Tag Archives: propaganda

From football to fear: Recent opinion polls in Hungary

Today is devoted to polls. Please don’t worry, the post will not be full of numbers. I will concentrate on the big picture.

My first topic is Hungarians’ feelings for football. I think that talking about football today is especially timely because, as 444.hu’s sportswriter put it yesterday, the Swiss team “walked all over the Hungarians,” whose game was apparently full of “glaring mistakes.” It was only during halftime that the Swiss didn’t score a goal, as he put it sarcastically. Hungarian football is apparently not worth watching, and there is a point when even nationalism isn’t enough to keep interest alive. Just as there comes a time when the lure of a better life outside of the country cannot keep an awful lot of Hungarians at home.

Ever since 2010 an incredible amount of money has been spent on sports and sports facilities in general, but naturally  Viktor Orbán’s favorite sport, football, received the most. 24.hu calculated the amount of money spent between 2011 and 2017 on five sports– football, handball, basketball, water polo, and hockey–from just the so-called TAO offerings. Large companies, in lieu of taxes, can donate money to support one of these five sports, but given Orbán’s penchant for football, half of the 415 billion forints of TAO money went to football clubs. And then there are all those football stadiums, 32 of which will be built by 2020 and will cost 215 billion forints. Yet all that money didn’t improve the quality of Hungarian football, and consequently there are mighty few Hungarian fans at games.

Given the enormous outlays for football, does it serve any useful purpose? We know that the quality of play hasn’t improved and that the number of fans who show up in these new stadiums is small. Republikon Intézet conducted a poll to find out how people feel about Hungarian football. The pollsters asked two questions: (1) How true is the following statement: “I follow Hungarian football and I’m proud of it” and (2) Do you think it is worth investing in sports facilities in Hungary? The result most likely greatly saddened Viktor Orbán: the people are not grateful. Even Fidesz voters are not that proud. More than half of them are decidedly not proud, and they don’t follow the games at all. Only 22% are enthusiastic. And if that is the word from the Fidesz voters, you can imagine what the left-liberals think: 73% of them want nothing to do with the sport. Two-thirds of the Jobbik voters are also left cold by Hungarian football.

When it comes to the stadium-building mania of the prime minister, the figures are not at all encouraging. It seems that Viktor Orbán was able to convince 37% of Fidesz voters that investing in sports facilities is worthwhile, but 27% of them think it’s a waste of money. The majority of Jobbik and socialist-liberal voters disapprove of the incredible spending on stadiums and other sports facilities. What’s amazing is that Orbán, who is normally very sensitive to public opinion, seems to be utterly oblivious to the unpopularity of spending taxpayer money on his personal hobby.

Another poll that aroused my interest was conducted by Medián. The goal was to measure the extent of endangerment Hungarians feel when it comes to the perceived threat from the “migrants,” George Soros, “NGOs financed by foreigners,” the European Union, Russia, and the United States. Respondents were able to choose among five possibilities, ranging from “no threat at all” to “very big threat.” I’m sure that no one will be surprised to hear that 49% of Hungarians absolutely dread the migrants, while only 6% are not afraid of them at all. George Soros is greatly feared by 32% of the respondents. Even the mild-mannered members of NGOs are greatly feared by 17% and somewhat feared by an additional 20% of the population. The amazing finding is how successful the Orbán government has been in convincing Hungarians that Putin’s Russia poses no danger to Hungary. This is especially surprising given the recent Russian annexation of Crimea and Russian military aid to the rebels in the Donbass region of Ukraine. Only 9% of respondents consider Putin’s Russia a serious threat, the same percentage that consider the United States a serious threat.

444.hu, which commissioned the poll from Medián, rightly points out that “the government propaganda is working perfectly because people are afraid of exactly those things Fidesz wants them to be afraid of.” Perhaps the most telling proof of the success of the propaganda campaign is a pair of questions. One is about the threat to Hungary from the European Union and a second, from “Brussels.” Since the European Union is popular among Hungarians and because the Orbán government didn’t want to be too blatantly antagonistic to the EU in its anti-EU campaigns, they used “Brussels” instead of the European Union in their propaganda campaigns. And behold, 37% of the respondents are afraid or very afraid of “Brussels,” while only 25% fear the European Union. This is how effective propaganda is.

