Putin’s Orchestra: The Conductor and The Choir
by Julia Dauksza and Mariusz Sepioło
War has triggered a new mechanism among Confederation supporters: previous anti-vaxxers now hunt – both online and on the streets – people of colour.
Since the war started, the anti-vaxxer section has been playing in the Kremlin orchestra, lead by covid denialists and Confederation party members, with Grzegorz Braun at the forefront.
Who is behind the anti-vaxxers’ network in Polish social media?
This article was originally published in Polish on FRONTSTORY.PL
1 March 2022, dawn, somewhere in Poland. A car with four passengers sets off in the direction of Polish-Ukrainian border. A blonde woman in a stylish pink winter hat sits on the front passenger seat. She is streaming live, using her smartphone. Her video will be posted on Rebel24 Facebook profile (it has almost 60,000 followers). The purpose of this trip is simple: a group of friends want to ‘check’ whether Ukrainians, who cross the border in Medyka in numbers, really flee their country because of war, or just ‘look for an opportunity to slip through into Western Europe’.
Pandemic, alienation and Soros
The blonde woman is Jowita Kowszyn-Sumara, an editor of Rebel24.pl and czujny.pl websites (publishing fake, anti-vaccine news, niche articles, and actively supporting Confederation party).
She is the leader of a social movement called “Victims of the system, united we are stronger.” It is an anti-vaxxer group that sees itself as one of the pillars of Confederation party. “Victims” members were on Confederation ticket during the recent parliamentary elections (none was elected to Sejm), and organized anti-vaccination rallies in Warsaw, “officially” calling the pandemic off. Thus far, Kowszyn-Sumara has focused her efforts on anti-vaccination activity. She often introduces herself as a “member of parliamentary teams for preventive vaccination programme for children and adults, and for counteracting parental alienation.” But we won’t find her name among the members of those two teams. The first one was dissolved, (its vice-chairman was Paweł Skutecki, then a member of Confederation party) the second one is still active. The thing is, Kowszyn-Sumara is not, and never was, a member of the Polish parliament.
During her trip, she is accompanied by Grzegorz Hercuń and Udo Leibmann (also known as Udo the Bavarian). They are close associates of Justyna Socha, a leader of anti-vaccination group called STOP NOP.
Car is heading towards its destination. Through an open window, Kowszyn-Sumara talks with an unknown woman who, supposedly, lives near the border. She posts this video on Facebook. “We are concerned,” says the woman. “A lot of other races cross here… I have friends in the police, and they tell all kinds of stories, like you know… On one hand, there is a wall being built. But on the other, everyone crosses just like that, because it’s an opportunity, right?”
Kowszyn asks questions: How many refugees seek help? How many use the war as an excuse to enter Poland? How many of them are not Ukrainians (meaning, people of colour)?
From the backseat, Udo Leibmann adds his shrewd geopolitical analysis: Ukrainian Maidan, just like the rising tide of refugees, is “financed by [George] Soros. It’s no wonder they move through Ukraine, and into Poland.”
Facebook recommends Rebel24
Anti-vaxxers visit a border crossing, railway station in Przemyśl, and Kyivan Hall in Korczowa, a reception point for refugees. The crew films tents and military equipment, and every person who doesn’t appear to be of European descent, assailing them with questions. But the show is stolen by a Polish paramedic, whose words are music to anti-vaxxers’ ears: “Only 20% are mothers with children,” he says, looking at the camera.
It’s not true. Polish Border Guard records from 9 March 2022 show that 93% of refugees are Ukrainian citizens. Mostly women, as men aged 18 to 65 are not allowed to leave the country given the imposed martial law (BG records don’t show the gender of refugees).
Rebel24 crew gets emotional. One can hear them shouting: “We need to kick them all to the curb!”
Similar scenes filmed at the border will soon be posted online by various sources, and they will spread through Facebook profiles like fire. Members of other anti-vaccination groups, like Zachodnia Wataha (Western Pack) or Wolni Strzelcy (Freelancers), and “journalists” from “independent local media” sympathizing with Confederation party will crowd railway stations and bus depots, looking for people of non-European origin. One of those fake-news FB pages is called Wiadomości Płock (Płock News). It is posting videos filmed at Dworzec Wschodni (Eastern Station) in Warsaw. In those films, a presenter asks volunteers, who help refugees, why there are African people getting off the trains. When he hears that they have studied in Ukraine (80,000 foreign students studied at Ukrainian universities before the war), and have fled the country because of war, like everybody else, he bluntly declares that they were not vetted by proper services and therefore may pose a threat.
