Media hegemony and exporting disinformation across the border


The Orbán regime’s influence on Hungarian minorities’ public discourses in Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Ukraine

The Orbán regime has persistently pursued control over Hungarian minority communities and media in neighboring countries through various measures, primarily financial support, extensively investigated by journalists since 2010. Nevertheless, its disinformation influence has remained undisclosed so far. Political Capital’s recent analysis of Hungarian-language local media in Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, and Serbia has revealed how the legitimate representation of Hungarian minority interests has turned into the exploitation of these communities for party interests by exporting “illiberal” values and pro-Russian narratives running counter to the long-term interests of Hungarian minority communities, the national interests of neighboring countries, and the security of the Euro-Atlantic Community.

Our novel research focuses on the Orbán regime's influence on the media of Hungarian minority communities in Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, and Ukraine to understand how Hungarian disinformation narratives affect these communities and contribute to the regime’s influence abroad, particularly in the context of the Russo-Ukrainian war. We monitored and investigated four main types of narratives – those concerning the war, anti-Russia sanctions, immigration, and gender-related issues – disseminated by online news media, political actors, or Facebook pages. The research was executed in collaboration with our local partners: Virág Gyurkovics, editor-in-chief and responsible editor of Átlátszó Vajdaság in Serbia; Slovak investigative journalist Karin Kőváry Sólymos; Zoltán Sipos, editor-in-chief of Átlátszó Erdély, and András Soltész and Dmytro Tuzhanskyi from the magazine Varosh in Ukraine’s Transcarpathia region. This research on the influence of the Hungarian regime over minority communities’ publics was intended to be a follow-up to and a complementary part of our investigation into how the regime projects power abroad in pursuit of political, security, and economic interests.

In our report, we build on the key findings of Political Capital's initial analysis, titled "The Building of Hungarian Political Influence – The Orbán Regime's Efforts to Export Illiberalism." In that study, we argue that the Orbán regime’s key foreign policy goal is to create a favorable foreign policy environment, which ensures the regime’s long-term survival domestically and prevents and counters international criticism by building alliances with populist-right actors, fostering an “illiberal”, “sovereignist” hegemony change in the EU, and elevating the Hungarian government’s role internationally. The regime has also established hegemony over Hungarian minority communities in neighboring countries for two reasons: 1) to secure the votes of dual citizens in Hungary’s parliamentary elections and 2) to gain indirect influence on mainstream politics in these countries. Hence, instead of the legitimate and necessary support of Hungarian minority communities and the representation of their interests, the Orbán regime has exploited these communities for its power-political interests.

