An assessment of disinformation narratives in the Hungarian election campaign
The disinformation narratives spread by the ruling party and the far right undeniably became a dominant force in the 2022 Hungarian elections. Fidesz took maximum advantage of its media dominance to spread untrue and misleading allegations and narratives about its political opponents, with virtually no external control. Fidesz's information offensive has further worsened the already disinformation-ridden Hungarian media space, putting even more pressure on the remaining independent press. This article is an initial report on a larger study aiming to investigate the disinformation and anti-democratic narratives circulating in Hungarian media in the two months leading up to the 3 April 2022 elections.
The formal electoral campaign was supposed to start only on 12 February, but the informal campaign had in fact started months earlier, and with it the dissemination of different narratives by political actors. This process was further intensified by the escalation of the Russian-Ukrainian war on 24 February, changing the focus of the campaign. For several weeks, the previous campaign messages, which had focused on economic issues, were completely replaced by narratives related to the war.
Key disinformation and anti-democratic narratives
Prior to the war (1 February – 23 February)
Before the escalation of the Russian-Ukrainian war, the ruling party's campaign was mainly focused on economic issues such as the utility cost cuts, the 13th month pension and tax rebates. The main message was that while the government was providing support to the population in the form of extra pensions, tax rebates, utility cost cuts, the opposition wants to raise taxes, re-introduce the hospital entry fee, privatize healthcare, take away utility price cuts and the 13th month pension. One of Fidesz's most-watched videos in February sought to strengthen these claims. In addition, Hungarian media gave considerable coverage to the government's so-called "child protection" referendum. The claims made in campaign messages were based almost entirely on half-sentences taken out of context or outright lies. The opposition coalition campaigned precisely on fixing state healthcare and the pension system, and Márki-Zay even fought many times against the parties to preserve the cuts to utility bills.
Péter Márki-Zay, the six-party opposition’s candidate for prime minister also campaigned on economic issues. He claimed that under the Orbán governments Hungary had become the "most corrupt and poorest nation" in the European Union. The prime ministerial candidate's claims were checked by Lakmusz, which found several instances of misrepresentations, but the extent of these was different in order of magnitude compared to the manipulative claims in the governing party’s campaign.
Another narrative was about former PM Ferenc Gyurcsány's alleged leadership role, as a kind of puppet master, controlling Péter Márki-Zay and the opposition coalition. An example of this is the "Gyurcsány show" campaign, which often appeared in advertisements and on posters, in which the leader of the opposition coalition is portrayed as Ferenc Gyurcsány's man, thus simplifying the political contest into a two-man duel between Viktor Orbán and the highly unpopular ex-PM Ferenc Gyurcsány. The campaign itself was launched before the opposition primaries and was always adjusted to the candidate who was winning at the time - first Gergely Karácsony, lord mayor of Budapest, and then Péter Márki-Zay.
Two political parties, Our Homeland (Mi Hazánk) and Normal Life Party (Normális Élet Pártja, NÉP), campaigned with medical disinformation narratives and conspiracy theories regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. The latter wrote in its manifesto that in their belief:
- The SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus is most likely man-made and spread from the laboratory in Wuhan, China.
- The US and Chinese governments are equally responsible for the development of the virus.
- The outbreak has been artificially inflated along a long preparatory process, the main drivers of which are the pharmaceutical and hospital industries, Big Tech companies, partly as direct investors in the pharmaceutical and hospital industries, and partly as investors seeking to gain business opportunities and expand their influence through the collection of personal data. Software maker Bill Gates, Anthony Fauci, the US President's chief adviser on epidemiology, and Tedros A. Gebreijus, the WHO President, have played and continue to play a lion's share in the implementation of the organization.
After the start of the invasion (24 February – 31 March)
For a couple of days, the war completely dominated Hungarian media space, and it took the pro-government media some time to recalibrate its narratives. A differentiated campaign started to smooth differences between the government’s previous pro-Russian foreign policy and its current communication. With Fidesz's voter base divided over the war, Fidesz had to communicate different messages at the same time to avoid dividing their own camp and giving the pro-Kremlin communication space to a political opponent - primarily Mi Hazánk. These messages were contradictory to say the least, as the government's official statement condemned Russia's aggression, while anti-Ukrainian and anti-Western opinions portraying Russia as a victim were reinforced in government-controlled media. The subsequent "peace communication" also proved to be effective because it was able to appeal not only to Fidesz voters, but also to opposition ones.