Since 28 February, content discouraging Poles from helping refugees, mainly in the form of unconfirmed anecdotes or stories, has been distributed through Facebook, Twitter and Telegram, gaining ever-growing attention. Furthermore, Facebook algorithms help in spreading racist messages. On 1 March, Facebook recommended Rebel24 account as trending – more than 26,000 users commented on its ‘report from the border’.
Some comments left on posts covering searches for refugees of non-European origin mention “chemical weapons laboratories” located in Ukraine and “invasion of black immigrants.”
Przemyśl: the hunt for a refugee
On 1 March, Instytut Badań Internetu i Mediów Społecznościowych (IBIMS, Internet and Social Media Research Institute), which has been publishing reports on Polish infosphere since the start of Russian invasion, warned about “a shift from anti #Covid19 communication to anti #refugees, and anti #Ukraine communication by most accounts/groups.” Similar trend was observed by Czech Cyber Elves (a network of volunteers fighting disinformation).
In late February and early March, anti-refugee mood is stirred up by an account called Narodowy Lublin (Nationalist Lublin). It’s a far-right group known for not very popular street protests (e.g. “Lublin is a city with no freaks”) but very active online. Narodowy Lublin “fights” with “Banderians” and vaccines on Twitter and Facebook (the account was deleted few times before).
Anti-refugee rhetoric is strengthened by far-right influencers. Piotr Szlachtowicz, author of “Pandemic of Censorship”, forewarns: “Those who didn’t make it the first time, through the border with Belarus, now enter our country!”
Football hooligans, who participated in the “Cursed Soldiers’ Day” event in Lublin, set off for Przemyśl where German volunteers of Hindu origin are assaulted on the street. “Citizen Patrols” organized on Facebook groups roam around the town, searching for people who don’t resemble typical white Europeans. They are applauded on Twitter by Grzegorz Braun and Confederation party members with ties to Ruch Narodowy (National Movement). Andrzej Zapałowski, a local city councillor with ties to Confederation party, who became famous for his anti-Ukrainian speeches, praises the vigilantes.
The next day, IBIMS publishes another alert, informing about a “severe radicalization of anti-refugee groups active mainly on anti #COVID channels.” In other words, former anti-vaxxers suddenly started to oppose refugees.
Anti-vaccination channels form a social media information infrastructure that has been growing steadily over the last few years in Poland. These channels helped to spread fuel panic (Poles started to stock up fuel en masse) and managed to inflict racist attacks in Przemyśl, just five days after the war in Ukraine started. We have looked closer at those chunks of disinformation infrastructure.
Freedom that smells like Kremlin
At the end of February, just two days after Russian invasion, Grzegorz Hercuń, a prominent Polish anti-vaxxer and leader of Strażnicy Wolności (Freedom Guardians) movement (a group opposing mandatory vaccinations, restrictions, and, since recently, the influx of refugees) muses on Facebook why a journalist reporting from Kyiv wears a helmet, and then points to elderly women in the background who carry groceries as if nothing happened.
Hercuń, an antique trader from Dzierżoniów, and a former PiS and Confederation member, knows how to use social media. Since pandemic started, he has been attending the so-called “freedom marches” organized all around Poland, along with Justyna Socha, an anti-vaccination movement leader. Strażnicy Wolności have their own website, Facebook group, and YouTube channel with over 20,000 subscribers. On top of that, they moderate nine groups on Telegram – their main channel has 16,800 members. Hercuń’s Facebook page is followed by 452,500 users. Since the start of Russian invasion of Ukraine, all channels and media belonging to antique trader has been distributing disinformation consistent with Kremlin propaganda.
