Tell me who you vote for, I’ll tell you what you think of America
The United States is one of Hungary’s key allies in both economic and military terms. The Hungarian National Security Strategy is very clear about this relationship: Hungary’s fundamental interest is maintaining high-level military and economic cooperation with the US.
However, Hungarian society is not even close to being united behind a positive assessment of America. Medián’s polls show that fewer and fewer Hungarians would pick Washington over Moscow (53% said so in 2015, but only 45% in 2022) even though Hungary chose to ally with the US on its own free will, while earlier, Russia had forced our country into an alliance as a conqueror.
According to Political Capital’s recently released study, the fact that Hungarians mainly evaluate the US on a party-political basis is key to understanding the above-mentioned contradiction. Recent social media posts and public statements by senior Hungarian officials indicate a clear affinity for the Republican party. Since opposition parties made it clear that they are closer to the incumbent US administration, it is unsurprising that the vast majority of Fidesz voters would pick Russia if they had to choose one, while most opposition supporters want to side with the US.
There is very little space for politically unbiased discussions on US-Hungarian economic and defense ties. The gap between the ruling party and the opposition does not leave space for awareness-raising about the joint strategic and national interests of the two countries either.
Hungarian perceptions of the United States are also defined by an interesting phenomenon uncovered by Political Capital’s media analysis. Articles published between 31 May 2021 and the same day of 2022 mainly wrote about the US in the context of Russia. The fact that the US is present as a counter-pole to Russia to such an extent in Hungarian media may serve to strengthen the anti-American sentiments of society’s pro-Kremlin strata.
The majority of articles concerning the United States might seem negative, but the overall picture is not as concerning. Government-organized media is critical of the current US administration, especially to President Biden, but writes positively about right-wing actors, such as Donald Trump or Tucker Carlson. The main source of US-related disinformation in Hungarian media used to be “grey zone” outlets (media that have no official or semi-official connection to political parties but still openly support one side or the other) or alternative pro-Kremlin sites – but nowadays, a significant amount of manipulative content concerning the United States is increasingly prevalent on pro-government portals, too.
US-related conspiracies connected to Russia’s war in Ukraine made their way into mainstream media, too, and they swiftly became popular among Hungarians vulnerable to disinformation. The increasing popularity of such false narratives about the war is partly aided by the uptick in visitors to some pro-Kremlin alternative sites and by the increasing prevalence of allegations in mainstream media that the US is responsible for the outbreak of the war.
The United States is also frequently targeted by inauthentic online behavior on Facebook. There are multiple repetitive Facebook comments (occurring at least 100 times in our sample) accusing Washington of disregarding the problems minorities face in Ukraine, seeking to build a NATO base in Crimea or operating biolabs on Ukrainian territory. These comments showing up under posts by mainstream media aim to target those Facebook users with disinformation who otherwise would not see such narratives.
Regardless of these challenges, the overwhelming majority of Hungarians would not support fully turning our backs to America; for instance, because they count on the protection of the US if someone attacked the country. However a consensus in the Hungarian political elite regarding our relationship with the US is required to open the possibility of improving the image of the US in the country, which could ensure that the majority of the population hears about our nation’s strongest ally outside of the party-political context, too.
This project was funded by a grant from the United States Department of State. The opinions, findings, and conclusions stated herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Department of State.
The full study is available here, in Hungarian (pdf, 1.41MB).