The operation ‘Lame Rebellion’

Wojciech Cieśla, Konrad Szczygieł (Fundacja Reporterów) 2019-11-04
Wojciech Cieśla, Konrad Szczygieł (Fundacja Reporterów) 2019-11-04

Renata Kopacz has a Twitter account under the name of ‘Mrs Renatka’. Her background photo is a crossed out Law and Justice’s (PiS) logo and she has added two hashtags to her profile description: #AntiPiS and #StrongTogether. Renata claims all her posts are her own opinions. She retweets mostly Polish opposition politicians and journalists and is followed by nearly 2,000 users.

According to her Facebook profile description, Magda Rostocka is interested in running and aviation. She describes herself on Twitter as ‘a left-handed person with a heart on the right side, voting for PiS’ and has 4,300 followers. She usually retweets her own posts or comments published by a right-wing troll named PikuśPOl, journalist Rafał Ziemkiewicz and PiS MP Anna Sobecka.

It is hard to imagine two personas more different than Kopacz and Rostocka, who often argue on Twitter. Yet they have something in common: they both work for the same troll farm. They are not real persons, however: both accounts are fake and run by a single person who is paid to do so.

We have discovered the modus operandi of the largest identified Internet troll farm in Poland, found out who the trolls work for and why they carry out disinformation campaigns on both Facebook and Twitter.

Wrocław investigation

January 2019. Old communist office block in suburban Wrocław. Agents of Poland’s Central Anti-Corruption Bureau (CBA) are carrying out binders from a small room on the third floor. Two desks, a coatrack and a file cabinet are squeezed into the confined space. This is one of the headquarters of Cat@Net company – which, according to their webpage, is an ‘ePR agency comprising of specialists who build a positive image of companies, private individuals and public administration institutions – mostly in social media.’

Only two brief media reports are published about the intervention. However, both contain something that will trigger off our six-month’s investigation: the probe of Cat@Net is linked to the detention of Bartłomiej Misiewicz and his alleged illegal conduct within the Polish Armament Group (PGZ).

Misiewicz, 29, used to be an assistant to Poland’s former minister of defence Antoni Macierewicz. He is surrounded by many secrets – for many years he was the closest associate of Macierewicz after all. Several years ago, Misiewicz became the face of a conservative revolution called “Good Change” and is a typical PiS activists – while working with the government he had no university degree and no military background, and his only work experience was a short stint at a local chemist’s.

Misiewicz, with his protector’s – i.e. minister’s – support is appointed member of supervisory boards of several state-controlled companies, the most important of which is PGZ, one of Europe’s biggest defence groups (over 50 entities, employs more than 18,000 people).

In January 2019, Misiewicz is arrested over corruption allegations in PGZ, among others. When CBA agents entered Wrocław-based Cat@Net, our journalists were also tracing disinformation as part of Investigate Europe project. After Brexit and elections in America and Catalunya, we know the Internet to be the space for extensive manipulation and propaganda. — What is the real Internet propaganda like? It is not clueless bombarding recipients with as many messages as possible, it is more like acting effectively and efficiently to find narrative techniques which will appeal to people and influence them. We call it a success when people interact with us – explains, during one of the interviews we’ve done during the research, a businessman who in 2015 worked online for PiS.

X, our source from among Polish politicians, says: “You are looking for trolls? The Wrocław-based Cat@Net is a classic troll farm. They have built a model in which the state supports dissemination of fake news. Because the company employs disabled people, it gets a subsidy from the National Disabled Persons Rehabilitation Fund. The employees sit in front of computers and send messages and moderate conversations using hundreds of fictitious accounts. They work for Poland’s public television and the arms industry”.

A troll farm, Cat@Net, Misiewicz, public television? We decide it is high time to look closer at this puzzle.

A fake Twitter account

Cat@Net has been in business for a couple of years. As the company claims on their webpage, ‘We operate inconspicuously and with the necessary caution to deal with delicate matters. … There is no misleading the public, we present facts only.’

