Recently, the Hungarian ruling party and its media empire launched a massive campaign against independent policy analysts and opposition parties, accusing them of spreading anti-vaccination views. Although multiple first instance court decisions state that the campaign is founded on a false claim, the series of accusations continue. However, such a disinformation campaign is unsurprising, as it is only one in a long series of manipulative campaigns run by the ruling parties of Hungary. These campaigns follow a typical method of operation: they start from a single piece of information and end in some sort of discriminatory legislation against independent voices.
This commentary is part of our dossier "Drowning in disinformation", which explores how homegrown state-sponsored disinformation threatens EU democracy.
First step: build your media empire
One of the first controversial steps of the second Orbán government that acceded to power in 2010, backed by a parliamentary supermajority, was approving a series of amendments to the country’s media laws. These amendments included a law to set up the National Media and Infocommunications Authority (NMHH) and the Media Council, responsible for overseeing the Hungarian media market, including media acquisitions. The Media Council, which was filled up with members loyal to the ruling Fidesz party, has been instrumental in aiding the expansion of pro-government oligarchs in the Hungarian media sector, who have slowly turned their outlets into government mouthpieces. The result of their expansion is the establishment of the Central European Press and Media Foundation (KESMA), encompassing around 500 government-influenced media outlets. Concurrently, the public media was also taken over by Fidesz loyalists. The Orbán government thus set up a Russia-like model of media centralisation, leading to the manipulation of the population through centrally-controlled disinformation and a media empire following political orders. As a result of its efforts, the Hungarian ruling party has a massive number of media outlets under its direct or indirect control, and a propaganda machine that both follows directions without question and can be directed against any (imagined) opponent of the ruling party.
Take one bit of information, turn it into an elephant
In August 2013, when Heti Válasz published its piece on the alleged actions of the so-called “Soros-network” in Hungary, the media-centralization process was nowhere near where it is at today. Yet, it offered an early look at how home-grown disinformation campaigns would work in the future. After the initial article, several other pro-government outlets republished the original story or expanded upon it over the next few months. According to these articles, George Soros was financing the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, feminist organizations such as the Women for Women against Abuse (Nők a Nőkért az Erőszak Ellen), the Student Network, or independent media outlets like 444.hu and Magyar Narancs. Then, governmental figures such as Péter Hoppál, Fidesz’s spokesman at the time, joined the discussion, stating that the Hungarian Helsinki Committee was one of the “pseudo-civil society organizations” discrediting the country and its government financed by American money.
Heti Válasz’s article also mentioned that the Norway Grants, funds designed to contribute to a more equal Europe and strengthen relations between Norway and 15 beneficiary countries, allocated to Hungary are also distributed to and by the same network. According to the article, the board, which included Soros-protégées, decided on the fate of EUR 3.5 million in July-August 2013, a third of which landed at “organizations on the financing list of Open Society Foundations.” In April 2014, then-Minister for the Prime Minister’s Office János Lázár wrote an official letter to the Norwegian government claiming that the Norway Grants in Hungary are managed by a civil society organization, Ökotárs Foundation, that have close links with a Hungarian political party, LMP (Hungary’s Green Party). Just a month later, the Government Control Office notified Ökotárs about an investigation into their management of the funds. Meanwhile, Nándor Csepreghy, a state secretary at the Ministry for the Prime Minister’s Office at the time, accused some parts of civil society of being involved in “organized crime,” referring to an Ernst & Young (EY) audit report on the management of the Norway Grants in Hungary between 2008 and 2011. However, soon after the accusations were made, the full report of EY was leaked online, showing that the firm had found the execution of the project to be “satisfactory,” and that it had not noticed systemic problems. On 8 September, 2014, the police showed up at the offices of the Ökotárs Foundation and several others involved in the consortium managing the Norway Grants, such as DemNet. The head of Ökotárs, Vera Móra, was taken into custody. According to the statement by the National Inspection Office, they were investigating allegations of embezzlement of funds and unauthorized financial activities. As turned out later, it was the Prime Minister himself who had given the order for the investigation.
Nobody has to reinvent the wheel to manipulate
These campaigns were built on widely used manipulative methods. We have already highlighted the EY report on the management of Norway Grants between 2008 and 2011. In this case, Nándor Csepreghy misinterpreted the findings of the auditing firm, using information selectively to fit the ruling party’s worldview by wildly exaggerating the problems pointed out by the firm, while ignoring the general conclusion that the project’s management was satisfactory. The second important part of the campaign was making false connections between existing facts. The Open Society Foundation (OSF) publishes who it is funding online, so it hardly requires strong investigative journalism skills to reveal which organizations receive grants from them. However, Hungarian pro-government media treats all grants awarded in the form of money paid by the OSF to Hungarian civil society as part of some kind of secretive plot. The government, as PM Viktor Orbán said himself, considers certain members of Hungarian civil society to be “foreign funded political activists,” and government-influenced media is relaying this exact picture to its readers. The most important goal of these efforts is to deconstruct any concept of “independence” in Hungarian society: all actors in the Hungarian public sphere must either be with “us” or “them”. Miklós Sükösd, an associate professor at the Department of Communication of the University of Copenhagen, added in Élet és Irodalom that the government also seeks to use these campaigns to discourage critical voices from engaging in public discussion.