In first days of war, Hercuń publishes videos with supposedly live streams from Ukrainian cities. They show no military actions, bombardments, or burning buildings. Conclusions? Mainstream media lie about war. Comments are full of ironic jibes: “What a bombardment :)”. “So peaceful and quiet :)”. At that exact time, Russian propaganda denies that the war even started.
Hercuń records videos with Piotr Rubas, author of quite a few false theories, who claims that vaccines “prompt the production of Sars-Cov-2 protein in human organism.” Rubas claims to be an internist working in Germany, but we won’t find his name in Polish or German medical registers. Demagog.org.pl portal checked that Rubas’ name was on the Polish register in 2020-21. Fact-checking portal Afp.sprawdzam.com contacted directors of medical institutions listed by Rubas as his former places of employment, but no one ever heard his name before. On videos posted by Hercuń, Rubas now poses as an expert on geopolitics and Ukraine.
On 15 March, Telegram group of Strażnicy Wolności (with 17,400 members) publish few disinformation posts: i.a. about Ukrainian forces killing civilians in Donbas, suspicious Ukrainian bio-labs, and president Zelenskyy portraying him as a clown who came to power with a help of Jews.
A trip to the border crossing in Medyka is just another opportunity for Hersuń to play in Putin’s propaganda orchestra.
Stop Sanitary Segregation
On 24 February, just as war starts, Deputies’ Service Bureau receives six notifications regarding new social aides hired by MP Grzegorz Braun. Among them are Katarzyna Szadkowska and Tomasz Maron. Szadkowska posts fake news about pandemic and vaccinations on her social media accounts. Since the start of invasion, she has also criticized those who help refugees, which was noticed by Konkret24.pl portal.
Grzegorz Braun still fights on the anti-vaccination front. On 1 March, he tussles with former Minister of Health, Łukasz Szumowski, squawking about “sanitary segregation.”
Initiators and animators of anti-vaccination movement in Poland, Justyna Socha, Piotr Jawornik (both leaders of STOP NOP association) and Paweł Skutecki, are also Braun’s close associates (Skutecki until 16 March). Social media analysis shows how close this cooperation really is. We have analysed (using tools like Pulsar and Hashtagify) how “Stop Sanitary Segregation” hashtag and most popular anti-vaccination hashtags related to that slogan spread on Twitter in the last 12 months.
Hashtag #stopsegregacjisanitarnej was first used in Polish internet by Grzegorz Braun. “Please, ask minister @michaldworczyk if there will be an option to choose a tattoo on one’s forearm. And one more thing to consider: some colour badges, like a triangle with letter “P” on one’s heart, perhaps? #StopSegregacjiSanitarnej,” posted Braun on Twitter in December, alluding to news about vaccination certificates with QR codes.
„Stop Sanitary Segregation” hashtag appears on banners during March for Freedom organized by Braun’s associates from STOP NOP on 19 of December 2020. Three days later, Confederation of the Polish Crown, a party formed by Braun in 2019 as part of Coalition Liberty and Independence, launches a petition, urging local communes to counteract “social exclusion of communes’ residents due to sanitary reasons.”
STOP NOP has been organizing Marches for Freedom every month since the pandemic started. Braun delivered speeches on each occasion. Hashtag #stopsegregacjisanitarnej registers maximum reaches in November and December 2021, when Polish Sejm debates a motion submitted by Confederation to ban vaccination certificate controls by events’ organizers and employers. Due to public uproar (hashtag #stopsegregacjisanitarnej is mentioned 60,000 on Twitter alone), the motion is rejected, but so are the government bills that would allow employers to verify if their employees had been vaccinated.
Actions organized by members of STOP NOP and Confederation party are not random or coincidental, and neither is the hashtag. In francophone countries, #stopdictaturesanitaire has been trending at least since May 2020 (it is mentioned over 453,000 times). Authors of “Antisemitism and anti-vax discourse in Europe” report published by Media Diversity Institute pointed out that “Anti-vax conspiracists often compare the current pandemic restrictions to Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, considering themselves as persecuted minorities within their own countries. These parallels are seen in all of the researched countries.” (i.e. Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Great Britain and Poland.)
Another example of copying and adapting narratives used abroad by Polish anti-vaxxers and Grzegorz Braun is the “Committee of Inquiry Nuremberg 2.0.”