March 2019. While looking for anything on Cat@Net, we find out that our source was right: the company employs people with disabilities and therefore can offer tax relief to its clients. Maciej, a former Cat@Net client, says: “When I realised how they operate, I was speechless. They employ people on wheelchairs, with serious disabilities, this is why their clients are offered lower prices for Internet trolling. Each big company in Poland has to pay contributions to the National Disabled Persons Rehabilitation Fund and by using services provided by Cat@Net, these contributions may be reduced. Besides, Cat@Net gets a subsidy from the National Disabled Persons Rehabilitation Fund.”

As we established, Cat@Net has received about 1.5 million zlotys from the Fund since November 2015. 

We come across a job posting that says Cat@Net is looking for a ‘telecommuter,’ preferably somebody with a severe disability, as it would entail a larger subsidy from the disabled persons fund. The person employed would be responsible for ‘building a positive image of our customers in social media and the Internet.’

Katarzyna has been studying to become a journalist and is looking for a job. Yet searching the web, you will find no information linking her to the Reporters’ Foundation, Investigate Europe or Newsweek, the teams of which have been working on this story. With some experience in ePR, she is a perfect cut for the job.

Katarzyna sends her CV and after a few weeks she is supposed to meet the Cat@Net manager in a Warsaw shopping centre. The fact that she is not disabled in any way seems no obstacle whatsoever. Katarzyna is offered a three-month trial period with one reservation: persons offering the job cannot reveal who they work for, at least not for now.

April. The first task is to create a Twitter account to share ‘social and political’ content. Katarzyna is supposed to create a profile and identity, make it credible and convincing, and write on current topics. Her goal is to get 500 followers. She opens the ‘Żoliborz Lass’ account with a Polish national flag in her profile description.

Soon the manager (Alicja) gives her another assignment. Katarzyna gets access to an anonymous Twitter account that someone has created before her. She is expected to “like” theatre plays on TVP, the Polish propaganda public television channel controlled by the government, as well as promote TVP Kultura and TVP Historia. How is she supposed to do it? Alicja praises the Cat@Net account working very efficiently for TVP: it is called TVPPolakow_1. She explains how to create Facebook surveys and get views and likes. Alicja emails a short instruction: ‘It would be great if you posted positive comments about the government’s subsidy for TVP and the TV licence fee as part of the high culture narrative. The media with a mission should receive public funding; otherwise they would disappear from the market in favour of such shoddy productions as Hidden Truth [based on German TV-series Family Stories], Big Brother or School [a Polish pseudo-documentary series about students in Poland]. ‘

Late Gdańsk president equated to a sexual abuser

June. Katarzyna has become a trustworthy troll and is invited to a private Cat@Net chat group called the Lame Rebellion. Every day people with different degrees of disability, including those using wheelchairs, meet here and talk. This inside chat is in fact the company’s headquarters. All Internet operations are controlled by two managers who send trolls to react under specific posts or on specific Twitter accounts. The managers decide about what to write and publish (obviously, comments must be different, so that nobody links them to Cat@Net).

One of the first large clients of Cat@Net is Polish public television TVP. Trolls start working for TVP in September 2017, posting comments about the Opole music festival being postponed, defending the channel and its president Jacek Kurski. Among them is TVPolakow_1, a very aggressive Twitter account run by the troll farm manager herself.

While TVP denies working with Cat@Net, we find out that they used an intermediary: a marketing agency called AM Art-Media PR. There were several contracts signed between the agency and TVP. The agency chairman, Ignacy Krasicki, claims he remembers media monitoring operations. ‘The cooperation lasted for several months, but I do not recall the exact time.’ 

Cat@Net accounts work for TVP until the spring 2019. During that time all the trolls must be ready to applaud TVP, day and night. Their MO? When Gdańsk president Paweł Adamowicz is killed during a charity concert, and TVP is accused of hounding him down, trolls working for the television start a massive Internet hate campaign:

  • He had to be there? The only thing he was interested in was gathering as much money as possible, so that some of it fell into his pocket! You should blame Owsiak (charity event’s organiser – VSquare) and nobody else. He did not provide protection for the president and carried on with the event.
  • You need to gain respect while you are still alive.
  • TVP is absolutely innocent. This is an opPOsition’s hate campaign.
  • People are looking for someone to blame and strangely enough they always pick Kurski (Jacek Kurski – TVP president – VSquare). They think they have found their whipping boy.
  • Czerska [Gazeta Wyborcza’s – Polish liberal newspaper – headquarters] launches their manipulative operation and all the KOD and other followers are going to applaud blindly, as they have no brain among them.
  • If Trynkiewicz [Polish serial killer and child sexual abuser] is killed, are you also going to call for respect?