As for those feared NGOs, László Földi, one of the three “security experts” used by the state and Fidesz media to frighten the population to death, is ready to do them in. Földi, I’m convinced, is not quite of sound mind. He is a former intelligence officer from the secret service apparatus of the Kádár regime who spreads his outlandish views not just on the refugee question but on Hungary’s security in general. In Földi’s view, the world is full of spies, internal as well as foreign, who are trying to undermine the present government of the country.

Well, a few days ago Földi was the guest of Echo TV, which was purchased recently by Lőrinc Mészáros. Mind you, the change of ownership from Gábor Széles to Mészáros made no difference. The station has been a hub of far-right journalists and commentators all along. The conversation was about Islam in Hungary. In passing, Földi talked about the “migrants” and those civilians who try to help them, specifically the Helsinki Committee and Migration Aid. Földi came out with the following absolutely mind-boggling statement: “We are at war and these people are collaborators, war criminals, traitors, and so on. This is a very different conceptual system. A human trafficker in war is not a human trafficker but in effect a saboteur who has no legal status. In brief, they can be freely liquidated. This is what the code of war says: we don’t take spies or saboteurs to court but we immediately eliminate them.” He is an adviser to István Tarlós, mayor of Budapest. Enough said.

October 8, 2017

DRI: Monitoring Hungarian TV coverage of the refugee referendum

Yesterday, I offered my impressionistic assessment of the Magyar Televizíó’s bias in its presentation of the refugee crisis and the referendum, which was supposed to save Hungarians from the curse of a Muslim invasion. But, as I wrote yesterday, I watched the programming for only an hour, just before the polls closed. I interpreted the frantic tone of the reporting as a last, desperate attempt to change what by then looked like an inevitability: an invalid referendum. But, as you can see below, thanks to Democracy Reporting International (DRI), which is a Berlin-based think tank, today we have an objective, scientific assessment of M1 as a propaganda tool of the government. I should add that ATV and HirTV can be viewed only by cable subscribers.

I know that some of you think that “no one watches Channel M1,” but that is incorrect. According to a 2015 survey, M1 is the fourth most often watched channel after RTL Klub, TV2, and Duna TV. Channel M1’s audience is around 1.8-1.9 million people; ATV has about 1.2 million viewers. At that time HírTV didn’t even make it in the top fifteen.

♦ ♦ ♦


Hungary’s public TV backed government position 95% of the time during EU-refugee referendum – new research

Hungary’s state-owned TV network M1 showed a strong pro-government bias in primetime news programming during the referendum campaign on EU refugee quotas, despite a legal duty to show balanced coverage. New research published today reveals that 95% of airtime allotted to refugees and the referendum endorsed the government’s position, and 91% of related news items were negative about refugees.


The study, which monitored news across the country’s five main TV stations from 8 – 22 September, found the state broadcaster also allotted the greatest airtime and prominence to refugees and the referendum. M1 headlined with related issues in 86% of news shows, as well as dedicating 42% of news programming – more than double the average amount of time allotted by all five channels at 18%.


Michael Meyer-Resende, DRI Executive Director, says: “The staggering amount of airtime and prominence, not to mention the biased tone and lack of balanced debate, makes M1 seem like an extension of the ruling party’s no campaign. For six years Viktor Orbán has systematically dismantled democratic checks and balances. We’re seeing the results of that now.”

TV2, a station bought earlier this year by businessman Andrew Vajna with close government ties, exhibited the second strongest pro-government bias.


Table 1: tone of news items on refugees in the referendum context 

The percentage of news items dealing with the refugee issue and the referendum based on the overall tone (negative, neural, or positive) of each item.

Channel Negative Neutral Positive
M1 91 9 0
TV2 83 4 13
RTL 42 46 12
ATV 65 30 5
HírTv 36 35 29

Table 2: number of news items covering refugees and the referendum

The number and share of individual news items on the refugee issue and the referendum by television channel.

Channel M1 Tv2 RTLKlub ATV HírTv
Number 154 46 30 62 80
Share 41% 12% 8% 17% 22%

Table 3: airtime allotted to refugees and the referendum

The average length of news items dealing with the refugee issue and the referendum by news programmes (in minutes), and the share of total news programming on each channel.