Braun formed this fictional “committee” in November 2021. Since then, its members met occasionally to discuss how Polish authorities abuse their power through counter-pandemic actions (committee of inquiry can’t be formed without a proper resolution, and those need to be adopted by Sejm first). “Rzeczpospolita” newspaper reported that Braun’s fictional committee – in truth, a kind of a parliamentary grouping – consists of only four Confederation party MPs, but its meetings are attended by Jacek Wilk (former Confederation party member), aforementioned Andrzej Zapałowski and another right-wing politician, Mirosław Piotrowski.
Anti-vaxxer v 2.0 International
“Committee of Inquiry Nuremberg 2.0” came to be as a merger of two ideas. STOP NOP Facebook group (now deleted) and its Telegram channel were previously named “Committee of Inquiry COVID-1984,” as described by OKO.Press. “Nuremberg 2.0” has a much more interesting origin. Analysing hashtags used concurrently with #StopSegregacjiSanitarnej and #Norymberga2, we came across a foreign online social bubble. It’s made of people who support conspiracy theories and QAnon movement. They frequently use #Nuremberg2021, #Nuremberg2 and #NurembergCode hashtags, and claim that vaccines and covid restrictions violate the so-called Nuremberg Code drew up in 1947, after the Nazi war criminals’ trials. It is a set of ethical principles for human experimentation. According to QAnon supporters, officials fighting pandemic will be held to account for their actions during “new Nuremberg trials.” This theory gained popularity mainly in Canada and among Donald Trump supporters in the first half of 2021, so long before Braun’s activities.
Grzegorz Braun and Justyna Socha crossed paths with QAnon movement much earlier. In August 2020, STOP NOP members and German QAnon supporters protested against the “plandemic” in Berlin. Video showing German lawyer, Reiner Fuellmich, who “testified” before Braun’s “committee of inquiry”, is distributed on American social media as proof that fighting covid can be tried as ‘a crime against humanity’.
Recent analysis conducted by Slovak think tank Infosecurity.sk and Jan Kuciak Investigation Center (ICJK) shows that accounts tied with anti-vaccination and QAnon movements changed course shortly after the war started, and now publish anti-Ukrainian posts, actively supporting Kremlin’s propaganda. A similar trend was observed on the Czech and Slovak internet.
Analysis of hashtags used in Polish internet suggests that #stopsegregacjisanitarnej was promoted mainly by official account of Confederation party and accounts of its members: Witold Tumanowicz, Artur Dziambor, Robert Winnicki and Grzegorz Braun, who received help from Anna Maria Siarkowska and Dariusz Matecki, both members of PiS. Accounts that, until recently, published anti-vaccination content also played an important role in this process.
Accounts tied to #stopsegregacjisanitarnej movement, and used as a research sample, started promoting the anti-Ukrainian narrative after Russian invasion. The most active anti-vaxxers distributed fake news about a group of children locked up in American bioweapon lab located on Snake Island, who were saved by Putin’s actions. Curiously enough, these posts emerged before Russian propaganda tried to change the narrative by blaming Ukraine for bioweapon research.
Furthermore, DFRLab analysis showed that accounts belonging to Confederation party members played a major role in strengthening anti-refugee narrative, which resulted in “citizen patrols” being formed by football hooligans on the streets of Przemyśl.
Narrative from Russia, money from Gliński
When Russia invades Ukraine, MP Braun uses Twitter to warn against the growing and uncontrollable influx of refugees. (“Today from Ukraine, tomorrow from God knows where.”) He also claims, Ukrainians are treated better than Poles because they can cross borders without vaccination certificates, and criticizes special resolution which, in his opinion, guarantees social benefits to Ukrainians at the expense of their Polish hosts.
Similar content is posted on social media by Braun’s aides. One of them, Justyna Socha, laments on her Facebook account about public attention being focused on Ukraine, while Poles are “being fired for saying no to the needle.”
Until recently, Socha and Braun appeared quite frequently in Russian media. In the interview given to Polish edition of Sputnik News website, Braun said that he has a “kosher certificate” confirming he’s not “a Russian agent.” Russian edition cited his words – “You will hang” – addressed to Minister of Health, Adam Niedzielski. The same quote appeared on the website of Izvestia newspaper owned by national Media Group, which in turn is controlled by Kremlin.