Gutter press and their conspiracy theory

We get hold of a current list of Cat@Net troll accounts. It turns out that are at least 179 of them: 70 on Facebook, 94 on Twitter, 11 on Instagram and three more on YouTube. They are all run by 14 people only. Actually, it is quite a powerful army, as many accounts have thousands of followers and some posts are viewed tens of thousands times.

The accounts are either left-wing or right-wing and are set in motion depending on what happens in Poland. They are supposed to agitate either the Polish left or right and therefore become more credible within a particular group of users, which is a typical disinformation technique.

In may 2019 the Polish Language Council publishes a special report which tears to shreds the language of hate and propaganda used on news tickers in TVP Wiadomości news programme. Trolls are instructed to disinform and to pass the opinion of the pro-PiS Press Freedom Monitoring Centre, which ‘appeals to journalists to be careful and unbiased while quoting the conclusions of the report.’

Who is behind the instructions? The troll farm managers and Art-Media copywriters. We know this from the documents we managed to get hold of. In May 2019 trolls receive a link to a Gazeta Wyborcza article about a report on TVP, for which KRRiTV (Polish National Broadcasting Council) paid almost 80 thousand zlotys. A farm manager divides tasks between trolls:

‘The agency asks to share the post with your comments and add further comments below taking into consideration the following arguments:

  • these are conspiracy theories made by a collapsing newspaper;
  • they are looking for a scandal in relation to a report nobody has seen;
  • you can easily manipulate people while talking about something they have not seen and cannot relate to;
  • maybe a similar report should be prepared for the 30th anniversary of this gutter press representative?

But please, do not copy my arguments, come up with your own ideas based on what I have written. This is the assignment for the right-wing accounts mostly.’

Trolls are confused, because the Gazeta Wyborcza article is behind a paywall. The manager decides: ‘Rely on what I have written. Your posts should mean the same, but use different words. I know the gutter press uses paywalls, yet I got these instructions, so somebody must have read the article.’

The comments are to be published on Twitter, and not directly under the article in question.

The troll farm sends regular reports to TVP, describing the activity of fake accounts. Each troll has to include screenshots of their own comments.

Yet the farm hides the fact that the TVP propaganda is carried out from fake accounts. Before the report is sent, the manager is livid: ‘I told you to blot out the names and avatars! Why aren’t you doing that? Now I have to do everything myself.’

TVP President fights audience ratings

Katarzyna gains access to one of the reports, which discusses the trolls’ activities for TVP in March 2019. The report contains precise calculations: ‘The activities were carried out using the dedicated Twitter profile of TVPolakow_1 and accounts that belong to cooperating micro-influencers on social platforms (Twitter and Facebook). In February, 725 posts were published (97 by TVPolakow_1 and 628 by others) as well as 17 comments left under the texts of indicated authors on news websites.’

As we read in the report: ‘On March 6, news broke that Piotr Owczarski, previously employed at TVP, is going to accuse the company of mobbing, and seek legal assistance from Donald Trump and the European Council. TVPolaków_1, along with other right-wing Cat@Net accounts (micro-influencers), tried to ridicule the attempt to file a lawsuit against Polish public television. Cat@Net’s accounts worked to point out that Mr Owczarski failed to remain objective towards TVP because he was dismissed, while the measures he had undertaken discredited him. The operation was launched from over 60 accounts.’

Cat@Net complains that the situation in TVP is too dynamic. When TVP fires Marzena Paczuska and Piotr Pałka from its management board, right-wing troll accounts leap into action. We read in the report: ‘Right-wing social media profiles expressed satisfaction with the departure of Piotr Pałka, and Cat@Net’s micro-influencers joined in the discussion. Over 50 accounts altogether were involved in the operation.’

