Disinformation wonderland in the Hungarian government-controlled online media: Origo's articles on Putin and Zelensky
At the beginning of March, Hungarian news site Telex featured a survey of articles that Origo – a government-affiliated media outlet – included in the Breaking News category during the first year of the Ukraine war. Political Capital took a closer look at the 727 articles on Hungary's third most visited news portal: headlines that recall the rhetoric of the Soviet “peace movements” of the Cold War, with folktale simplicity and an almost exclusive focus on the war. They suggest that Ukraine and the United States are the aggressors, that Zelensky is crazy, reckless, and drunken, while the competent Putin is the one who is trying to avoid escalation. Although Hungary is a member of the Western alliance system, this is not reflected in the flagship articles and headlines of one of the most important outlets of the government-controlled media empire. Instead, it parrots widely debunked disinformation claims of the Russian propaganda machinery.
"Another extraordinary twist: America might be producing biological weapons". "US war plan ready for US elections" - two headlines from Origo's April 5 news stories, highlighted as “Breaking News”. The former headline refers to an article that uncritically paraphrases a Kremlin statement.
Origo's role in the domestic online media market remains significant, given that it is not only the largest online news site in the government-controlled media but also one of the most popular news sites in the country. According to the latest NMHH online audience measurement report, Origo is the third most visited website in Hungary after 24.hu and Blikk.hu, with 4.5 million users visiting Origo at least once in the last quarter of 2022. Since the text in the “Breaking News” box appears not only on the home page of Origo, but also at the top of each article on the site, whether it is about public issues, sports, science or cars, the messages selected in this way reach a large number of readers who are not necessarily looking for these kinds of content. This highlighting leads to a much higher click-through rate for featured news than the average news article - and anyone who visits the site is sure to see the headline itself, even if they don't click on the article.
As the headline of the Telex article from early March ("In Origo's alternate universe, Ukrainians are starting and losing World War 3 every week") shows, the topos of the now resurgent World War 3 has long been present in the government-controlled public sphere, including Origo.
The word cloud below indicates that war-related topics dominated the breaking news of the past 13 months (88%), with the frequency of statements about Putin and Russia exceeding those about Zelensky and Ukraine. In our analysis, we look at this tendency in depth.
In our analysis, we used the Wayback Machine to examine headlines from 23 February 2022 to 31 March 2023, comparing it with the original Telex database. The resulting 727 unique breaking news stories were then analyzed based on how they portray the leaders of the two countries at war, Volodymyr Zelensky and Vladimir Putin. Given the recurring narrative in the Hungarian government-controlled media that the “US and Russia are in fact at war”, we also examined the context in which US President Joe Biden appears in the headlines of breaking news stories.
Frequency of mentions: Putin > Zelensky
Between the outbreak of the war on February 24 last year and March 31 this year, 727 addresses are listed in the Wayback Machine database. Of these, Putin is mentioned in over a fifth, 160 times, Zelensky 54 times, while Biden appears only occasionally in the featured titles, a total of 8 times.
The distribution of occurrences over time has varied considerably. Putin was typically featured more in the first five months of the war, from 13 to 26 times, while in the last eight months, he has been in the headlines 7 to 12 times a month. Zelensky has been mentioned more frequently in headlines since November last year, but Origo readers were still more likely to see a headline about Putin each month.
Not surprisingly, the Ukrainian president appears in a predominantly negative context in the headlines of breaking news. If we look only from here, we can see – in line with Russian propaganda claims – a picture of a “reckless leader” with “dangerous” and “crazy ideas”, making “scandalous” and “desperate” decisions. Moreover, he “takes revenge on his own people”, “sends his soldiers to their deaths”, “wants to involve more countries in the war”, and “has started a third world war” and “nuclear war”. He is a “human wimp”: a “liar”, a “coward”, a “drunk” (to the extent that he “started speaking Russian”), a “secret neo-Nazi” and has a “scandalous business record”. Some articles even link him to crimes: a “mobster” who also owns a luxury beachside villa. However, the headlines seem to suggest that his allies are seeing this too because the West is “getting fed up with him”, “Austrian politicians have abandoned him” and “the French are making him pay back what he has stolen”. But “the Ukrainians are fed up with him” too, as they have “revolted against him”.
Joe Biden has only appeared eight times in breaking news headlines, and his appearances show him as an unbalanced and unstable leader. According to Origo, he is “confused”, “threatening”, “rambling”, “lying”, and “dares to answer only with teleprompters”.
Although the government has said many times since the outbreak of the war that it condemns Russian military aggression (a phrase even used in a recent 'pro-peace' parliamentary resolution), Origo breaking news articles of the past 13 months have portrayed Vladimir Putin – the leader who initiated the war- not as an aggressor but as a determined but prudent head of state of a great power. Putin “makes announcements” (37 times), “sends messages” (28), “responds” (12), “takes decisions” (10), and usually does so in a “tough”, “dramatic”, “unexpected”, and “extraordinary” way. A negative context like that of Zelensky and Biden did not appear in any of the 160 occurrences.
Based on the frequency and context, there seems to be a conscious guiding principle in the selection of breaking news: Putin should often be portrayed in a positive light and as an active leader, thus mitigating the deteriorating perception of the war. The image of Zelensky is tarnished by headlines through his allegedly negative human qualities and leadership skills, decreasing readers’ sympathy for the party under attack. The breaking news in Origo shows no intention of correcting the foreign policy orientation of the Hungarian government, and the news about Zelensky has become even more extreme in recent months than it initially was. The articles often openly cite exclusively Russian sources (e.g. here and here) and in many cases, clearly reflect the narratives spread in Europe by Russian disinformation outlets (e.g. about bioweapons or Zelensky dragging Europe into nuclear war).
Although Hungary is a member of the Western alliance system, this is not reflected in the flagship articles and headlines of one of the most important outlets of the government-controlled media empire: their tone is much closer to Moscow than to the NATO and EU narrative.
This analysis is also available in Hungarian, here.
Csaba Molnár - Péter Krekó