In late March, Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party and the country’s deputy prime minister, spoke at a virtual meeting organized by a right-wing media organization. Railing against so-called “LGBT ideology” as an imported Western idea out of sync with the views of most Poles, the right-wing leader stressed the importance of pushing back against the European Union to defend traditional values.
“As long as we rule, nobody will impose anything on us,” Kaczyński said of his party. “All those who want to live in a normal world, in a world where a woman is a woman, a man is a man, and no one talks about a woman as a ‘person with a uterus’ — they should support our political coalition.”
But rather than appearing on state television or a government-run website, the meeting was broadcast via a new social media platform called Albicla. The site looks and functions just like Facebook, and at the top of the video stream was the platform’s logo, a pink and green “A” with a white feather across it, along with the tagline “Let All Be Clear.”
Launched to great fanfare by the right-wing media company Gazeta Polska back in January, Albicla promises to protect its users against the growing “censorship” of major social media companies like Facebook and Twitter. Within hours, tens of thousands of users — including several high-profile officials from Law and Justice, known by its Polish initials, PiS — had signed up. Despite some initial hiccups, many in Poland’s right-wing scene touted the platform as an important step in protecting what they see as often-silenced right-wing political discourse.
“We have disturbed the powerful interests and breached the walls of the ideological front that is pushing conservative thinking to the sidelines,” wrote Tomasz Sakiewicz, Gazeta Polska magazine’s editor and Albicla’s point person, shortly after the platform went live. “It is now up to us to ensure this world continues to be free, particularly online.” Sakiewicz did not respond to a request for comment.
In the wake of the storming of the U.S. Capitol in January and Donald Trump’s subsequent expulsion from Facebook and Twitter, far-right activists began flocking to “free speech” platforms such as Parler and MeWe, seeing it as an alternative to mainstream social media companies. That trend, it seems, was not limited to the U.S.: In central Europe’s illiberal democracies, “anti-censorship” platforms are becoming increasingly popular as a means of countering the influence of Facebook and Twitter.
With just over 70,000 users, the reach of Albicla is relatively limited, though it remains the best-known example in the region. A similar outlet, Hundub, has also been launched in Hungary, where the increasingly authoritarian prime minister Viktor Orbán will face reelection in early 2022. Hundub is an amalgam of “Hungarian” and “dub,” which means “beehive” in ancient Hungarian, and went online last December. Although president Orbán and other government officials signed up at the time, and pro-government media has promoted the platform, it seems to be generating less buzz than its Polish counterpart.
The rise of these platforms coincides with a sharper tone against major social media companies — and a potential shift in policy toward them — in several of central Europe’s illiberal democracies. “Algorithms or the owners of corporate giants should not decide which views are right and which are not,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki wrote on Facebook shortly after Trump’s expulsion from the site (though he didn’t reference Trump directly). “There can be no consent to censorship.”
In Hungary, Justice Minister Judit Varga said these companies should be held accountable for “systematic abuses,” accusing Facebook of routinely censoring or limiting visibility of “Christian, conservative, right-wing opinions” like hers.
Albicla came online just as top PiS officials released the latest draft of their “freedom of speech” legislation, which would fine social media companies up to $13.1 million (50 million złoty) for regulating speech that isn’t illegal under Polish law. While this is theoretically not so different from European Union–wide debates over whether to more strictly regulate social media, there’s a catch: Under the proposal, a Parliament-appointed “free speech council” would make the final decision regarding each removal.
“Substituting Facebook’s appeals system with some kind of legal process is not necessarily a bad idea,” said Zselyke Csaky, head of research for Europe and Eurasia at the democracy watchdog organization Freedom House. “But, of course, the devil lies in the details, which is just that the independence of that council would be very much in doubt.”
According to Sakiewicz, head of Gazeta Polska, Albicla’s launch was planned for January 20, Trump’s last day in office, to coincide with “the last hour of the rule of the leader of the free world.” Its name derives from the phrase “Let All Be Clear” and also supposedly refers to albus aquila, or “white eagle” in Latin, the national symbol of Poland.