The farm looks after the image of TVP President online (after the court’s ruling on Jacek Kurski’s car accident is mentioned in the media). Cat@Net reports: ‘The operation aims to improve the image of the TVP President, who is often accused of reckless driving. The judges determined that he was not solely responsible for the accident that occurred one and a half years ago. Over 80 accounts altogether were involved in the operation.’ It is worth noting that to defend Kurski, the troll farm used more accounts than in other cases involving Polish public television.

The farm also becomes active in autumn of 2018, during TVP’s spat with Nielsen. Jacek Kurski does not like the fact that the public television performs poorly in Nielsen’s audience viewership ratings. While he is trying to use another company’s services instead, trolls become active again (this time they attack Newsweek’s report on this issue, among others):

‘The viewership rating monopolist doesn’t hide that it doesn’t like @TVP. Is this an objective evaluation of the media?!’

‘It has long been argued that Nielsen’s methods are outdated, and the research group itself is unrepresentative. As long as the company is a monopolist, @TVP will always lose, because everyone knows which broadcasters it favours…’

‘Nielsen is considered a pioneer of TV audience viewership ratings. Well, this is one big scam! You can see for yourselves!’

‘Here is proof of how Nielsen, a commercial company, is cheating. Its credibility is non-existent!’

The farm occasionally sets Twitter users against the media:

‘Eating meat causes racism, fascism and xenophobia, such revelations are published by #WysokieObcasy (women-focused liberal magazine – VSquare). It is worth remembering that at the Christmas table!”

‘Warning! We need only 700 more signatures to ban #tvn (commercial TV channel -VSquare)! Polish people refuse to be lobbied by German media! We would like the RT instead. Sign the petition!’

‘Czuchnowski from #gw [GAZETA WYBORCZA], who in 2015 was nominated by the Polish Journalists Association (SDP) for the “Hyena of the Year” award, publicly insulted Minister @Macierewicz_A. We demand that Agora’s Management Board takes appropriate disciplinary measures against him. Pass it on!’

We commission ISD Global, a London-based think-tank that examines online disinformation techniques, to analyse Cat@Net’s campaigns. Coming to the defence of TVP, between September 2017 and May 2019, the company created 10,000 posts. Tweets about TVP and Kurski could have potentially got 15 million views (number of impressions). Unexpectedly, on May 10, the company is ordered to suspend activities in favour of TVP until further notice. From now on, the troll farm focuses on the Twitter account of SLD’s deputy head Andrzej Szejna.

How is SLD’s campaign funded?

The Lame Rebellion is the leading social media player in the campaign of Andrzej Szejna, deputy head of SLD – a Polish left-wing party, a candidate for the European Parliament. Szejna is a lawyer, responsible for international markets at Squire Patton Boggs, a large law firm.

His campaign gets most of the support from leftist accounts. They react to everything he does. A new dedicated chat channel is created at the farm, called “leftist accounts”. All tweets in which Szejna was referenced, are sent there. The farm also activates right-wing accounts –intended to respond to left-wing entries. Why? To create traffic so that people believe Szejna is a popular candidate. We do some fact-checking, and it turns out that most tweets about Szejna have been created by trolls.

Support for Szejna in social networking sites is artificial. The trolls know that what they do is not acceptable. During an internal discussion, one of the employees writes, ‘Krzysiu is right, and we both know it. If Szejna is followed only by our accounts, this is really suspicious.’

At that time, managers admit that it was Krzysztof Krystowski. Krystowski is the former head of the Labour Union, in the past deputy minister in the government of SLD party, former head of Bumar (a leading supplier and exporter of armaments and military equipment), long associated with the defence industry.  Krystowski is the one who suggested posts about Szejna. ‘President Krystowski says he’ll kill us if word about this gets out. Dear all, since I already have plans for the weekend, let’s get down to work to implement those plans!’ Alicja, the manager, encourages the trolls to take action. It is Krystowski rather than the head of the company Grzegorz Demel, who the trolls call ‘the president’.

Krystowski after PiS won the general election in 2015, he underwent a political U-turn – as the vice president of PZL Świdnik, a helicopter manufacturer owned by Italy’s Leonardo, he began to glorify to the PiS historical narratives and applaud Antoni Macierewicz, the defence minister. In January 2019, he officially left Świdnik.

