Misinformation ruined my Polish Christmas.

Christmas is supposed to be loving and care-free family time. We are meant to be grateful for the time we spend together — gracefully dining around the table while laughing away our existential aches. Spiritually, Christmas is also meant to be a special time. We may accidentally tap into our inner wisdom and infinite sources of gratitude and compassion, and as a result, spread love and peace in 2019.

However, what happens when one’s Christmassy wisdom get contaminated with bits of misinformation? What happens when fake-news and self-proclaimed scientific expertise emerge at the table? As a digital literacy advocate — should you fight back or stay silent?

Should you fight back in the name of humanity or stay silent as a symbol of compassion and forgiveness towards your misinformation oppressors? I decided to fight back. I presented my arguments logically (arguments defined here as claims backed by reasons that are supported by evidence) and in a relatively calm manner. I related to my personal experience and framed it in an accessible storytelling format. Finally, I tried very hard to stay compassionate, non-judgmental and understanding. Nonetheless, the overall conclusion of my Christmas Eve dinner was as follows:

Alicja is a naive, anti-Polish and self-hating feminist, unable to think critically and recognise fake from real science.

This year, my time at the Christmas table was particularly difficult and emotional. While eating my Carp (traditional Polish Christmas delicacy), I was integrated by several members of my family about my political views and beliefs. The conversation was filled with a patriotic rage and series of contradictory claims about what it means to be “a normal human being”.

Apparently, due to my ‘leftist ideology’, I’m not a normal human being.

Three themes caused the most anger among my family members: (1) my pro-EU views; (2) my inclination towards feminism and ‘the gender ideology’; and (3) my openness towards migration and the refugee crisis.

I tried my best to provide some valid arguments and links to scientific evidence to support my ‘naive’ vision of the world. However, none of my arguments were considered (or even listened to!). I found myself overpowered and silenced by an angry (but also a bit confused) crowd. Filled with a false sense of pride and collective rage, my family members openly disregarded my way of life and any of my past social-development work as utter nonsense.

However, I have a feeling that I wasn’t the only one who experienced a family backlash this Christmas. The political divisions in families seem to be a bit of a trend at the moment.

For example, in the United States, the 2016 election had proved to split families. Similarly, many Brits find it difficult to get to terms with their relatives voting for or against Brexit. Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett reported on Stephanie’s story, who perfectly summed up my own reflection:

“I have never felt so insulted by members of my own family before. As much as I love my parents, this referendum has made me see them in a different light — people who are unwilling to listen to the opinions of others and disrespectful of those with legitimate concerns about what their opinion could lead to.”

At present, Poland is also a deeply divided country. The right-wing and populist Law and Justice (PiS) party have been in power since 2015. The mainstream political agenda is conservative, anti-gender and to a large extent also anti-EU. There is also the progressive and pro-EU community, whose voices have been particularly prominent during the campaigns against the proposed strict anti-abortion law and the recent supreme court constitutional crisis. As The New York Times reports:

“the [Polish] government has pushed its conservative agenda by restricting access to contraceptives, attempting to ban abortion, hanging crosses in Parliament, removing certain textbooks from the school curriculum and cutting funding for some independent news media”.

Polish National Movement’s march | Source: en.wikipedia.org

PiS politics aim to largely “instill the fear of real or imagined dangers while instrumentalizing minorities or other social groups to create scapegoats” (Verloo & Patternonte, 2018 ,p.12). PiS’s normalisation of fear-driven rhetoric in the mainstream media also contributed to “the resonance and legitimacy of populist claims” from other parties (Lipinski & Stepinska, 2018). The right-wing and nationalistic attitudes are visible among Poles living in Poland and in the UK. As a result of the ongoing nationalistic rhetoric cultivated by PiS, many young people possibly experiencing identity crisis have become easily drawn to the ideas of racial superiority, anti-EU rhetoric, and retropia.

Retrotopia: “the current inclination of many people and whole countries to react to a world of violence and insecurity by closing themselves into tribes and erect barriers and walls”

Of course, Poland is not on its own when it comes to embracing the European right-wing discourse. Similar sentiments can also be seen all across Europe. However, what might be unique about Polish nationalism is its possible underlying cause, so-called Polish EU exodus. For example, Krzysztof Bosak, of the ultra-nationalist organisation National Movement in Poland, claimed that the right-wing support is partially influenced by:

young [Polish] people returning from working in countries such as Britain. “So many young people travelled to work in western countries, and then came back and told their friends and families what was going on in western Europe

I’m one of the thousands of Polish citizens who migrated to Western Europe after Poland joined the EU in 2004. My narrative of “what is going on in western Europe” is mostly positive. In 2005, I came to Scotland, where I’m currently writing my Ph.D. in digital culture and social impact. As an immigrant, I mainly source my political news online. My views are liberal. I tend to navigate towards so-called, left-wing and pro-European sources of information. Professionally and personally, I have always aligned myself with human rights, gender equality, and social justice activists.

Nonetheless, I’m trying to be critical when it comes to getting my information online and am keen to ensure that my sources are credible and most importantly — fact-checked.