Albicla “was strongly politicized from the very beginning: their political agenda is obvious, they’re not hiding it,” said Krzysztof Izdebski, policy director at the ePaństwo Foundation, a Warsaw-based organization focused on transparency and citizen engagement. “This is very symbolic for [Poland’s right wing]: ‘We are sovereign; we have our own social media platform.’”
All this comes in the midst of intensifying anti-LGBTQI rhetoric across Poland. Gazeta Polska is the company that first created the “LGBT-free zone” stickers in Poland back in 2019. Pro-democracy advocates worry the platform will be used to further spread the kinds of anti-LGBT hate speech already proliferating in Poland.
“If you want to foster a community where people can express any kind of information, that very easily degenerates into a lot of hate speech and just an awful place to be without any kind of regulation,” Csaky said.
PiS officials like party leader Kaczyński, Prime Minister Morawiecki, and President Andrzej Duda, along with ultra-rightist religious organizations such as Ordo Iuris Institute for Legal Culture and some parts of the Catholic Church, have spent the last two years building a rhetorical case against what they see as a dangerous LGBT “ideology.” That rhetoric, coupled with anti-LGBT coverage in state and state-allied media, has led to an increase in violence and discrimination against the LGBT community.
Bart Staszewski, a prominent LGBT activist from the eastern city of Lublin who has regularly been singled out for online abuse, worries about what might come out of an explicitly politicized platform like Albicla, in light of how bad things are already on more mainstream outlets. “I am myself a target of different hate campaigns that are happening on Twitter and on Facebook. … I can only imagine what is happening in the shadows,” he said.
The idea of a PiS-aligned social media platform is another step toward the government’s goal of centralizing and controlling sources of information across the country. In addition to transforming the state television broadcaster into a mouthpiece for government propaganda, PiS has sought to “repolonize” the media landscape — preventing foreign (especially German) ownership of media companies that report on Poland. Late last year, the state-run oil refiner PKN Orlen bought Polska Press, a large network of local and regional newspapers and websites, from the German firm Verlagsgruppe Passau. A Warsaw court recently blocked the move, which would have meant a government-aligned company owned 20 of 24 regional newspapers across Poland, plus hundreds of smaller papers and sites.
“The biggest offenders of press freedom are now posing as defenders of free speech,” said Adrian Shahbaz, director of the Technology and Democracy program at Freedom House, noting the trend isn’t limited to Poland. “It comes from a place of bad faith and I think a lack of understanding around how content moderation works on mass digital platforms.”
Since its launch, Albicla has been plagued by various mishaps, including data security concerns, which, ironically, led to the censoring of certain posts. Shortly after launch, some users reported being able to access user information for thousands of accounts; the platform initially had weak password requirements and no two-step verification options. Some also pointed out that parts of its terms and conditions had been directly copy-pasted from Facebook’s.
A recent look at Albicla’s public landing page shows mostly a collection of posts and articles from right-wing media sites: Political news of the day, sports predictions, even the weather. Those items are mixed in with updates from regional PiS officials and video clips from the ultraconservative Ordo Iuris.
Although it pitches itself as an anti-censorship platform, Albicla has already taken steps to stop or control certain types of activity. Upon learning that users could hack the site’s logo via an official account page, some anti-PiS activists swapped the “A” out for a rainbow, in a nod to the LGBT movement. Other users registered parody accounts for figures like Pope John Paul II and Donald Trump, which were later removed from the site. The platform also reportedly cancelled the accounts of critical journalists, though it has since restored them. (Sakiewicz has previously said on Twitter that reports of problems are “lies.”)
Experts doubt these platforms will ever evolve from small, fairly fringe sites to ones with real clout, especially since attempts to challenge Facebook and Twitter have been rare and largely unsuccessful. In Poland, for instance, Facebook has more than 21 million users.
Still, in Albicla’s case, given the powerful publisher behind it and its public boost from government officials like Kaczyński, critics say there is reason to be concerned. It’s tempting, said Staszewski, to simply write off the site, but given the climate of anti-LGBT hate speech in Poland, even a small right-wing platform that incubates such views could be dangerous.
“Those people there are the ones going on the streets when we have pride parades and throwing stones,” he said. “We cannot say this is some closed place and that they can say whatever they want … when we have such a political atmosphere of hate.”