According to ISD Global, at least 60 fake accounts (over 800 retweets in total) are involved in retweeting Szejna’s posts. At least 90 accounts are used in discussions and traffic on Szejna’s account (a total of over 4,500 tweets since March). Cat@Net’s campaign in support of Szejna is also organised before the parliamentary elections – albeit on a smaller scale. Trolls take care of Szejna during working hours, clearly commissioned to do so. Although Szejna is hardly recognised in Poland, the posts that include the deputy head of SLD could have potentially had over a million views.

September. We check the documents in the National Electoral Commission, which keeps the party’s financial statements after the election. There is no spending on the Cat@Net’s campaign before the European elections. This could mean that someone illegally funded the SLD deputy head campaign in social media.

On October 13, Andrzej Szejna becomes an MP. We meet him. Szejna says that he feels like Józef Piłsudski, because he restores the independence of the left-wing, and in the future, he would like to become the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He keeps implying he remains close to some key political figures when he says: ‘Me and Schroeder,’ or ‘my friend Macron.’

‘My Twitter is managed by the former president of a powerful defence company,’ he says. He doesn’t want to reveal his identity but finally admits that it was Krystowski who provided some campaign advice in that regard.

‘How much does such an online campaign cost?’ we ask.

‘It cost me nothing. I didn’t invest any money online.’

When we ask about Cat@Net, there is a long silence. ‘The name of the company does not ring a bell, I think. Should I know them? I believe Krzysiek had a firm, he worked with some company, but there was never any formal co-operation between them and me.’

We ask about troll accounts that posted messages on his Twitter. Maybe he knows someone? Emil Wolski? Czarek Tylżycki? ‘I’ve just learnt from you about this, and to be honest, I will probably have to investigate it.’

‘How come that you were supported by hundreds of anonymous accounts?’

‘It’s some kind of miracle. It’s also a miracle that I got 24,000 votes in the election. Will you also put a price on those people? Everyone has the right to support me, haven’t they? I’m not interested in this company, I have nothing to do with it. Are you telling me it employed people with disabilities? This is the first time I’ve heard about it.’

‘Do you think online disinformation is a problem?

‘But in what context?’

The next day, Szejna sends us a text message (via a friend): ‘If you write about it, you will only put him at risk of a fine. And you will ensure Krystowski gets publicity as a person who doesn’t leave his friends in need.’

Don’t get flipped out about the F-35

Krzysztof Krystowski is allegedly too busy to meet us. He is flying to Brussels – he has recently been appointed an EU expert on cluster policy. We ask if he helped Szejna in the campaign. ‘I instructed him a little bit. What to do, how to do it,’ he says. Krystowski explains that he did it in his free time. When we ask about Cat@Net, he stutters.

‘Cat@Net is managed by my friend, who… who is… is just my friend. This is a start-up that employs, I don’t know, a few people. It employs people with disabilities and is therefore entitled to grant exemption from contribution payments to the State Fund for the Rehabilitation of the Disabled (PFRON). As a result, from the client’s point of view, it might be cheaper than hiring your own people.’

Krystowski declares that he is a marketing expert, so he advises the Cat@Net owner on how to run the company. Reports? He gets some, but they are of no interest to him: ‘I think what this company is doing, is really fascinating, it’s cool, interesting, a new approach to marketing. Disinformation? It is inappropriate, and I have also pointed out to my friend that in conducting such activities, the company must only stick to the truth. That company, obviously, never goes beyond the truth.’

When asked about Szejna’s campaign, Grzegorz Demel sighs loudly and then begins to distort the facts. When we ask about Adam Wojtasiewicz, a journalist of Najwyższy Czas and the main shareholder of Cat@Net, he denies knowing him. He doesn’t even know that Wojtasiewicz is a shareholder in the company. ‘I’m not a figurehead in this company, although it might look like this, I would like to ask you to be patient.’ He promises to meet with us. However, after a few days and several emailed questions, he backtracks on the offer. Adam Wojtasiewicz does not respond to questions sent to the editor of Najwyższy Czas.

