Pro-Russian propaganda in the mainstream, anti-vaccination on the fringes


The study was carried out in the framework of the HDMO (Hungarian Digital Media Observatory) project. In the framework of the 30-month project, researchers from Political Capital and Mertek Media Monitor are investigating the spread of disinformation and the effectiveness of measures taken to combat it, journalists from the international news agency AFP and Lakmusz are fact-checking, Idea Foundation is providing training on media literacy, and the digital infrastructure of HDMO is provided by Epresspack. As in the first phase, the project is co-funded by the European Commission. The HDMO consortium was selected by the European Commission through an open call for tenders and is fully independent in all its activities.

The full study is available here (pdf, 895KB).

Executive summary, conclusions

Our study describes the evolution and spread of two types of disinformation. The first case study is about the war in Ukraine and how US companies bought up a large part of Ukraine's land, practically “colonising the country”, and the second is about the Pfizer vaccine being used as a kind of 'human experiment' without any pre-testing.

Our main conclusions are the following:

Green light to conspiracy theories about the war and yellow to the anti-vaccine ones

  • After the start of the invasion of Russia against Ukraine in 2022, there was a visible shift in the entire European disinformation ecosystem, as reported by EDMO: sources spreading disinformation about Covid and vaccines later become the primary source of the war-related – mainly Kremlin-oriented – conspiracy theories and disinformation.[i] This phenomenon was clearly visible in the Hungarian COVID-sceptic political subculture as well: sites and politicians who were spreading health-related fake news immediately turned towards war-related disinformation as the war started.[ii] However, in the government-controlled Hungarian offline and online media environment a different logic prevails: while pro-Russian narratives are given green light, conspiracy theories against covid and vaccines are much less likely to spread, and has been more blocked by the central political will.
  • While both the Ukrainian land purchase and the Pfizer vaccine (international) conspiracy theories have appeared on government-controlled platforms, the two cases differed significantly in their coverage. The narrative of the “colonalisation” of Ukrainian land by the US entered the Hungarian public at a clearly identifiable point – through the so-called V4NA "news agency". This portal is, in fact, a lookalike press agency, which serves as a governmental mouthpiece aimed at legitimising governmental narratives and stories as a pseudo-international, pseudo-independent source. This story was rapidly, intensively, and concentratedly disseminated by the government-controlled media (however, it was not spread by official governmental politicians). Also, it could penetrate into the tabloid press and even to the agricultural professional press.
  • The Pfizer-Small case, on the other hand, permeated through several marginal sources, and was reported in several small waves. The Pfizer conspiracy theory was only leaking into the government publicity, and then quickly disappeared from there.
  • This difference was articulated in the reach and engagement figures in the social media space: the articles on US "colonialism" in Ukraine generated three times more interactions than disinformation about Pfizer.
  • This dichotomy also points to the fact that in the domestic information autocracy, central control of narratives can have an important impact on their public representation. While the anti-vaccine narratives have been largely banished from the public sphere by the central political will, the "anti-war", "pro-peace" narratives, and the conspiracy theories that grew out of them and which serve Russian interests, have been deliberately introduced into the mainstream publicity (and in some cases of communication).
  • This selective approach to different kinds of conspiracy theories might be related to the fact that Viktor Orbán’s government (unlike other populist right-wing politicians, such as Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro) has restrained from openly promoting COVID-scepticism and vaccine-scepticism for practical and tactical reasons. Similarly to Aleksander Vucic’s Serbia, Hungary was among the first countries in Europe that started the vaccine rollout with Russian and Chinese vaccines.

The (possible) impact of fact-checks/fact-checking

  • The results of the two case studies suggest that fact-checking has consequences for some of the media.
  • The government-controlled media is largely immune to fact-checking: even after the Lakmusz fact-check was made public, disinformation about the US purchase of land in Ukraine was still being merrily spread online, and shared by several anti-American conspiracy theorists. In the latter medium, as well as in the pro-government public in general, fact-checkers have become a kind of public enemy, a negative point of identification. The ruling party's position in the Hungarian discourse on fact-checking – which is represented through a variety of means and through organisations with open or opaque links to the government – is that there is no such thing as journalistic objectivity or independence.[iii]
  • In other segments of the media, however, there is a clear impact of fact-checking. There were two online media sources (a tabloid news site and an agrarian site) which deleted the false statements that they cited from pro-governmental outlets, certainly thanks to the fact-check. We have also seen that some commentators – using the fact-check – have tried to persuade others about the veracity of the fact-check.
  • While the fact-checking article on the war reached many more people (33,500), the one related to vaccines reached fewer (8,800). The increased interest in the first topic is also indicated by the fact that this was the 27th most popular topic among the 350 articles written since the launch of Lakmusz, while the one on Pfizer took only the 173rd A similar difference was in the estimated outreach of the original articles containing disinformation, which is based on the publication dynamics.
  • Facebook's built-in fact-checking system marked both articles of two widely read outlets ( and as false, citing the AFP fact-check. This restricted access to these articles, as they opened only after the warning, when clicked. However, the dozens of other articles can be accessed via Facebook without any hindrance.

 The full study is available here (pdf, 895KB).



[i] EDMO: How Covid-19 conspiracy theorists pivoted to pro-Russian hoaxes How Covid-19 conspiracy theorists pivoted to pro-Russian hoaxes – EDMO

[ii] Falyuna Nóra-Krekó Péter: Dezinformációk, amiknek terjedését nagyvállalatok a tudtuk nélkül finanszírozzák – hogyan? Dezinformációk, amiknek terjedését nagyvállalatok a tudtuk nélkül finanszírozzák – hogyan? -

[iii] Német Szilvi: "Értelmezni se tudom, mi az a liberális tényellenőr " - Facebook-hírkommentárok a tényellenőrző újságírásról, 2023.01.31. "Értelmezni se tudom, mi az a liberális tényellenőr" - Facebook-hírkommentárok a tényellenőrző újságírásról - Lakmusz