Have you ever had an imaginary friend? Children sometimes imagine such fictional figures to have some company. The editors of Energetyka24 website went a step further: that created a fictitious expert who managed to enter the industry debate, obtain sensitive information from the circle of one of the government ministers and even to publish an article on one of the largest business portals in Poland. As they write on their website, „We did all of these – using only Twitter and email accounts – to see how alert journalists, politicians and experts are. The effects turned out to be shocking and exposed the weakness of the Polish state, ineffective against the mechanisms of information war.” VSquare republishes excerpts of the story – with the authors’ permission.
Is it possible to create an energy expert within a few hours, one who would manage to build a big contact base in a few weeks and to influence the industry discussion? As it turned out – it is. The “living” example for this is Piotr Niewiechowicz, an oil and gas market specialist, who was created in the privacy of Energetyka24 editorial office as part of an undercover work.
Acting only through an account on Twitter and a mailbox, our expert was able to obtain sensitive and non-public information about one of the most important investments in Polish history, to publish a completely unmeritorious article, and get a possibility of sharing manipulative materials with one of the opposition leaders, as well as establish contacts with many representatives of the energy industry.
Through a private, direct Twitter message, Niewiechowicz managed to be in touch with a member of the team of Piotr Naimski – the special plenipotentiary of the Polish government for critical infrastructure. It is worth noting that it was the man from the politician’s circle, who wrote first to our expert – in a private message. He repeatedly shared with Niewiechowicz some sensitive information about the most important energy project of the government of the last decade – the Baltic Pipe. This gas pipeline is extremely important as its creation is a condition for Poland’s real energy independence from Gazprom.
During a conversation with the member of Minister Naimski’s team at the beginning of this year, Niewiechowicz was informed, among others, about discussions with the Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 consortium. The context showed what the talks were about, however, for the good of those negotiations, we have decided not to disclose the details.
It was also shocking that Niewiechowicz was informed about the assessment of the implementation of the (Baltic Pipe creation – VSquare) schedule that had been done by the minister’s collaborator. The member of Piotr Naimski’s team estimated the probability of the project’s implementation – and it was not positive for the schedule.
We can not disclose details (of the conversation – VSquare) for the interest of the state – publicizing such sensitive data would undermine the project. It is worth noting though that any delay in the schedule of this gas pipeline creation, may mean the need to extend the contract between Polish PGNiG and Gazprom, most likely under unfavorable conditions.
Mr Niewiechowicz in the media
As part of the provocation (in Polish, „journalism provocation” means more or less „undercover journalism” – VSquare), we decided to check not only the vigilance and counterintelligence protection of politicians, but also the skills of our colleagues. For this reason, we prepared a story on the possible impact of porpoises on the construction of the Baltic Pipe gas pipeline. Information it contained was questionable in terms of content reliability and relatively easy to verify for an industry journalist. As part of „bait casting”, we published messages on Piotr Niewiechowicz’s public Twitter account, in which he informed that he was looking for a place to publish his articles, and secondly that soon one of ecological organizations would launch an information campaign about the hazards posed by the Baltic Pipe to porpoises. Then, we wrote to the editor-in-chief of one of the largest business portals in Poland, asking whether he would agree to publish the article on the topic on his website.
The answer was positive, and after a few days an article by Piotr Niewiechowicz appeared – on the front page, in the most visible place of this website.
Niewiechowicz and friends
While running the Twitter account of our expert, we often entered into discussions with representatives of the energy sector. We tried to regularly send some rumors about the sector in the ether. We also published information – often accompanied by photographs – indicating that Mr. Niewiechowicz appeared at various conferences and events. Thanks to this, we quite quickly gained credence in the eyes of journalists, officials and businessmen working in the industry.
This situation opened up the possibility of spreading disinformation and manipulative information among experts who deal with energy issues. Of course, this was not our goal – however, the speed with which we gained this opportunity was impressive. It is also astonishing that none of the people we talked to, asked publicly: who is Piotr Niewiechowicz?
Mr. Niewiechowicz goes to the parliament
In the final stage of the project, we decided to check whether our fake expert could influence the political life in the country. We sent a poor quality text with a large number of inaccuracies to a few politicians. Due to the fact that we decided to finish the project and publish its results as soon as possible, we did not pay too much attention to this move. However, one of the leaders of the opposition replied to our correspondence. He thanked for the materials received, and informed that he would like to “use Piotr Niewiechowicz’s expert knowledge on energy for substantive cooperation” and assured that soon we could count on contact from his assistant.
And that indeed occurred. After a few days we received … an email from the politician’s assistant, who asked for a detailed description of the matter that we had addressed in the first message.
If then, for example, it would have been a foreign country’s intelligence service standing behind Niewiechowicz, he would be able to easily pump completely false information into the parliamentary circulation. Luckily, we as journalists only wanted to check how leaky the Polish political world is in this type of situations.
What went wrong?
The case of Piotr Niewiechowicz exposes the huge problems of the Polish state, whose institutions have to face the reality of the information war, including one on energy level. As it turns out, people working on key investments in energy security sector do not have sufficient counterintelligence protection.
On the other hand, the media, that is “the fourth estate”, cannot separate the grains from the chaff and in the course of everyday editorial work, they crave for unconfirmed sensations, thus generate fake news. Deficiencies in information security are also visible within the parliament. What exactly does not work in the mechanisms of Polish institutions?
The virtual distance of the information war
Many opinion leaders who create the course of public debate in Poland downplay or even do not allow themselves to be aware that there is a real information war, ran by several powerful centers. That information war completely deviates from the colloquial understanding of that concept – rifles, tanks and rockets are now replaced by tweets, propaganda narratives and fake news. However, the bloodlessness of the conflict does not make it less serious.
Information wars affect our reality not to a lesser extent than conventional ones – often change the borders, decide about billions of profits or losses, and above all – about human life.
Piotr Niewiechowicz’s activity also puts the effectiveness of counterintelligence protection into question – persons almost directly involved in the project, which is crucial for the security of the state, interacted with an unknown account on Twitter, with whom they shared secret information, even about international relations.
Rejuvenation of offices
In the Polish public administration, politicians usually treat their political cabinets as a logistical and organizational base. Young people – often with little experience, join them but treat such work as a gateway to a great political career. Because of their ambitions, lack of substantive preparation and young age, they are a potential target for foreign counties’ intelligence.
Sensationalism and plain negligence
It is worth recalling once again that all the above-mentioned achievements of Mr. Niewiechowicz are an effect of minimal work efforts and time spent on it. As it turned out, it does not take much to become a self-proclaimed expert in the Polish reality, one who within a few weeks is able to enter into close relations with politicians, journalists and experts. That allows for an easy intoxication of those groups. Imagine then what professionals can do – the ones who have great knowledge and money, and who are able to spend it on moderating the debate in a given industry for years. For us, realizing this is perhaps the most valuable and terrifying legacy of Piotr Niewiechowicz.
The story by Piotr Maciążek and Jakub Wiech as excerpts has been republished from energetyka24.pl and translated from Polish.