The ISD Global analysis shows that Cat@Net accounts have been involved in the campaign for PZL Świdnik from the very beginning. Twitter accounts were built to discuss aviation and the defence industry – to promote helicopters that Italy’s Leonardo hopes to sell to Poland. Trolls first become active in the autumn of 2016 – when the PiS government cancels the contract for French Caracal helicopters. They congratulate Krystowski and express their joy that PZL Świdnik is back in the game. Over the next two years, the farm promotes the order for the AW 101 helicopters – the posts are sent mainly to decision-makers and experts – like the minister of defence Mariusz Błaszczak, or the ministry itself. In their posts, trolls a link to Prime Minister Morawiecki.

But it is not mere promotion only. The orders from the management are clear: trolls are to ‘discredit Błaszczak’, and tease politicians. They must undermine Poland’s plan to purchase the F-35 aircraft, comment on sponsored articles, promote a rival aircraft, the Eurofighter. ‘Why should the state budget be involved? Healthcare is in decline, it’s better to use the money elsewhere’ – the manager suggests possible themes. And trolls get the message across: ‘We have to hit hard at Błaszczak.’ And: ‘The F-35 is our enemy number one.’

One instruction says: ‘Each of you individually has to choose and add a proper person from the Ministry of Economy and then start attacking them – how is it possible that we agree to such a fishy deal, why do we accept the loss of thousands of jobs and the collapse of the aerospace and defence industry. But be careful! Don’t get too pushy with the Eurofighter; otherwise, they will know they are being trolled!’

Alicja, the manager, forwards texts sent by the copywriter to her trolls: ‘Don’t get fucking flipped out over the F-35. You think that all that bullshit about modern aircraft and being elite could hide the fact that there is no offset and you are paying through the nose?’

And also: ‘You wanted those dicks from PiS, now you get what you asked for. People are sentenced over the phone, they raid people’s homes at 6 a.m. to arrest them for their artistic expression, and now this quick and effective shopping.’

Something strange happens in September, during the election campaign to the Polish parliament. Although the army and the F-35 are not the subject of the SLD campaign, the party holds a press conference and announces that when they come to power, they will terminate the contract for the F-35. Andrzej Szejna: ‘This was Czarzasty’s promise, not mine. I can assure you, however, that I’m not going to be on the national defence committee in the Sejm. I can swear I won’t if it gives you peace of mind.’

Misiewicz? I don’t know him

Maciej, one of the former Cat@Net clients, says that Cat@Net is not alone on the market. There are more prominent players behind it. They receive the orders while Cat@Net is only a subcontractor. The “more prominent player” is a public relations company Art-Media. I was at the headquarters of Art-Media, where I met, among others, Krystowski (the president of Cat@Net) and Ignacy Krasicki (the president of Art-Media).

In Warsaw, Art-Media is widely believed to be close to right-wing paper, Gazeta Polska’s inner circle. ‘Before Tomek Sakiewicz figured out how to do business, Art-Media organised events for him, hired expensive artists (singers) to provide entertainment,’ says one of Warsaw’s PR professionals. Art-Media is the patron of an award called “the Polish entrepreneur of Gazeta Polska Daily”. A year ago, it provided public relations services to the Association of Polish Journalists. “The President of Art-Media and the editor-in-chief of Gazeta Polska are buddies,” says another source.

According to our sources, Art-Media was associated with Antoni Macierewicz’s inner circle. One of them claims Krystowski or PZL Świdnik cooperated with Bartłomiej Misiewicz – they allegedly met at a shopping centre called Galeria Delfiny, run by the family of one of the Art-Media owners. PZL Świdnik refuses to answer any questions about Misiewicz. We reach out to Krzysztof Krystowski. “Didn’t Demel tell you that Misiewicz, with whom you met professionally, was doing something for your company, his company or Cat@Net’s clients?”

‘Apparently, that wasn’t important.’

‘Have you ever met at a shopping centre called Galeria Delfiny?”

“Gee, at Galeria Delfiny? Hm, I might have met him there. After Misiewicz left the ministry, I might have met him twice.’

‘Are you aware of any business ties between Misiewicz and Cat@Net?’

‘No,’ the president, who advises Cat@Net after hours, replies assuredly.