In 2018, Misinformation [mis-in-fer-mey-shuhn] was announced as word of the year by dictionary.com. Misinformation is defined as false information that is spread, regardless of whether there is intent to mislead. According to Jane Solomon, a linguist-in-residence at Dictionary.com, the choice of “mis” over “dis” was deliberate, intended to serve as a “call to action” to be vigilant in the battle against fake news, flat earthers and anti-vaxxers, among other conduits [source: The Guardian]

Anger seems to be the most viral emotion online. Negative, shocking and often false stories travel “farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information” (Ouellett, 2018). As misinformation has become endemic in the online social systems, hardly anyone can tell if they are being manipulated — including myself and my family. Misinformation, propaganda and trolling play an important role in the Polish politics.

A recent analysis of Polish social media landscape proves that there are more than twice as many suspicious right-wing Twitter accounts as there are left-wing accounts.

Accounts describing leftism as “cancer which is devouring Poland” or framing left-leaning individuals as “criminally insane or subhuman”, might be more visible for Polish Twitter users. Meaning that twice as many Polish Twitter users are likely to be exposed to examples of pseudoscience questioning the validity of my leftist’s existence. Are members of my family among them? Probably not. Twitter is not on their agenda yet. However, if Facebook is similarly contaminated with misinformation, then this would explain my family’s irrational behaviour.

Image source: https://bloom.bg/2FRqe1V

However, analysis of misinformation in Poland can be particularly difficult. According to Gorwa, it is also “incredibly challenging to meaningfully study “fake news” when the state-backed television channel, TVP, has repeatedly been shown to itself be propagating objectively false information, and when media outlets are viewed as inherently partisan in some way or another” (2017). To make things even more complicated, this study by Tworzecki and Markowski found that in Poland:

  1. “incorrect perceptions of facts dissonant with one’s partisan outlook are more pronounced among those who consume information from politically less diverse sources and who thus have fewer opportunities to correct their perceptions;
  2. the level of knowledge interacts with the strength of partisanship in such a way that the more knowledgeable partisans are more prone to misperceptions concerning dissonant facts”

Finally, there is a problem of lack of neutral online platforms for debate on Polish politics. As a result, trolling and spamming in the comments sections have become common ways to express one’s political anger. Thus, activists and journalists are particularly likely to “be caught in the crossfire, especially those that become visible in the public media”.

“Trolling is an everyday thing”, said one digital-rights advocate, “All activists know it is a part of their life now” (Gorwa, 2017, p.10).

As the misinformation landscape has become more complex than ever, I often worry that a large part of Polish society might have :

“reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and nothing was true… ”.

(Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism)

Is the misinformed mind simply trapped in the ‘thought-defying’ info processing cycle?

Online trolling and misinformation seem to be everyday occurrences online in Poland. Does this mean that offline trolling is now also socially acceptable — even at the Christmas table?

I decided to write this post to analyse and possibly understand my traumatic Christmas Eve. I don’t live in Poland and try not to pretend that I know what it’s like to live there. I’d never dare to insist that my beliefs and mindset are the only valid ones. I realise that heated political debates are important and needed in a healthy democracy.

However, I’m also quite worried that with the amounts of misinformation it is impossible to share my inclusive vision of the world (without sounding like a naive lefty or a patronising academic!). As anger and fear get more clicks than positive stories of hope — how can I make ideas of compassion and tolerance sound attractive?

To process my misinformation Christmas trauma, I have considered the following propositions:

1.Several members of my family are worried about the future of humanity and want me to be on their side to fight for the right cause. Their actions motivated by love and care. They are simply worried about my mental well-being and want me to get things right.

2. Several members of my family are severely misinformed. They are stuck in their ways of ‘thought-defying’ actions , unable to adopt a critical mind-set while sourcing information online

3. Several members of my family hate me and have an inner need to fight my beliefs no matter what ( I’d rather exclude this possibility for now).

My Christmas misinformation experience made me think about many things related to our digital and non-digital lives. For example, the importance of a non-politicised approach to digital literacy and media for people of all ages and abilities. I also wondered about the role of empathy and curiosity in one’s life. Finally, the role of personal and practical experiences of diverse communities, ideas, and cultures. Could a magic combination of all of the above help us to enhance our inner wisdom and become more aware of how we view ourselves and others both online and offline? I’m not sure.

This year’s Christmas Eve was emotionally draining and I’m still trying to recover from some of the statements I heard at the table. Framing my personal problem within a wider context certainly helped me to understand some of the possible reasons behind my family’s actions. There are, of course, loads of other motives still in their heads, which I will never be able to analyse nor understand. I’m also aware that no amount of science will help me to rebuild my relationship with my family and only time will help us to heal some of the emotional (and intellectual) wounds.

Moving forward, I’m going to stick my beliefs and fight back misinformation, discrimination, and hate whenever I can.

“In a time when society is drowning in tsunamis of misinformation, it is possible to change the world for the better if we repeat the truth often and loud enough.” ― Alberto Cairo, The Truthful Art: Data, Charts, and Maps for Communication

Dr Alicja Pawluczuk (AKA hy_stera) writes about digital humanities, feminism, and social justice → www.alicjapawluczuk.com + www.hystera.online