“Do you all forget that not having s3x is an option?” The comment on 28-year-old Katie Jagielnicka’s TikTok post — a video criticising a recent near-total abortion ban in Poland — already has 261 responses. It’s a testament to the heated feelings that surround Jagielnicka’s support of abortion and feminism online. On 28 January 2021, Poland’s ruling right-wing Law and Justice party (or PiS), imposed a ban on abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or danger to a mother’s life.
Similar proposals had already sparked protests back in 2016, as well as in October 2020. Campaigners hoped that collective action would stop proceedings. When it didn’t, they went online.
Now, Polish campaigners like Jagielnicka are turning to TikTok to campaign for the right to abortion and human rights in general. In one post, she plays Kate Bush’s “Babooshka” while imitating a conversation between confused “Polish women” reacting to the ban (“Okay, do you at least have easy access to contraception? Are there policies in place to support mothers and disabled children?”) and “Poland’s” response (No, there aren’t.) It’s a quick and easily-digestible way to highlight the absurdity of a government that aims to control births whilst failing to protect existing lives.
Jagielnicka is slightly older than TikTok’s typical Gen Z demographic, but her account helps campaigners like her to reach young people. (If she does respond to criticisms, she tries to do so in a “very constructive way”, as other users can be as young as eleven, she says.) With 5.5 million likes and 51,900 followers, Jagielnicka’s videos certainly reach a wide audience. “I want to be helpful in bringing those perspectives and voices to younger audiences,” she says.
Poland’s campaigners aren’t the only pro-choice activists to use the app. A recent US TikTok trend saw pro-choice campaigners exposing pro-life protestors who intimidated women seeking abortions outside of clinics. But while Joe Biden’s election in America signals a move towards greater equality, in Poland, PiS is as strong as ever. There is an increasingly hopeless feeling amongst campaigners. Maja Kunstman, a 21-year-old activist based in Krakow who posts on TikTok, says that compared to the feeling of optimism that exploded across activists’ social media pages in October, “sarcasm and irony is our go to”.
Platforms like TikTok are allowing pro-choice campaigners to create spaces for meaningful activism. Patrycja Buśko, a 25-year-old campaigner based in London, says she originally felt too old for the app. “I always felt that this app is for dance videos and nothing really serious,” she says. But spending time on the platform quickly changed her mind. “I was really shocked when I started to realise that these were not just funny videos. People also talk about a lot of difficult topics. There is this kind of pure honesty going on in TikTok.” In one video, Buśko places herself over a montage of images she describes as “the life I am so terrified of”, featuring pictures of the Polish police, prisons and racist politicians, versus “the life I want”, featuring LGBTQ+ events, abortion clinics, and sex education.
We struggle with this discrimination in our country and families, so it was something … to just make us happier and be supportive for us and other people to see that they are not alone.
Campaigning on TikTok, however, is far from easy. Aside from the endless hate comments, TikTok’s own community guidelines make discussing difficult topics openly quite hard. Jagielnicka’s account has at one point been suspended, banned, and removed permanently, and half of her videos have been removed. The reason behind the ban is usually cited as “minor safety or hate speech” because the app often can’t detect when hateful vocabulary is being discussed rather than endorsed. Buśko also feels that TikTok’s guidelines are discriminatory. “People make educational videos or try to talk about sex in educational way, but because this word appears there, they are being taken down,” she says.
Campaigners have often found ways to work around the rules. Jagielnicka has noticed that if she’s funny, then the video doesn’t get removed. Like many others, she uses numbers and signs to cover certain heated terms on the overhead text, like using the word “ab0rti0n”.
Dr Alexi Drew, a researcher at the Centre for Science and Security Studies at King’s College London, says that this push for campaigners to break the rules is, in its way, its own kind of protest. “It’s all about gaming the algorithm. They want to find a way around content moderation, and they want to be able to still get their message out,” she says. “In the middle of a pandemic, how else are you going to self-actualise your feelings when you might be stuck in a flat by yourself?”
Others, meanwhile, are focusing on creating environments and networks that can still support activists and minorities without falling foul of TikTok’s censors. Ania Kociszewska and Ola Ziob, two 19-year-old content creators and artists, made TikTok account to promote their own LGBTQ+ friendly products. Called Równo Szyte (Equally Sewn), the account isn’t as obviously confrontational as Jagielnicka’s or Buśko’s content, but still promotes tolerance and acceptance. Ziob made the company’s first patch as a gesture of support when Kociszewska came out to her.
On their TikTok, Kociszewska and Ziob show process work behind each artwork as well as the final outcome. There are videos of them putting up posters emblazoned with a lightning strike, the symbol of the first wave of pro-choice protests. Their range includes patches, coasters, and bags that proclaim messages like “Peace not PiS”. Kociszewska says they started their account because “we struggle with this discrimination in our country and families, so it was something…to just make us happier and be supportive for us and other people to see that they are not alone.”
This online visual language both unites and makes difficult topics easier to discuss. The non-profit Polish group Abortion Dream Team uses the mantra “abortion is okay” alongside pink colour schemes and heart imagery on their Instagram account. Maria Lewandowska, a researcher at the London School of Health and Tropical Medicine, says that even these small changes make huge strides in destigmatising medical procedures, having a huge knock-on effect on how women access and manage abortions. “[Campaigning has] had an absolutely tremendous role in introducing medical self-managed abortion into the public discourse and of making women aware that they don’t have to seek surgical abortions from backstreet providers, or by going abroad,” says Lewandowka. Such online work from Abortion Dream Team portrays abortion as “a normal, human experience” in a world where pro-life protesters still emblazon explicit, bloody images on posters and stickers in an attempt to keep women away from clinics. “You don’t see other medical procedures being portrayed in those kinds of gruesome, harrowing terms, so why do that with abortion?”
With a growing concern that the Polish government is controlling and regulating media, some activists choose to limit their online presence. Maja Kunstman says she prefers to go to in-person protests because she feels “more anonymous” there. Only recently, police requested court proceedings be initiated against a 14-year-old boy in Poland who shared support for the pro-choice protests online. While the case didn’t go ahead, it signals how oppressive the online space has become for many young Polish people.
Despite an increasingly pessimistic atmosphere, TikTok is quickly becoming a hopeful space for Polish campaigners to educate others in an accessible way. “TikTok is a platform for everything so why not this?” Buśko says. “Even if one person will find out what’s going on in Poland, then I think it’s worth it.” For the thousands like her, each expression, text box, or patch sewn is one step closer to showing Polish people that they are not fighting on their own.