Channel M1 Tv2 RTLKlub ATV HírTv
Length (min) 23.3 5.4 3.4 5.9 9.9
Share of airtime 42% 10% 5% 17% 18%

Table 4: prominence allotted to refugees and the referendum

The slot in which news items dealing with the refugee issue and the referendum first appear among all topics in a given news show.

Channel M1 Tv2 RTLKlub ATV HírTv
1st news item 86 0 0 50 29
2nd – 5th news item item 14 0 7 43 64
6th or subsequent item 0 100 93 7 7

Table 5: percentage airtime that supports the government’s position

The proportion of time allotted to presentations of positions that favour the government’s stance in terms of dealing with the refugee issue and the referendum.

Channel M1 Tv2 RTLKlub ATV HírTv
Percentage of time that supports or promotes the government’s position 95% 89% 39% 46% 53%
Percentage of time that supports or promotes a position that is different to the government’s 5% 11% 61% 54% 47%

Table 6: average airtime that support’s the government’s position 

The average time allotted, respectively, to the presentations of positions that favour the government’s stance and of positions that differ from the government’s view, dealing with the refugee issue and the referendum (in seconds).

Channels M1 Tv2 RTLKlub ATV HírTv
Average length of content that supports/promotes the government’s position 118 55 29 38 40
Average length of content that supports/promotes a position that differs from that of the government 6 7 46 44 35

Table 7: percentage of news items that show plurality of voice

The share of news items which feature both voices which endorse the government’s view and voices which promote a view that differs from that propounded by the government.

Channels M1 Tv2 RTLKlub ATV HírTv
The joint appearance of conflicting opinions 6% 30% 47% 21% 26%

Table 8: percentage of news items that encourage voter turnout

Share of news items that deal with the issue of turning out to vote as a percentage of all news items that address the referendum.

  Encourages to turn out Encourages not to vote Both Not mentioned
M1 76% 10% 6% 8%
TV2 46% 0% 29% 25%
RTL 15% 8% 8% 69%
ATV 19% 19% 17% 45%
HírTv 19% 8% 16% 57%

Table 9: percentage of news items that encourage voting a certain way

Share of news items that encourage viewers to vote a certain way as a percentage of all news items that address the referendum (or also refer to the referendum).

  Encourages to vote “no” Encourages to vote “yes” Encourages to submit an invalid vote  Presents several potential viewpoints Does not indicate how one should vote 
M1 59% 7% 0% 7% 27%
TV2 42% 4% 0% 21% 23%
RTL 8% 0% 0% 15% 77%
ATV 14% 6% 0% 19% 61%
HírTv 11% 0% 5% 11% 27%


The statistics are based on monitoring the evening news shows of five national television channels between 8 and 22 September. M1 is state-owned public television, TV2 is controlled by businessman and ally of the Prime Minister Andrew Vajna, RTLKlub is owned by Germany’s RTL Group, ATV is controlled by evangelical church ‘Faith Church,’ and HirTV is controlled by Lajos Simicska, former ally of the Prime Minster, now opposed.

RTLKlub (9%), Tv2 (7%) and M1 (5%) drew a significant share of viewers, while the two satellite channels boasted smaller ratings (approx. 2%). This research was commissioned by Democracy Reporting International and carried out by Mertek Media Monitoring Budapest.

October 4, 2016

The deadly embrace of Hungarian television propaganda

Yesterday, while waiting for the results of the anti-refugee referendum, I decided to take a look at Channel M1, one of Magyar Televízió’s four or five channels. This particular channel is devoted to news and political discussions. I must admit that I hadn’t bothered to watch it before, though of course I knew that since 2010, when Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party won the election, MTV had become a servile mouthpiece of government propaganda. I heard all the jokes about its being the Hungarian version of North Korean Television and that anyone who has a cable connection avoids M1 like the plague. Insufferable, unwatchable, disgraceful; these were the verdicts coming from Hungary. And then, yes, there’s the astonishing €160,191,200 yearly budget on channels few people watch, although MTV can be received across the country and beyond. (Of the private stations, only RTL Klub and TV2 have nationwide coverage.) Well, yesterday I took the plunge.