Another of Braun’s aides, Paweł Skutecki, gave interviews to openly pro-Russian websites like Sputnik and Xportal. Skutecki is an anti-vaxxer, former MP, and former member of Kukiz’15 party (he was Braun’s associate until March 2022). In 2018, as member of Polish parliament, he met personally with Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and Mohammad Raad, one of Hezbollah leaders, in Lebanon. Strange ties and acquaintances of Skutecki were covered by Wprost magazine in 2018. Even then, former MP’s activities were strangely in line with Russian propaganda.
“His consecutive political activities, starting with the Middle East, where he got in touch, first with Hezbollah, and then with Syrian regime, and ending with active support of anti-vaccination movement, follow a pattern set by Russian Federation propaganda,” noticed authors of the aforementioned article, Anna Gielewska and Artur Grabek.
Talking to journalists, Skutecki described Assad as an intelligent and friendly man. When asked about his opinion on Russian actions in Ukraine (after the annexation of Crimea), he said: “I have none.”
Skutecki stands at the vanguard of anti-vaccination movement. As early as 2018, he participated in STOP NOP march, and said: “Poles are often more educated than doctors who vaccinate their children.” During the pandemic, he wrote a text published by website belonging to We Shall be Poles Foundation (Skutecki is one of its founders), claiming that vaccines are ‘a medical experiment which will lead to new kind of segregation, and new form of apartheid’.
We Shall be Poles Foundation also published a book co-authored by Skutecki, titled “COVID-1984. Biggest Illegal Medical Experiment in Poland.”
Strangely enough, Skutecki’s foundation gets money from government budget. In 2019, it received around 130,000 euros as a grant from Narodowy Instytut Wolności (National Freedom Institute) supervised by Minister of Culture, Piotr Gliński.
Skutecki tried to form a political party called Zjednoczeni (United). OKO.Press wrote in 2020 that this endeavour was based on two ideas: opposition to vaccines and 5G technology. Another of Braun’s social aides and anti-vaxxer from STOP NOP, Piotr Jawornik, also protested against 5G technology.
Skutecki’s party was going to get support from Braun. Jowita Kowszyn-Sumara from Rebel24 portal, the same one who went on a trip to Przemyśl, looking for African refugees, was proposed as a member of the board.
Transfer to United Poland
United party was never registered. All that is left is a Facebook group with 13,300 members.
Another person that was connected with Skutecki’s political project is Krzysztof Dzierżanowski. Recently, he became the president of a company that run a hostel in Warsaw, and provide various services for foreigners, i.a. help in securing work permits or EU resident status. Dzierżanowski uses his Twitter account to promote anti-vaccination and anti-Semitic content.
Dzierżanowski’s associate, Marek Majcher alias The Vigilant (he runs czujny.pl portal and employs the author of Rebel24.pl website), assaulted Bronisław Komorowski with a chair during presidential election campaign in 2015. He was acquitted of the assault charge, but was convicted of publicly insulting a former president. A warrant for his arrest was issued after he kidnapped his own son. He went to prison in 2018 and 2020. For many years, he was an active football hooligan.
After the start of pandemic, Majcher attended street protests, protesting against vaccines and restrictions. In May 2020, he stood outside Roman Szełemej’s house, mayor of Wałbrzych, shouting: “Szełemej – Mengele!” Using his website, he helped in spreading anti-vaccine disinformation and thus gained popularity. His Facebook page is viewed by over 235,000 users.
In January 2020, Paweł Skutecki joined Solidarna Polska (United Poland) party. He works closely with Mariusz Kałużny, deputy head of parliamentary grouping for sanitation, who openly oppose vaccination programme.
Team members submit interpellations, disputing validity of restrictions and asking the Minister of Health for their justification. Parliamentary grouping for sanitation is led by Anna Maria Siarkowska from Law and Justice party. It consists mainly of Confederation party members, including MP Grzegorz Braun.
Authors: Julia Dauksza, Mariusz Sepioło
Contribution: Anastasiia Morozova
Expert consultancy: Anna Gielewska