Questions about Misiewicz make our interviewers draw a blank in their memories. Art-Media’s Ignacy Krasicki takes a long pause, ‘You’re asking me when I met Bartłomiej Misiewicz? Many years ago, but I don’t remember how we met. We might have met at Telewizja Republika. He could have been at the Galeria Delfiny.’

‘Did he work for you?’

‘Misiewicz? No.’

‘Did you know that in January after Misiewicz’s arrest, Cat@Net offices were searched?’

‘No. This is a huge surprise. Wait a minute, I could have accidentally learned about it from the papers.’

‘Why is Art-Media said to be friends with Macierewicz?’

‘I’ve seen him twice in my life.’

Only Grzegorz Demel does not pretend the matter has escaped his memory. In the investigation against Misiewicz, he was granted the status of a witness. ‘I gave my statement in this case,’ he says. ‘I need to recall every detail. I’m the president of the board, and I’m responsible for my words,’ he says and promises to meet. The meeting will never materialise.

Bartłomiej Misiewicz (released on bail in June) claims that he socialised with the president of Art-Media. He says he didn’t work for Cat@Net and suggests that we should talk to the Central Anti-Corruption Bureau (CBA) about the search. We do as advised, but the CBA replies we should speak to the prosecutor’s office in Tarnów. The prosecutor’s office, however, refuses to do so due to ongoing proceedings.

Disinformation as a weapon

October. Having spent six months at a troll farm, Katarzyna hands in her resignation. We already know that Cat@Net is a troll farm used by ‘large enterprises, small businesses (…) and other entities, including public administration institutions and private individuals.’ We know who and how it works – on Facebook, it works for Alba, a German recycling company, for RUCH SA, for the National Union of Juice Producers (KUPS). For the latter, it organised a massive online campaign – at that time, KUPS was fighting in the Sejm for a low VAT rate on juices.

We know that a large part of the farm’s customers come from Art-Media. That copywriters employed by Art-Media control the communication channels.

Although we have managed to understand the network of connections around Cat@Net, there are still a few unknowns in the equation – what a shareholder representing Najwyższy Czas does at Cat@Net? Why did Misiewicz keep in touch with the troll farm? We know that after he was dismissed from the Ministry of Defence, he tried to fight trolls – he created, among others, a website called dezinformacja.net. It argues that ‘Today’s wars are fought and won not only on the battlefield but also in cyberspace. This is because of information and disinformation. Disinformation is not only a weapon in wars waged among global powers. It is also a tool in dirty games in Polish public life. In Polish politics, in particular.’

Late October. We send an email to the head of Cat@Net. We inquire about fake accounts online and relationships with Misiewicz, who is suspected of corruption. A few hours later, the internal chat that contains troll discussions and managers’ orders is deleted. On Sunday troll accounts disappear from Twitter.

After articles on the troll farm were first published by Newsweek Poland, Cat@Net removed almost all the content from its website. Many of the profiles have also been closed or cleaned.

Cat@Net has since published (1 November) a statement – released in response to our publications – in which it denies being a troll farm, describing their business as the outsourcing of marketing activities and stating that they adhere to the same rules as other agencies of this kind. They “strongly deny that the influencer accounts kept by the company’s employees use hate, hate speech or misinformation.”

The National Fund for the Rehablitation of Disabled people opened an investigation on payments to Cat@Net – €350,000 since 2015.

This is a joint investigation with Investigate Europe. Co-author: Katarzyna Pruszkiewicz

Wojciech Cieśla

Co-founder and editor-in-chief at FRONTSTORY.PL, Wojciech Cieśla is an award-winning Polish journalist who, since 2016, has worked with Investigate Europe. He is the co-founder and chairman of Fundacja Reporterów (Reporters Foundation). He is based in Warsaw.

Konrad Szczygieł

Konrad Szczygieł is an investigative journalist at FRONTSTORY.PL. Previously, he was a reporter at Superwizjer TVN and OKO.Press. Since 2016, he has worked with Fundacja Reporterów (Reporters Foundation). He was shortlisted for a Grand Press award (2016, 2021) and an Andrzej Woyciechowski award (2021). He is based in Warsaw.