After the outbreak of the war it took a couple of days for the Fidesz media to find again its focus, but after a controversial comment by Márki-Zay during an interview, in which he declared that “Hungary must implement the joint decision of NATO. So, if NATO decides to support Ukraine with weapons, of course [Hungary] will support it", they found the key message. The complete media empire of Fidesz started accusing Péter Márki-Zay and the united opposition alliance of trying to drag Hungary into the war by sending soldiers and weapons into Ukraine. It became the key message, refocusing the attention of the voter base on the “threat” posed by the opposition. The main message of Fidesz's campaign thus became "the pro-peace right and the pro-war left", similar to the anti-vaccine opposition's narrative last year.
- The Left would send weapons and soldiers to Ukraine, thus dragging Hungary into war
- Based on Péter Márki-Zay's previously mentioned half-sentence, the pro-government press, and later the entire pro-government political elite began accusing the opposition of wanting to send Hungarian soldiers to Ukraine immediately, "dragging" Hungary into war. "The government supports Ukraine's sovereignty, and our country is also in line with the common EU position. In contrast, the left is using the current situation for campaigning. And Péter Márki-Zay would send Hungarian soldiers and weapons straight to Ukraine." - wrote Magyar Nemzet.
- The left would abolish the utility cost cuts
- Another key message was still focusing on economic narratives previously mentioned, but reinforced by the war narrative, claiming that by dragging Hungary into the conflict the opposition would destroy the government’s achievement such as the utility cost cuts. "Not only did they not vote for our measures, but they kept attacking them. The best example is the utility cost cuts. If somebody cuts off Russian gas and oil, which they are about to do, how are they going to defend the cuts? That's impossible." - Viktor Orbán said in an interview.
- Foreign forces are interfering in the election in support of the left
- The latest element in the narrative was the claim that the opposition had allegedly agreed with international actors, such as Ukraine, to immediately start arms deliveries to Ukraine and to vote for sanctions on gas and oil supplies in the event of their election victory. Here, several narratives ('foreign agent', 'pro-war left', 'abolition of cuts') merged in the last days of the campaign.
- Left = War, Fidesz = Peace
- Fidesz's position may have been strengthened by the fear of war, and it seems that after a short period of uncertainty, Viktor Orbán incorporated people's need for security and stability into his campaign more effectively than the opposition. Accordingly, Fidesz's campaign focused on repeating the message. – “War or peace. If we want peace, we should choose the national side; if you want war, support the left."
On the government side, the current situation increasingly seems to be that there is a 'central', largely pro-Ukraine narrative from the political elite, that objective reporting is present in the pro-government media, while the transmission of pro-Kremlin, anti-Ukraine narratives is 'outsourced' to experts and opinion leaders grouped around Fidesz - and then these opinions and analyses appear in the columns of the government-controlled press.
At the same time different pro-government media sites started to spread pro-Kremlin disinformation narratives about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, sometimes directly borrowing from the Kremlin’s playbook. This is mainly spread by commentaries and through invited experts in the state media, while the reporting on the news remains neutral.
The government-controlled media justified the Russian invasion with the following Russian strategic narratives:
- The Russian minority in Ukraine must be protected from atrocities or alleged genocide:
- On the main state channel M1, the senior foreign affairs editor of the public media explained that Putin is acting to protect the Russian-majority population of Donetsk and Luhansk provinces.
- A foreign affairs expert also justified the Russian operations on M1 by saying that "whether genocide in the classical sense of the word has taken place is not known" (while the Russian side has no evidence to support this either).
- A legal expert from Századvég stressed on the M1 news channel that Vladimir Putin is referring to genocide by Ukrainians and that nuclear weapons are being developed in Ukraine. "If these allegations are correct, they would cloud the picture of unilateral war", the expert added.
- It is NATO or Ukraine's aggression that is responsible for the conflict:
- A security policy expert at the government-funded Centre for Fundamental Rights told M1 that the United States was "working hard" to "disengage" Ukraine from Russia, and that it was unacceptable for Vladimir Putin.
