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Rachwol’s master’s thesis receives an honourable mention

Portrait of Olivia Rachwol. Photo.
Olivia Rachwol (photo).

The Centre for European Studies has awarded Olivia Rachwol the 2021 honorary mention for her Master of Cultural Sciences thesis on Conspiracy Theories in Polish Daily newspapers.

Olivia Rachwol’s study is called “Conspiracy Theories and the Polarized Polish Press: Systemic and Event Conspiracy Narratives in Polish Daily newspapers during the Presidential Election Campaign in 2020.” She was granted the award with the following motivation: “Olivia Rachwol is awarded an honorary mention for her thorough and disheartening analysis of various types of conspiracy theories in the Polish press and how they flourish in an increasingly polarised media landscape. Her conclusions are important not only for understanding the development in Poland but also in other parts of Europe as well as other corners of the world.”

The Centre for European Studies met with Olivia to talk more about her thesis and ask her for some advice for prospective master’s degree thesis writers.

Olivia nostalgically remembers the thesis writing experience as defined by the calming environment of the university library in Lund, strolls in the Folkets Park in Malmö during breaks of writing, and considerable amounts of brewed coffee and cinnamon buns. However, she also expresses that a master’s thesis is quite an overwhelming process that can take many twists and turns: “A schedule often needs to be adjusted or even completely discarded because research is ultimately unpredictable.”

A lesson that Olivia drew from the process is the importance of allowing for enough time to find a strategy that suits you the best. In her case, this meant avoiding “getting stuck in a bubble where nothing else matters anymore except your thesis.” In her case, the feeling of isolation was additionally worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. Accordingly, Olivia found variation by taking university courses on topics other than that of her thesis.

The decision to write about conspiracy theories emerged successively: “Through a class in Peace and Conflict Studies in Malmö, I had become aware of the significance of stereotypes and enemy images for social psychology. But it was only after the outbreak of the pandemic that I seriously started thinking about the impact and potential threats that conspiracy theories pose to democratic societies,” Olivia says.

When asked about what her findings say about the broader rule of law crisis in Europe, Olivia replies that “both the rule of law crisis and my findings concerning partisan conspiracy narratives in Polish daily newspapers are symptoms of a deeper, more fundamental problem. It has less to do with an inherent “backwardness” of Poland than with the general power of emotionally loaded politics”. She also emphasises that general trust in Poland is relatively low, which facilitates the thriving of conspiracy theories and narratives.

Furthermore, the ruling party Law and Justice constitutes another central condition: “Law and Justice’s judiciary overhaul and its ideological foundation are deeply intertwined with a conspiracy theory that regards the 1989 negotiations between members of the resistance movement Solidarność and the then communist government a farce aiming to secure the future of communist elites rather than paving the way for an actual transition of power”, Olivia states, and “that the undermining rule of law principles is successfully being justified by claims that public institutions are saturated with communist collaborators who need to be exchanged for loyal, government-friendly officials.”

Olivia explains that the government views the European Union’s objections as illegitimately endangering the true values and interest of the “real Poles”. Olivia argues that this strategy has gained particular support among those on whom the communist rule left a mark and who are therefore particularly receptive to such notions.

The right topic can turn the process into a meaningful and enjoyable experience.

Olivia gives some final advice to prospective thesis writers. To alleviate stress, Olivia created smaller daily and achievable goals. But even more importantly, she chose a topic of genuine interest: “Doing research on something that does not really interest you can be torturing. The right topic can turn the process into a meaningful and enjoyable experience.”, she emphasises. Finally, she recalls a Polish saying her mother always used to say: “What is done suddenly, is done the devil’s way,” and recommends starting earlier than later to make enough time to succeed.

Click this link to access Olivia's thesis.

Today, Olivia Rachwol is a Ph.D. candidate at the Ludwig Uhland Institute of Historical and Cultural Anthropology in Tübingen. She is part of the ERC-funded research project 'PACT: Populism and Conspiracy Theory'. The project, which is run by Prof. Michael Butter, a leading expert in the field of conspiracy theory research, investigates the significance of conspiracy theories for populist movements in four European countries and two in the Americas.