Disinformation after the first wave of the coronavirus in Central Europe
Our research examines and reveals the strategic disinformation communication related to the COVID-19 epidemic between January and June 2020 in Hungary and in the CEE region. The Hungarian nationalistic disinformation narratives are unique for at least three reasons: 1) China was depicted more as a friend than a foe, 2) anti-science narratives were not part of the mainstream, and 3) Covid-skepticism did not become widespread. Mainstream and fringe disinformation narratives about COVID-19 cast Hungary as a victim of Western aggression. Conspiracy theories about the virus being a weapon against China, or a product of the Western elite to rule the world are rather popular. Disinformation narratives also highlighted the difference between a failing West struggling to respond to the pandemic, and China, Russia and “Turkic” nations posing as humanitarian superpowers.
The COVID-19 pandemic has not only proved to be one of the greatest healthcare challenges of the world since the Spanish flu in 1918, it has accelerated a sea of political, economic, and geopolitical changes already in the making. Among such institutional changes is the fourth industrial revolution of ground-breaking technologies, like the Internet of Things (IoT), robotics, virtual reality (VR), artificial intelligence (AI), which is channeled right into the fight against the pandemic. However, the rapid changes of industries and technologies also highlighted the geopolitical problems with China in the fields of human rights issues, trade and technological wars tied into diplomacy, [i] while the country plays a central role in the dissemination of these new technologies on a global scale. Besides the industrial revolution, two of the most important societal changes caused by the pandemic concern the governmental distribution of resources, and the rule of law and protection of personal data utilized by novel technologies to track and contain the virus-outbreak. As we have found in our research paper entitled What the future holds for Europe after the pandemic,[ii] the health of democratic institutions (rule of law, freedom of media etc.), along with welfare policies and income re-distribution will determine the post-pandemic shape of countries and the international order alike. New governmental powers acquired through state of emergency legislations can easily be turned into tools of political manipulation and control. Significant portions of the populations would also support the “heavy hand” approaches in fear of further economic or political turmoil or lacking the resources to resist them. The emergence or further strengthening of hybrid regimes through this crisis would inevitably contribute to the weakening of the Western international order, since these regimes are more willing to cooperate with Russia or China
A case in point is the Hungarian government, as shown below, which did not only use the pandemic as a cover to further weaken the rule of law,[iii] freedom of the media, etc., it also tried to bond with post-Soviet autocracies and China even more on the premise of “pandemic-related cooperation” as opposed to the “lack of solidarity” from the EU. Thus, it is unsurprising that Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó recently announced: “there is a new world order to be borne based on new power structures.”[iv]
To conduct the research, we monitored virus-related articles and Facebook posts published by Hungarian mainstream and pro-Kremlin fringe media with the aid of the SentiOne platform to examine disinformation trends both quantitatively and qualitatively.
- Conspiracy theories about the virus being a weapon against China, or a product of the Western elite to rule the world are widespread in the entire Central European region – mostly on fringe sites, but they are entering the mainstream as well. Euroscepticism related to the pandemic is also present in several countries, which makes Hungarian narratives about the EU’s failure to reign in the pandemic much stronger.
- As a result of the pandemic, the Hungarian government could further erode the rule of law and strengthen the regime’s grip on independent NGOs and media, which provided the political rational and framework for epidemic-related narratives in Hungary.
- The governmental communication successfully sidelined and divided the opposition’s response to the pandemic using false narratives that accused opposition actors of standing in the way of “national unity” in times of crisis, being part of the “George Soros network,” or undermining Hungarian sovereignty, while the ruling parties stripped them of state funds and local tax revenues.
- Unlike other right-wing populist leaders in the world, Viktor Orbán’s government praised scientists and embraced their solutions – at least rhetorically. The governmental communication on the pandemic was depicted as the only fact- and science-based response. The government monopolized data collection and communication on COVID cases, and embraced and used arguments from the scientific and expert discourse. “Let’s not believe that we’ve become experts in virology. […] Let’s leave the field clear for the scientists, doctors and professors” – the prime minister said in an interview. This is an illustration of the capability of Orbán’s hybrid regime to adapt in times of crisis. In a country that was socialized in “scientific socialism” (an authoritarian regime built on some virtues of the enlightenment), this narrative proved to be powerful, as scientists are very well respected. Governmental disinformation legitimized by scientific or expert authority makes it even harder for citizens to distinguish information vital for their own survival and day-to-day activities from propaganda pieces.