  • The Orbán regime has established a significant power or hegemonic position in the minority media sectors in all four examined countries, relying on political, organizational, and financial tools. This has three cornerstones: 1) to what extent the Orbán regime controls the local media beyond the border; 2) how embedded the given minority media space is into the majority one; and 3) how diverse, competition-based, and free the majority media space is. The combination of these factors strongly determines the extent to which governmental propaganda and disinformation, as well as the Hungarian and local actors promoting them, can influence the Hungarian minority public and flood the minority and potentially also the majority media space with disinformation.
  • Our database containing 1,245 relevant webpage articles and Facebook posts for the period monitored between 1 January and 15 July 2023 revealed the overall distribution of the four types of disinformation narratives under revision. The most widespread disinformation narrative concerned the Russo-Ukrainian war, accounting for 40% of our sample, followed by the anti-migration narrative, 29%, the anti-gender (19%) and the anti-sanctions (12%) narratives. All in all, the anti-war and anti-sanctions “peace narrative” dominated the Hungarian minority public discourses in all four countries, covering altogether 52% of all results. Its main message stated that the West is responsible for the war by violating the Russian "sphere of interest", arming Ukraine and causing a serious economic crisis by "rejecting peace" and imposing sanctions. In contrast, the Russians represent normality, defending so-called “traditional values,” while the West is in an identity crisis, with a 'population exchange' based on migration and a desire to 'rainbowise' families.
  • The anti-gender and anti-migration narratives were less prevalent overall (accounting for 48% of our sample altogether), but there was a wide variation between countries. The anti-gender narrative was negligible in Serbia and Ukraine, and so was the anti-migration narrative in Ukraine. Nevertheless, the latter was the most common narrative in Serbia and the second, but also highly widespread, in Slovakia. The reasons for these differences lie mostly in national political and social conditions.
  • Regarding the presence of disinformation narratives on a country-by-country basis, Slovakia and Romania are the most exposed to the Orbán regime's narrative-based influence. However, while Slovakia has the second largest Hungarian diaspora with approximately 450-460 thousand members[1], 57% of all disinformation items were generated there. In comparison, Romania, with the biggest Hungarian minority community of 1,1 million members[2] accounts for “only” 24% of all disinformation items. The share of disinformation items generated in Serbia (11%) and Ukraine (8%) in our sample roughly reflect the Hungarian diaspora’s size and proportion and media space in these countries.
  • We assessed the vulnerability of Hungarian minority communities to Hungary-originated disinformation based on six factors: 1) the level of press freedom; 2) the cooperation between the Orbán regime and local majority leaders; 3) the extent of the Hungarian government’s control over the minority media space; 4) the relationship between local majority and minority media spaces; 5) trust in media; and 6) the ratio of disinformation narratives for each country in our sample.
  • According to our assessment, the Hungarian diasporas in Serbia and Slovakia are the most vulnerable. The reasons include that both the Serbian and Slovak prime ministers (latter only a candidate at the time of our research) have been allies of Viktor Orbán, voicing key elements of PM Orbán’s rhetoric, e.g., on migrants or Russia, and heavily relying on disinformation narratives similar to Orbán’s. Thus, even though a higher proportion of Hungarians in Slovakia also consume majority-language media, there is an intense background noise of disinformation in the whole media space, similar to the situation in Hungary. Moreover, Serbia is an “illiberal” or “hybrid regime”, similar to the Hungarian political system, with solid control of the press. In contrast, in Romania and Ukraine, Hungarian minorities have easier access to more unbiased and fact-based information, thanks to greater accessibility across minority and majority media spaces, a healthier media space, the absence of strong majority political actors allied with Orbán, and less disinformation background noise.
  • Although the disinformation narratives disseminated in the Hungarian minority communities advance the Orbán regime's power-political interests, this tactic is detrimental to the interests of Hungary or the Hungarian diaspora.
    • Establishing control over the politics and public sphere of Hungarian minority communities, making them dependent on Budapest, and their deliberate polarisation along the patterns used in Hungary weaken these communities’ autonomy, cohesion, and self-defense capabilities against hostile political or information influences.
    • The spread of centralized disinformation increases susceptibility to domestic dis- or misinformation, foreign hostile influence operations and an overall distrust in independent media among both majority and minority populations.
    • Pro-Kremlin and anti-Ukrainian narratives, as well as those increasing social polarization around the war and minorities’ alleged role in territorial disputes, strengthen Eurosceptic and pro-Kremlin actors and erode trust in NATO and Euro-Atlantic structures.
    • Cross-border disinformation activities also present a clear risk of regional destabilization, as the Hungarian diaspora could become a target of Russian “active measures” utilized to create diplomatic tensions between countries or pit majority or minority societies against each other over minority-related issues or historical grievances.

The full English study is available here (pdf, 1MB). 


Our research, conducted between 1 January and 15 July 2023, analyzed disinformation narratives in minority media spaces using qualitative content analysis and quantitative tools. This involved understanding the contexts in which these narratives are produced, disseminated, and consumed abroad. Initially, we selected influential media and social platforms shaping local diaspora publicity, based on desktop research, partner inputs, and outreach data. Selection criteria included (1) regular dissemination of government disinformation without critique, (2) incorporation of such narratives in content, (3) and ties to the Hungarian government through personal, institutional, or financial relations. We then identified four main government communication narratives, using keyword searches to extract relevant online articles and Facebook posts through SentiOne and CrowdTangle monitoring tools. We categorized these into four narrative types and their sub-narratives for analysis using qualitative and quantitative methods. Finally, we examined the network of actors (media, journalists, NGOs, etc.) involved in spreading these messages to understand the sources, dissemination patterns, and impact of disinformation and propaganda.