Watching Channel M1 while the voting was in progress was a shocking experience. The intensity of the propaganda could easily be compared to the times of Mátyás Rákosi–if, that is, Hungary had had television broadcasting in those days. Friends of mine who worked as journalists during the last two decades of the Kádár regime tell me that, despite the limitations imposed on them by the regime, they had more freedom than those journalists who still work at MTV. The better ones were fired years ago; those who remained do what they are told.

I hate to think how much money MTV spent on this last-minute campaigning for a valid and successful referendum. One reporter was sent to Belgrade to interview “migrants” who are stuck there. Another went to France. Another was dispatched to the “capital of Székelyföld,” which is a fiction of the Hungarian right since there is no way Romania will grant autonomous status to the two counties where Hungarian-speaking Szeklers are in the majority. Another journalist stood in front of a former refugee camp in Debrecen.

The anchor at intervals asked for the latest developments in Belgrade. The correspondent there reported that the “migrants” are breathlessly waiting for word on the outcome of the referendum. If it is not valid, they are planning to storm the Hungarian border first thing Monday morning. Ten or fifteen minutes later the anchor got in touch with the reporter in Belgrade again for “the latest developments.”

Then came the turn of the reporter from France. She was in the village of Allex in southeastern France where, as several French- and English-language papers reported in mid-September that“furious villagers have plunged France’s asylum system into chaos after demanding a vote on whether to kick out migrants re-homed in their neighborhood.” Allex had to take 50 refugees and the locals, egged on by the Front National, created a situation that became explosive. They demanded a referendum, which couldn’t be held because localities cannot decide on immigration issues. This news was picked up by right-wing Hungarian internet sources like Origo, 888.hu, and Pestisracok.hu around September 15. So MTV sent a special correspondent to this village to record a conversation with the mayor about “the lack of democracy” in France.

The reporter in Csíkszereda told MTV’s audience in Hungary about the great enthusiasm among the Szeklers for this referendum. Népszabadság’s Bucharest correspondent, who was also in Csíkszereda, reported otherwise. According to the Hungarian consul-general, 17,525 people asked for ballots and instructions to vote on Sunday but 11,820 (67.45%) didn’t bother to pick them up. In Cluj/Kolozsvár the situation was a bit better. All in all, there was not much to see in Csíkszereda. Most people had already voted by mail and, as we know, more than 16% of the ballots were invalid. According to the National Election Office, 30,705 ballots came from Transylvania before October 1.

Then came the story of all the atrocities that “migrants” had committed in the last year or so in Hungary. The reporter stood in front of the by now empty barracks that used to house refugees in Debrecen. The whole neighborhood was ruined, there was litter everywhere, fighting broke out over some dispute about the Koran, every time they wanted something some migrants climbed up on a tower and threatened to jump if their demands were not met. In short, it was sheer hell and, if migrants were allowed to enter Hungary, the whole country would be like that. The story then continued with the “terrorists” in Röszke who threw rocks at the policemen, people at the Keleti Station, and the march toward Vienna. A long litany of atrocities committed by the “migrants.”

Finally came a series of interviews with politicians and ordinary citizens who all voted no and who explained their weighty reasons for doing so. These stories were packed into one hour of non-stop propaganda, which was outright stomach turning.


I decided to write about the hour I spent on the state propaganda channel of a so-called democratic country because the defeat of Orbán’s referendum is even more momentous when viewed in the context of this government attempt at brainwashing voters.

Although most foreign and domestic observers consider the result a colossal failure for the Hungarian government, the Fidesz leadership gathered stone-faced in front of a small and somewhat artificially enthusiastic crowd to announce the government’s great victory. Journalists were forbidden to be present. In a short speech Viktor Orbán shamelessly claimed that nine out of ten Hungarians voted for the sovereignty of Hungary. “Brussels or Budapest. That was the question and we decided that the right of decision lies solely with Budapest.” Although I often get confused with numbers, I’m pretty sure that 2,978,144 is not 90% of 8,272,624 eligible voters.