- As an example, while the government referred to scientific and expert authorities, the most prevalent personnel in the regime’s communication were from the military and the police. The head of the “Operative Staff”, the emergency unit that held daily press conferences during the state of danger, is someone without scientific authority and expertise, and was used to push a disinformation narrative about illegal migrants being the biggest health threat to Hungarians.
- Our research results revealed that disinformation around the pandemic pushed Hungary further into China’s arms and closer to the post-Soviet space. This was enhanced by mainstream governmental messages claiming the success of the “Eastern Opening” foreign policy after receiving medical personal protective equipment shipments from China and other Eastern autocracies such as Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan, contrasting their actions with the lack of European or Western solidarity.
- Supported by the tale of humanitarian assistance, China’s footprint has significantly grown in Hungary as the Hungarian government signed a classified loan deal with its Chinese counterparts for the construction of the Budapest-Belgrade railway worth HUF 700 billion (EUR 2 billion). Moreover, Hungary has imported twice as many ventilators from China as needed for HUF 300 billion (EUR 857 million).
- Fringe portals and homepages seized the opportunity provided by the uncertainty of the crisis to disseminate various conspiracy theories, including but not limited to COVID-19 as a tool to forge a global government with a global surveillance program, the involvement of Western elites in the creation or exploitation of the crisis, and spreading anti-vaccination and coronavirus-sceptic sentiment. Several countries in the Central and Eastern European region experienced similar trends, both in terms of conspiracies and increasingly geopolitics-focused information environments.
- Hostile state disinformation strategies were aimed at four core vulnerable audiences trying to navigate the crisis: everyday media consumers, pro-Russian or pro-Chinese political actors across Europe attacking the establishment during times of crisis, Western decision-makers fending off unfounded conspiracies, and finally the middle-class in the CEE region, desperate to hold onto its economic status.
- Based on our research data, we outline future trends that could guide decision-makers in Hungary and in the West on how to formulate effective responses to the continuous stream of epidemic-related Russian or Chinese disinformation. COVID-19 kickstarted political, economic, geopolitical, and communication changes could lead to three future trends: the establishment of a new international “status quo,” an “autocratic expansion” of Chinese and Russian influence, or general economic and social destabilization of states as a result of the economic downturn caused by the pandemic. Hungarian economic recovery is already being discussed along clear geopolitical priorities by downplaying Western assistance and encouraging Russian or Chinese investments as part of a „pandemic cooperation” narrative.
For more, please see the study here.
 The Open Information Partnership Monitoring data used for the regional analysis covered Czechia, Hungary, Kosovo, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Ukraine in Central Eastern Europe.
 ‘Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on the Kossuth Radio Programme “Good Morning Hungary”’, Government, accessed 12 August 2020, https://www.kormany.hu/en/the-prime-minister/the-prime-minister-s-speeches/prime-minister-viktor-orban-on-the-kossuth-radio-programme-good-morning-hungary-20200508.
[i] Editorial Board, ‘Opinion | India Isn’t Just Fracturing the Internet with Its Ban on Chinese Apps. It’s Shrinking It.’, Washington Post, accessed 6 July 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/india-isnt-just-fracturing-the-internet-with-its-ban-on-chinese-apps-its-shrinking-it/2020/07/03/e5d0cad8-bbcb-11ea-8cf5-9c1b8d7f84c6_story.html.
[ii] ‘Milyen jövő vár Európára a koronavírus után?’, accessed 1 July 2020, https://politicalcapital.hu/hireink.php?article_id=2551.
[iii] ‘Nothing is more permanent than a temporary solution - the state of danger will come to an end in Hungary, but its impact remains’, accessed 6 July 2020, https://politicalcapital.hu/hirek.php?article_id=2540.
[iv] Origo, ‘Szijjártó Péter: Egy új világrend jön létre új erőviszonyokkal’, https://www.origo.hu/, accessed 6 July 2020, https://www.origo.hu/nagyvilag/20200706-szijjarto-egy-uj-vilagrend-jon-letre-uj-eroviszonyokkal.html.