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Hungarian parliamentary elections in the shadow of disinformation

The Hungarian parliamentary elections are in just a few days, and political polarisation amongst the two competing camps is at an all time high. Disinformation offensives – well known before the campaign as well – are intensifying across the country.

March 31, 2022 - Zea Szebeni - Articles and Commentary

Photo posted on Facebook by the youth section of Fidesz, called Fidelitas. It says: “This is the question, choose!” War/Peace, with the portraits of Péter Márky-Zay and Viktor Orbán.

Hungary in the last decade has been a prime example of democratic backsliding and media centralisation. The government continues to obstruct the work of journalists, NGOs, universities and any group that criticises the current power structures. At the 2018 parliamentary elections, the OSCE declared that the election was free but not fair, as “xenophobic rhetoric, media bias and opaque campaign financing constricted the space for genuine political debate.” The 2022 parliamentary elections will take place on April 3rd. The main question now is can the united opposition actually defeat Viktor Orbán? After all, he has already been the prime minister of Hungary for more than 12 years.

Over the last decade we increasingly saw an overlap between the campaigns of Fidesz, the current governing party, and the government. The lines between state and party have become increasingly blurred. Consequently, the governing party basically uses state money to fund its election campaigns. While Fidesz controls all public media, alongside a large part of the private broadcasters, social media has also played an important part in their campaign. Online platforms are also vital for opposition candidates because of the lack of opportunities elsewhere.

While social media can be an effective campaigning tool, it is also the prime platform in which disinformation appears and goes viral. The spread of disinformation has mostly been associated with government politicians and pro-government media. However, opposition candidates are also spreading unfounded claims. Based on a study conducted in Hungary, both camps are equally susceptible to disinformation. This means that it can be a successful tactic despite its far-reaching and harmful consequences.

Disinformation in Hungary

Disinformation researchers have recognised several factors that can affect people’s susceptibility to false narratives. These include prior attitudes, ideologies and thinking style. What can be more influential though are the systemic factors, which can create disinformation susceptibility in larger portions of the population. A recent study identified the following macro-level conditions that can increase vulnerability to disinformation: polarisation, populist communication, low trust in the news, weak public service media and media regulation, fragmented audiences, a large advertisement market, and high social media use. Several of these factors are present in the Hungarian sociopolitical context, making the society vulnerable to disinformation.

Since the Hungarian opposition parties have decided to run jointly in this year’s parliamentary elections, the political arena increasingly resembles a two-party system. This only encourages further polarisation, as it increases “black and white” communication on both sides. The level of media control established by the Hungarian government is unprecedented in the EU and is built on Putin’s power-grabbing methods.

Fidesz politicians are determined to dominate social media much like its legacy public and private counterparts. Since 2019, government politicians’ social media accounts have been more active and more professional. Orbán himself made his own Facebook page the primary platform for making announcements. For example, the Hungarian prime minister used this site to announce news on restrictions during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2020, the Megafon Center was founded as a means of amplifying government ideas and messages through homegrown, right-wing “political influencers”. Since then, Megafon has been one of the highest spending Hungarian political advertisers on Facebook. Apart from this group, government messages are also being voiced by other influential political pages. Since they are not officially affiliated with anyone, these pages are usually more radical and regularly publish disinformation narratives.

Ideological symmetry in views of media

We conducted a study in Hungary right before the 2019 European parliamentary elections (another politically heightened period). We were interested in exploring the connections between belief in different types of disinformation narratives (pro- and anti-government, as well as non-political news), and social psychological predictors and competencies, such as political knowledge. In order to investigate these connections, our participants judged the accuracy of fake and real news items with different narratives. They also answered personality tests and other questions relating to their competencies.

We made two key findings that have proven to be very important in this given context. Firstly, competencies such as political knowledge did not act as a “buffer” against believing false narratives. This was because the only psychological predisposition connected to belief in disinformation was a “conspiracy mentality”. This means that those who are more susceptible to believing conspiracy theories are more prone to believe disinformation as well. Secondly, both sides of the political spectrum – pro- and anti-government people – were equally susceptible to fake news as long as their stance on the government aligned with the narrative in the news item. This implies that we are motivated to believe new information that is in line with our previous attitudes and thoughts, regardless of our political allegiance. Furthermore, we also found that these results are true for “real” news items as well. Consequently, in the Hungarian context both sides are likely to believe information (true or false) that is in line with their previous attitudes and ideas. Such thinking can further deepen polarisation within society, as it makes it difficult to discuss certain issues when both camps are trapped in their own reality.

Elections

While disinformation has been present in the Hungarian political arena during and prior to the 2022 parliamentary election campaign, it has been prevalent on both sides. On the same day as the parliamentary election, a referendum will also take place on the so-called “child protection act”. This act has been heavily criticised on the international stage. The proposed law aims to protect children from pedophilia but in reality it limits LGBTQ+ themes in media and sexual education. Disinformation campaigns were launched in order to convince people that children are in imminent danger from the Brussels-based western gender lobby. One example of this campaign is a video in which the spokesperson of Fidesz talks about “statistics” regarding how many kids went through gender-reassignment treatment in certain countries in Western Europe. The procedures discussed are actually outlawed in all of the countries mentioned. It is not only the government that is spreading disinformation around this topic. The opposition candidate Péter Márky-Zay has declared that Fidesz has the “highest amount of gay politicians” and even accused Orbán’s son of being homosexual. He supposedly did this in order to “call attention to the hypocrisy” of Fidesz. As such, homophobia and disinformation on both sides have dominated the conversation around this issue.

War and peace

The Russian attack on Ukraine changed the election narratives of both sides. Indeed, the war became a central topic of the campaign, overshadowing all other aspects. The opposition is trying to frame the election as a decision between West and East, highlighting Orbán’s political and economic ties to Putin’s Russia. The opposition is framing itself as the only force capable of bringing Hungary closer to the West. Meanwhile, the government is promoting the parliamentary elections as a decision between war and peace. According to Orbán, only Fidesz can guarantee the safety of Hungary. He has also accused “the Left” (as Fidesz calls the opposition) of wanting to lead Hungary into war.

Orbán has condemned the Russian aggression and even claimed that the “Christian life instinct” is motivating Hungary to help refugees from Ukraine. Of course, such policies represent a complete turn away from his previous anti-immigrant rhetoric. There is a clear sympathy for Ukrainian refugees among the population as well. This can be explained by the significant Hungarian minority that lives in the western regions of the country. However, public media and pro-government outlets are downplaying Putin’s role in the conflict. Some influential social media sites are also repeating the talking points of the Kremlin. Pro-Russian viewpoints may resonate exceptionally well among Fidesz voters, who are generally more pro-Russian than opposition voters. At the same time, the opposition candidate Péter Márky-Zay has accused Orbán of visiting Moscow two weeks prior to the invasion in order “to prepare war”. This is a completely baseless claim.

The war is clearly affecting the election campaign and will most likely affect the results as well. Generally during times of crisis and instability, people tend to trust in the current system. This trend is evident in recent opinion polls. At the same time, the economic consequences of the war can also be seen in rising prices, as well as in the inflation of the Hungarian forint.

The government continues to use every platform it can to frame the opposition as warmongers in order to disinform the public. As long as the systemic factors that favour the spread of disinformation remain, it will be increasingly difficult to fight disinformation in Hungarian society. Whoever wins the upcoming Hungarian parliamentary election will have to deal with an increasingly divided country, in which people on both sides are likely to believe what they want to believe.

Zea Szebeni is a social psychologist, currently doctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki, where she studies disinformation, political polarisation and populism.


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