Jarosław Kaczyński, former prime minister of Poland and current chairman of the leading government national-conservative party (PiS), caused a public outcry on social media and broke the news by stating Poland’s low birth rate is caused by women’s alcohol consumption. Kaczyński mentioned he was “joking a bit” but his statement spread like wildfire, increasing his audience and media attention.
What we see here might be a ‘dog whistle’. In politics, that means using suggestive language to gain support from a target audience, not really considering the general public. Even though Kaczyński in advance perhaps knew that his statement would have little impact on those who did not support him, the mainstream media decided otherwise. His statements got published out of context. Did he perfectly cover himself and at the same time fool the media?
The facts behind the claim
Kaczyński’s statement didn’t entirely come out of the blue, Eurostat figures do show that the birth rate in Poland is lower than the European average. To find out if it could actually be linked to alcoholism, we spoke to two Polish sociologists. They link the low birth rate to a shift of priorities in the lifestyle of young women. “Young females are more prone to study, to prolong their education and career”, explains Piotr Szukalski, professor at the Polish Institute of Sociology. In a paper (published 2021) Małgorzata Sikorska, Polish sociologist, mentions factors like financial stability and insecurity about the future as causes. Even though the alcohol consumption of Polish women does appear to be on the rise, according to official figures from the World Health Organization. The birth numbers seem fairly stable for the last 20 years. Thus, birth rate and alcohol consumption do not seem correlated. A causal link therefore is unlikely.
Yet, we can’t debunk the statement completely. Why? Well, Kaczyński mentioned in his speech that he was partly joking. Besides, he didn’t refer to any specific numbers or statistics. That was the first thing that set us off to start noticing similarities to a tactic known as a ‘dog whistle’. It was an expression that sounds innocuous or completely ridiculous to the general public, meanwhile conveying a more insidious message to one’s target audience – a covert appeal to a harmful set of views.
The media’s role
What gave us the impression that Kaczyński was making an official statement, is the way the majority of the news outlets covered his statement. While some media such as The Guardian did mention that Kaczyński was not being completely serious while giving his speech, other news outlets, such as Euronews, The Washington Post and HLN, Belgium’s most read news website, completely left out that part. That, we believe, is an attention-drawing yet misleading way to tell a story because it completely twists the narrative. It caused a lot of commotion over a statement so far-fetched and not substantiated that we as the media might be better off ignoring it.
The term “dog whistle” has been around for years, and exactly for that reason we expect more from the traditional media in its coverage of this kind of statements. The signals are sneaky by nature. So, we can see that while it may be difficult to establish whether a politician blows a dog whistle on a particular occasion for most people, it should not be impossible for experienced journalists.
How could this have been spotted?
In this case, Kaczynski admits himself that his statement doesn’t make much sense and that would have been the first clue. By interjecting that he’s not being serious, he covers himself. If someone were to try to hold him accountable he could say he mentioned it was a joke. But even in a joking manner it reinforces hatred towards certain groups and ideas in society, another clue. The joke is about blaming women for drinking too much and not having enough children which directly paints them in a negative light. This shows a dog whistle is sometimes so coded that only people who have the same beliefs are attracted to the statement. The others will not hear it. Like dogs hear dog whistles and humans can’t.
To give another example, former US president Donald Trump is often accused of using racist dog whistles – implicit language aimed to get the attention of particularly male white Americans with conservative views who make up the target audience of a Republican party. In a speech he said “We have some bad hombres here and we’re going to get them out.”. Translated, hombres does mean men and most Spanish speakers will see that as all it is. But what he does here is give it an extra meaning that the general public won’t pick up on. While speaking of getting drug dealers out of the U.S. he also speaks of getting bad ‘hombres’ out, not ‘men’, because ‘men’ is associated with Americans because of the context it’s generally used in and this doesn’t appeal to his target audience. Just like Trump was trying to attract racists, Kaczyński was blowing the dog whistle for misogynists that could potentially support his right-wing party.
If some media hadn’t taken the statement out of context, there wouldn’t have been such a big story. Or it would read: ‘man makes bad jokes about women’, and let’s be honest, that’s not news. Accusations of dog whistles are usually met with full denial, because they are so well covered up. And that is the hard part about dog whistles, they are hard to prove. But that doesn’t mean we should forget about them, it means we should learn to recognize them more.
To sum up
The suspicion we started our research with was mostly confirmed, the claim and the articles about it were a little off indeed. But the lack of context provided by media platforms surprised us. We’d previously believed most of the platforms but they’d left out a key point; Kaczyński’s “I’m joking” statement. Our research behind Kaczyński’s idea of facts reminded us of how important it is to remain critical of sources, the necessity of checking and putting an authority figure’s claims into perspective and how, as journalists, not take a joke.
RESEARCH | ARTICLE © Anna Koliadnaia, Anne Grootkerk & Jaani De Koker, Thomas More University of Applied Sciences & Utrecht University of Applied Sciences
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