The voice of the Kremlin dominated Hungarian social media until the outbreak of the war against Ukraine
Political Capital conducted research into anti-NATO narratives in the Hungarian media space between 1 September 2021 and 14 January 2022 – well before Russia’s attack on Ukraine started. According to the institute, the political elite and mainstream media remained largely positive or neutral on NATO, and, thus, less popular pro-Kremlin alternative portals were the main sources of disinformation on the military alliance. However, on Facebook, discussions in comments were dominated by anti-NATO disinformation narratives straight out of the Kremlin’s propaganda channels.
Hungary's membership in NATO enjoys overwhelming support among Hungarian voters and a majority of Hungarians agree that Hungary should defend an ally, if attacked. However, nearly a third of the population believed conspiracy theories about NATO and the US, according to a study by Political Capital. The study found that anti-NATO narratives are spread primarily by pro-Kremlin alternative portals and pro-Kremlin Facebook users in the Hungarian social media space.
Since only marginal political actors spread openly anti-NATO narratives, the alliance has not become the subject of daily political conflicts. In contrast, such consensus does not prevail among the major political players on issues that are directly or indirectly linked to the military alliance: the governing party has mostly conveyed a positive image of Russia to voters in recent years, while the opposition alliance has taken a much more critical line towards Moscow.
The analysis also shows that the image of the United States is not uniform. The two major blocs of the Hungarian political elite have different attitudes towards the US government. Fidesz-KDNP supported the Trump administration, while it is critical of the Biden cabinet, even raising the possibility that the latter could interfere in Hungarian elections. The opposition speaks more positively about the Biden administration. The risk of this division is that the image of America among Hungarian voters will be shaped on a partisan basis, the think tank points out.
Looking at NATO-related media coverage in detail, the researchers conclude that the mainstream Hungarian press, including government-controlled media, generally reported neutrally or positively on NATO in the period under examination. At the same time, some media outlets uncritically republished reports from the MTI that contained only the Kremlin's position, thus unwittingly spreading Russian disinformation narratives. Alternative pro-Kremlin media is one of the main sources of anti-NATO disinformation narratives in Hungary. The messages disseminated by them can leak into more popular “grey zone” media outlets, which clearly favor one political side or another and lack the financial and professional background of mainstream media.
Unlike traditional media, the majority of comments on Facebook Political Capital collected with the aid of the SentiOne media monitoring software are anti-NATO. The vast majority (58%) of the NATO-related comments were critical of the organization’s activities. Debates are clearly dominated by anti-NATO disinformation narratives on social media platforms as well as in the comments sections of mainstream news sites. All the common pro-Kremlin narratives are present in these comments: users list well-known manipulative messages, such as claims that NATO and Washington want to launch a war against Russia, or that the Kremlin's policy towards Ukraine is justified, since, they claim, it seeks to prevent the US from controlling Kyiv. This social media activity may play a role in spreading NATO-skeptic attitudes. The narratives are being spread not only by ordinary users and enthusiastic pro-Kremlin activists but fake profiles as well.
It is, however, impossible to pinpoint who is behind these fake Facebook users. There are indications that they are not linked to major Hungarian political forces – but neither this nor the opposite can be proven. In the comments sections of websites, it appears that users who criticize the United States, and in particular its current administration, tend to support the Hungarian ruling party. However, this does not mean that they are controlled by Fidesz.
As a conclusion to the study, Political Capital stresses that the relative success of manipulative narratives against NATO in Hungary is also a result of a lack of information. This is why it would be of the utmost importance that the Hungarian population has access to more information about NATO through well-constructed information campaigns. It is equally important to inform voters about what Hungary stands to gain from its partnership with the United States regardless of political considerations.
The Russian attack on Ukraine has naturally led to a clash of narratives in the social media space, with differing interpretations of the roles, intentions, and responsibilities of the two sides. During this period, Political Capital analysts are continuously collecting data to build a more accurate picture of the disinformation techniques that are substantially influencing social attitudes.
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, 1.45MB).