Tech

How Polands ruling party won the internet

WARSAW — Jarosław Kaczyński, the 70-year-old leader of Polands ruling party and the countrys most powerful politician, has no social media account. His nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) partys base is more TV-watchers than Instagrammers.

Nevertheless, less than two weeks before the October 13 election, Polands opposition parties have failed to keep up with the ruling partys online campaign, say critics.

Opposition parties — including the largest, Civic Coalition — appear to have learned little from their stinging 2015 defeat, when PiSs sophisticated online campaign helped sweep the then-longshot nationalist party to power.

“PiS is unfortunately the only modern party in Poland right now,” one official close to the opposition parties told POLITICO.

PiS internet prowess is largely credited to Paweł Szefernaker, now a senior official at the interior ministry, who was still in his 20s when the party leadership handed him the keys to its online operation in 2015.

Opposition parties appear to have learned little from their stinging 2015 defeat, when PiSs sophisticated online campaign helped sweep the then-longshot nationalist party to power.

Now 32, he believes PiS is still enjoying a classic tech advantage: being the first mover.

“Back in 2015, politicians relied on the traditional forms of contact with their voters, such as videoclips and billboards,” said Szefernaker. “They didnt really appreciate the role the internet could play in the campaign.”

Szefernaker convinced PiSs campaign strategists to let him send presidential candidate Andrzej Duda careening down a ski slope wearing a GoPro camera. He also filmed a good-humored Duda reading nasty tweets about himself, in the style of U.S. President Barack Obama.

The digital efforts got traction and continued after the election. Following PiSs shock victory, Duda would become the first head of state to stream a Q&A session on Facebook Live. PiS was also ahead of the curve in using Twitter in Poland, saturating the platform “immensely” in 2015, said Anna Mierzyńska, a Polish online marketing consultant.

Jarosław Kaczyński, the 70-year-old leader of Polands ruling party and the countrys most powerful politician | Omar Marques/Getty Images

Digital skillz

Radosław Fogiel, who oversees the partys 2019 online strategy, said PiS hasnt enjoyed the same element of surprise this year, but has changed tactics accordingly.

In July, hours before the Civic Coalition announced its policy manifesto, PiS put up a fake website called Forumprogramoweko.pl, fooling voters and search engines seeking information about the partys real policy positions. Clicking on issues like “education” or “foreign policy” led voters not to Civic Coalitions campaign statements, but to pages of gaffes by the partys politicians.

The site remains active.

Fogiel is aware that PiSs base of older and more conservative voters is not a natural fit for digital politics, and that the opposition is working to close the digital gap.

“Sometimes we joke in the team that if Jarosław Kaczyński were to set up a Twitter account, it would be the most momentous event in Polish politics since 1989,” he said. “But our competitors have also done their homework.”

Analysts agree the opposition is catching up to the ruling partys online machine in some areas — but too slowly.

“Sometimes we joke in the team that if Jarosław Kaczyński were to set up a Twitter account, it would be the most momentous event in Polish politics since 1989″ — PiS online strategist Radosław Fogiel

“PiS is still outdoing them,” said Joanna Sawicka, an analyst at Polityka Insight, a think tank. “But at least they started to do something.”
Civic Coalitions “hashtags get good quantitative results, but it didnt really get out of their bubble” of the partys electoral base, Mierzyńska said. “Their campaign has the outreach, but it doesnt translate to electoral results.”

Sawicka believes PiSs leadership has won the organizational battle so far, granting younger strategists like Szefernaker and Fogiel key responsibilities. Opposition campaigns stick with veterans, even in defeat. “Its astonishing that campaigns lose, and the same people are in charge,” she said.

Civic Coalition is spending more money on digital advertising than any other party — more than 68,000 złoty (€15,800), or four times PiSs 17,000 złoty, in the first week of September, according to Facebook data But its PiS that has so far shown more success in converting its money into votes, not just clicks.

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“PiS wins a lot of their supporters online,” said Mierzyńska. “Its politicians spend a lot of time building relationships on the internet.”

According to 57 percent of Poles, PiS is running the best electoral campaign, a survey by IBRIS, a Warsaw polling firm, found last week. Only 4.8 percent preferred Civic Coalitions campaign.

Dirty tricks, or just tricks?

Though most observers agree PiS has played a smarter online game, accusations of deception — and perhaps violations of online platforms terms of use — have been flung by both sides.

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