified their online messaging in the campaign’s final days. While PiS and Civic Platform leaned heavily on official party accounts on X and Facebook, Confederation more often used the accounts of its lead figures, Krzysztof Bosak and Sławomir Mentzen, for communication.
  • Platform usage: PiS favoured X, while Civic Platform and Confederation showed a distinct preference for Facebook, hinting at a focus on local politics.
  • Tonality and attack: Not only did Civic Platform adopt a more positive tone in their messages overall, but Mateusz Morawiecki, the incumbent PiS prime minister, as well as Bosak and Mentzen, consistently employed an adversarial approach, often directing critical messages at their opponents. Civic Platform’s Tusk took a more reserved approach, mostly refraining from retaliatory messaging or direct personal attacks against his political adversaries.

Methodology

DRI conducted an in-depth analysis using data from two primary social media platforms – Facebook and X – collated from 7 October to 13 October 2023. The research was based on two distinct datasets, which comprised a total 3,271 posts:

  • Politicians DataFrame (1,869 posts): This dataset contained messages from leading national politicians, capturing the sentiments and narratives of party leaders, prime ministerial nominees, and other pivotal political figures in Poland.
  • Party Accounts DataFrame (1,402 posts): To identify the institutional viewpoints and strategies, this dataset was centred on the three cornerstone political parties in Poland – PiS, Civic Platform, and Confederation.

 

Diverging strategies in the final push: Personal vs. institutional

The days leading up to elections represent the final opportunity for political actors to disseminate their messages and mobilise undecided voters. These elections were no exception, as demonstrated by the posting activity in the days preceding the vote. Graph 1 highlights the increasing online activity of the three main parties we monitored in the lead-up to the elections. As the start of the election silence period on October 14th approached, these parties significantly ramped up their posting volumes.

How exactly the parties communicated reveals interesting variations, however. PiS and Civic Platform exhibited significantly higher posting activity on their official party accounts on X and Facebook, highlighting their reliance on institutional or official channels for social media communications (see Graph 2 a). When considering individual candidate activity, however, the lead candidates of Confederation, Bosak and Mentzen, posted more frequently on their personal public accounts in comparison to PiS’ Morawiecki and Civic Platform’s Tusk. This disparity might show that PiS and Civic Platform strongly relied on party-backed communication, while Confederation predominantly capitalised on the individual branding of their key figures (see Graph 2 b).

 

 

It is, however, intriguing to note that the underutilisation of the Confederation's party account came despite its remarkable performance in terms of engagement (see graph 3) and number of followers, surpassing even the more established parties (Graph 4).

 

 

Confederation predominantly favored X over Facebook for their communication endeavors (see graphs 5 a, b, and c), while Civic Platform and Confederation both allocated a significant portion of their communication output to Facebook. Given the prevalent perception in Poland of Facebook as a platform more suited for local than national politics[1], this implies that both Civic Platform and Confederation were strategically courting local constituencies. This is in contrast to PiS, which already enjoyed a dominant influence in the traditional local media landscape.

 

 

Negative campaigning: A losing strategy?

Differences did not only manifest in the modality of the parties’ outreach, but also in its tonality. Graph 6 underscores the clear divergence in the tone of messaging between the two leading parties. PiS veered notably towards negative messaging, more so than Civic Platform. While a negative tone can have many origins (e.g., a focus on national problems), it can also suggest a deliberate decision by parties to embrace negative campaigning and, hence, to attack their opponents.

This is also evident in the dominant narrative among many news outlets, suggesting that Tusk’s Civic Platform took lessons from the 2019 elections, with the aim to be more than just an "anti-PiS" party, and thus placed greater emphasis on their own agenda. Graph 7 encapsulates this narrative by highlighting the degree to which leading candidates engaged in addressing their adversaries. The data underscores that Tusk rarely referenced his political competitors in his communications. Conversely, Morawiecki was particularly vociferous in targeting Tusk, with Bosak and Mentzen also dedicating a notable portion of their messaging to focus on the Civic Platform leader. This suggests a pronounced disparity in communication strategies, with Civic Platform opting for a more reserved approach and PiS, along with Confederation, adopting more confrontational stances.

 

 

 

This can also be seen in the tone of the messaging adopted by the lead candidates when discussing their opponents (Graph 8). The graph illustrates that Morawiecki, Bosak, and Mentzen all adopted more negative tones when addressing their opponents, and particularly when referring to Tusk.

 

 

This adversarial and sometimes even vicious tone applied by individual candidates can also be seen when zooming in on some of their messages:

 

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This work is supported by

Stiftung Mercator