The third key feature of these campaigns is that the initial claim, namely the disinformation, is always much more viral than the truth that becomes apparent later. Péter Hoppál lost a lawsuit against the Helsinki Committee, a non-profit organisation devoted to human rights, for his statement concerning the organization’s alleged campaign against Hungary abroad. The police investigation into the management of the Norway Grants yielded no results. However, government-controlled media – predictably – does not inform their readers about these outcomes as fiercely as they did on the original claims. Therefore, the results of lawsuits and investigations that show the targets of disinformation campaigns in a positive light have no chance to influence public opinion.
Furthermore, government-influenced media simply continues their campaigns after every lost libel lawsuit. Claims about NGOs have remained a constant presence in pro-government outlets with regard to hundreds of millions of Hungarian Forints going to “leftist-liberal civil society organizations” to “attack Hungary.” The Hungarian National Assembly approved an NGO law in 2017, inspired by the Russian Act on Foreign Agents, that forced civil society organizations receiving over 7.2 million Hungarian Forints in funding from abroad to disclose that they are ‘foreign-funded organizations’. The government is now planning to repeal the law, only to replace it with provisions allowing the National Audit Office, led by a former Fidesz MP, to audit NGOs with total assets worth over 20 million Hungarian Forints. The audit reports will likely provide a good opportunity for government-controlled media to continue discrediting Hungarian civil society.
Once you get the methods down, use them all the time
Naturally, it is not just NGOs who have been targeted by the Orbán government. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán mentioned in October 2015, in a discussion at a conference entitled The signs of times, that Europe was betrayed in the migration crisis, and it would not be a coincidence if the audience thought of George Soros in this case. This off-hand claim was then turned into a years-long campaign claiming that the American philanthropist, civil society organizations funded by him, and left-wing politicians and leftist media in general, are seeking to destroy Member States via the creation of a multicultural society. In June 2018, the National Assembly approved the so-called Stop Soros law barring NGOs and others from “aiding illegal migration.” This campaign was partially invented by American campaign strategists.
It is in this context that we can truly explain the largescale campaign by government-influenced media outlets claiming that the opposition is following an anti-vaccination political strategy founded on the recommendations allegedly made by political analysts – including the second author of this article. The pro-government media published more than 600 false pieces, spreading this lie, despite the fact that two first instance courts found the statement the campaign is founded on contrary to facts. More than a dozen governmental politicians joined this campaign – including the prime minister himself, showing, yet again, the centralised nature of these public attacks aiming to intimidate critical voices.
Home-grown disinformation can be more effective than the Kremlin’s
Overall, we can conclude that the Hungarian government’s disinformation campaigns show remarkable similarities with how foreign authoritarian actors, such as the Kremlin, conduct them in terms of media takeover, methods of operation and manipulative techniques used. The key step for success concerning home-grown disinformation is, in fact, the creation of a vast enough local media empire serving a political force to ensure these manipulative campaigns achieve considerable outreach.
However, direct Russian disinformation is not highly prevalent in Hungary, and it is clear why. Although RT, a Russian state-controlled television network, wanted to open an office in Budapest, they abandoned the idea later, as they felt that they did not need to operate in Hungary, as pro-governmental media is doing their job.
There are three important reasons why home-grown disinformation needs more attention and vigilance. First of all, home-grown disinformation campaigns can be much more effective, as local governments have more information on their own population’s preferences and needs (e.g. via internal public opinion polls). In fact, domestic manipulation efforts can polarize even more: since it is usually connected to one particular political force, it will have a stronger effect on one side than on the other. As an example: although 27% of Hungarians say that NGOs in Hungary are secret voices of foreign interests, 49% of Fidesz voters do so. As a result of years of pro-Russian and pro-Chinese coverage in government-influenced media, Fidesz voters have a better opinion on these autocratic regimes than the opposition’s followers. Second, national governments might have a much wider outreach compared to local pro-Kremlin portals, as they have the infrastructure and considerable public funds at their disposal. In Hungary, for example, the campaigns run through the cabinet’s media empire. Third, domestic efforts can use their resources with a stronger focus in one country, while the Kremlin has to cover a much larger geographical area (even if there are more nuanced messages targeting single countries). This all means that domestic, state-sponsored disinformation can be more efficient in fuelling hatred, polarizing societies and channelling violence towards particular groups and individuals – mostly, but not exclusively, symbolically. It is high time that the international expert and policy community dealing with this phenomenon starts addressing the issues of domestic, state-sponsored disinformation as seriously as they do foreign authoritarian efforts. It is a dangerous illusion that EU Member States are immune to this phenomenon, and the blindness to such attempts could help the destruction of democracies in the middle of Europe.