- György Nógrádi, one of the best-known post-Soviet experts, now a pro-government expert, says it is in Russia's interest to have a Ukrainian leadership that does not want nuclear weapons.
- Ukraine as a state does not exist or is an artificial entity:
- "I can tell you frankly, I am completely unconcerned about what will happen to the Ukrainians. (...) And no, I'm not fucking moved by the situation in Crimea, for example. (...) Who has more rights to Transylvania, us or the Romanians? And yet Transylvania has been under Romanian rule for twice as long as Crimea has been under Ukrainian rule", one author of Pesti Srácok explained.
The Our Homeland Movement joined these “efforts” and connected their previous anti-West conspiracy theories to pro-Kremlin disinformation narratives in their new campaign. Lately the representatives of this political party started campaigning against NATO, and in favor of neutrality, somewhat in line with Fidesz’s narrative and the larger anti-war sentiment generated by pro-Kremlin movements in the CEE region.
- For example, according to László Toroczkai, PM-candidate of the party, the "foreign-led revolution and coup" of Euromaidan itself was not legitimate, because the corrupt Yanukovych was followed by an equally corrupt leadership. Ukraine is also blamed for its rapprochement with NATO and the EU and for its arms build-up, which allegedly flouts the Budapest Agreement. The video shared by László Toroczkai was further shared by Facebook groups and pages of various politicians and public groups including Kárpátalja legyen újra Magyar… (Make Transcarpathia Hungarian Again…), Anti-Hungarianness.com, Oroszország mellett állunk ki (We stand by Russia).
- Toroczkai also echoes the Kremlin's narrative that a bio-weapons laboratory has been set up in Ukraine with Pentagon support.
- Toroczkai also cites the alleged genocide in Donbass, which has not even been substantiated by the Kremlin, and the OSCE mission monitoring the conflict on the ground has found no evidence of it.
- Our Homeland has launched a petition on its website to stop the government from supporting sanctions that would harm the Hungarian people and called on the government "not to make Hungarians pay the price of the US-Russian war, subserviently fulfilling the demands of Brussels and NATO".
- According to Mi Hazánk, one of Hungary's interests is to stay out of the war, and they therefore reject the transfer of armed forces to Ukraine, as well as the arrival of US or other Western troops in Hungary "to prepare for a possible attack". Moreover, Toroczkai said, it is important for Hungarians to open the eyes of their allies, so that European nations do not allow themselves to be dragged into a war aimed precisely at weakening Europe.
- Gyula Popély, the party's candidate for president, said that the territorial integrity of the Ukrainian state was not in Hungary’s national interest.
Along with other international anti-vax movements, the Hungarian anti-vax community also started to spread pro-Kremlin narratives too. The Normal Life Party, established by a popular anti-vax leader György Gődény, released a statement, where they repeated pro-Kremlin disinformation narratives about the war. They encouraged the Ukrainian government to “stop the military actions against the Russian population in Ukraine, which was one of the causes of the conflict”. They also “understand the Russian side's concern about Ukraine's accession to NATO and we condemn the fact that the Atlantic bloc is further provoking Russia by expanding and deploying more and more weapons systems.”
The effects of these disinformation campaigns are starting to show:
- According to a recent opinion poll by Medián: 43% of Fidesz voters think that “Russia has acted legitimately to protect its interests and security” when it attacked Ukraine last in February, while only 37% viewed that “Russia has committed serious and unjustified aggression against Ukraine” and 20% remained undecided.
- Contrary to that, only 9% of the opposition voters think that “Russia has acted legitimately to protect its interests and security” when it attacked Ukraine last in February, while 84% viewed that “Russia has committed serious and unjustified aggression against Ukraine” and 7% remained undecided.
- Those who supported “other parties” were divided too: 38% of them thought that “Russia has acted legitimately to protect its interests and security” when it attacked Ukraine last in February, while 50% viewed that “Russia has committed serious and unjustified aggression against Ukraine” and 12% remained undecided.
This article is an initial report on a larger study to investigate the disinformation and anti-democratic narratives circulating in the Hungarian media in the two months leading up to the 3 April 2022 elections in cooperation with Globsec. The aim of the research is to map the disinformation used in the election campaign and the actors involved in its dissemination, as well as to document the strategies used in the campaign. The full results of the research will be published after the election.