On July 12, Polish President Andrzej Duda won reelection in the closest election since the fall of communism in 1989. Turnout was higher than usual at 68 percent, despite the pandemic. One probable reason for Duda’s victory is his ability to win over voters in rural areas, and voters over age 60 regardless of place of residence, by nearly a two to one margin.
While Poland’s rural areas and older population tend to be more conservative, these voting trends also overlap with Poland’s digital divide, which spans two key electoral demographics — age and urbanization. Like other countries, Poland’s senior citizens are less likely to use the Internet than younger voters. People in rural regions, as well as people with lower incomes and less formal education, may find themselves likely to lack access or adequate skills to use digital media effectively. In a tight election were every vote counts, these demographic groups may have been the key to Duda’s reelection.
The demographics of Poland’s digital divide
Scholars have documented the urban-rural divide in Polish politics, along with the accompanying digital divide — as the figure above shows. Broadband access data in 2019 from Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union, show 87 percent of individuals in Poland’s urban areas use the Internet, compared to 74 percent in rural areas.
A similar divide occurs in social media usage — 58 percent of urban Poles use social media vs. 49 percent in the countryside. The largest gap, though, is in digital skills — the data show 55 percent of Poles in urban areas report being able to perform online tasks with at least average digital skills, while only 36 percent of rural Poles report being able to do so.
Many of Poland’s older citizens are not online, a typical finding in other countries as well. The figure above shows steep declines across all areas of Internet use and social media use, as well as digital skill levels, as people get older. While the urban-rural divides were slight but noticeable, the age divides are stark as usage and skills trends fall about 60 to 70 percentage points from the youngest to the oldest age cohort.
What about Poland’s traditional media?
There’s another factor to consider, as online news and traditional media content are quite different in Poland. Early after the fall of communism, many media outlets in Central and Eastern Europe were sold to international conglomerates, as Western investors were able to outbid counterparts from formerly communist countries. Poland initially limited outside investment to minority shares, but the fallout from the 2008 North Atlantic economic crisis forced many corporations to reprioritize spending.
During the past decade, local business leaders have gained ownership of traditional media outlets, a shift that makes it more difficult for the media to remain independent of political pressure. Greater ownership of media outlets by local executives has led to less investigative reporting and a lack of autonomy in reporting, for instance. In some countries the ruling party controls traditional media either directly through state-run organizations or indirectly through affiliated owners.
Political scientists call this “party capture” — and this scenario has been unfolding in Poland. The country’s 2016 media laws, for example, allow the ruling Law and Justice party to directly appoint Poland’s public broadcasting chiefs. In 2017, the government fined TVN24, a major private broadcaster, for its coverage of parliamentary protests. These and other actions have led to lower levels of media freedom, and essentially turned public media into a mouthpiece for the incumbent president and the Law and Justice party.
Digital media trends point in a different direction
Research shows people in Central and Eastern Europe who use social media and search for news online tended to support the governments that were in power before backsliding occurred in countries such as Poland and Hungary. Further, citizens who are digitally active were more supportive of democracy and democratic institutions in general. So how did this play out in Poland’s recent election?
In a working paper, I show Poles who use the Internet tend to be more tolerant of LGBTQ and marginalized groups. Duda ran on an anti-LGBTQ campaign and older Poles might have been less likely to read LGBTQ-accepting news or discussion boards online. However, it is important to note other research has found online deliberation does not change the attitudes of people who hold strong views about LGBTQ rights. This is especially the case when people perceive the group they are discussing LGBTQ rights with to have similar opinions as they do.
Yet, research suggests social media users and members of other online groups tend to be more likely to receive news that conflicts with their beliefs. When pro-incumbent messaging dominates traditional news media, the Internet can provide exposure to dissimilar points of view. Changes in incidental exposure can lead to different topics gaining importance, thus breaking the constant discussion about one topic and lowering the ability of the allied state media to control the debate around what the election is about.
In close elections like the 2020 Polish presidential election even slight changes in agenda-setting and issue framing could have changed the outcome.
Matthew Placek (@Matt_Placek) is an assistant professor of political science at the University of South Carolina Upstate. His research focuses on the political effects of the Internet in new democracies and nondemocratic regimes.