As for his future plans concerning a change of the constitution, it is about as illegal as the referendum itself was. I know that Jobbik will support it because Gábor Vona’s original suggestion was a simple change of the constitution, which Fidesz refused to consider and instead launched the referendum campaign. We don’t yet know whether the democratic opposition parties will present a common front. So far DK and MSZP have announced that they will boycott any parliamentary action concerning an amendment to the constitution. The small Magyar Liberális Párt also expressed its disapproval of changing the constitution on account of the refugee quota issue.

Tomorrow I will attempt to shed some light on the very complicated issue of the relationship between the referendum and the constitution. Meanwhile we will see how Orbán handles this new situation. I suspect with belligerence and even more hateful speeches against both the refugees and the opposition. 444.hu recalled today an interview with Anikó Lévai, Orbán’s wife, in Story magazine a couple of years ago. She told the reporter that her husband is unable to lose and gave a couple of examples. When they run together, he pretends that he is close to chocking and is far behind, but in the last minute he revives and sprints ahead, beating her. Only once did it happen that they took part in a ski competition where she came in first and he second. By the time the results were announced Orbán had arranged to separate the sexes, and thus he was first in the men’s category. He is always ready to change the rules of the game. I think this is what we can expect.

October 3, 2016

For Viktor Orbán the Hungarian media is still too free

I understand that Viktor Orbán is mighty annoyed with the independent media, which in his opinion remains far too critical of his government. For instance, hard-working journalists have unearthed an incredible number of corruption cases. I know that people like to complain about the quality of Hungarian journalism, and I myself often grouse about articles that are hard to follow or are sloppy. On the whole, however, Hungarian journalists should be commended for working under difficult circumstances for very little money. There are a couple of politicians who decided to specialize in exposing corruption cases, like Ákos Hadházy (LMP), Péter Juhász (Együtt), and lately Bertalan Tóth (MSZP), but the bulk of the corruption cases came to light thanks to the growing number of investigative journalists.

Investigative journalism was a new field in post-communist Hungary. I still recall how feeble the first attempts were in the first half of the 1990s. But by the early 2000s there was a handful of first-rate investigative reporters who were, for example, instrumental in informing the public about the enrichment of Viktor Orbán and his family, which was of course modest in comparison to the situation today. And by now there are at least two NGOs, Direct36.hu and Atlatszo.hu, that are non-profit investigative journalism centers “with the mission to expose wrongdoings and abuse of power through fair but tough reporting.”

Orbán would like to tone down or, better yet, stifle the media’s outcry over what’s going on in government circles. His government’s first move was to transform the public broadcasting system, whose staff even before 2010 had been less than independent from Fidesz influence, into a totally servile government propaganda machine. An incredible amount of money was and continues to be poured into a TV station that practically no one watches. Once the low viewership numbers became obvious, the government started a new channel specializing in sports, which is used as a “pseudo news channel.” Every fifteen minutes or so “government news” is broadcast between sports events. This way there is no escaping the news–news that bears a suspicious resemblance to that broadcast in the Rákosi and the early Kádár regimes. People in the trade swear that by the second half of the 1980s journalists at the state television and radio stations had more freedom than employees of the state television and radio stations do today. Just one example. Journalists stopped people on the street to ask about their reaction to the migrants. When one woman said that she has no problem with them, she was told that they are not interested in what she has to say.

Prior to February 2015 the government had an extensive, loyal media network thanks to Lajos Simicska, Viktor Orbán’s high school friend who owned a TV station, a radio station, a daily newspaper, a free paper distributed at metro stations, and a weekly magazine. The last two publications were also available online. With the fallout between the two old friends, however, Orbán lost Magyar Nemzet and HírTV, both of which were critical for his government, especially since the “state television” (MTV) turned out to be a flop. So, the pro-government gurus moved into high gear and within a year and a half managed to build an even larger network of media outlets. And they haven’t finished their job yet. Friends of the government are buying up popular media properties and transforming them into propaganda machines.

To replace Magyar Nemzet a new pro-government daily was created called Magyar Idők, which is not exactly a favorite of the public. On a list of the fifty most popular online news sites Magyar Idők didn’t make the cut. Mind you, neither did Magyar Nemzet, which in my opinion has become a quite respectable paper in the last year and a half. In addition, several other pro-government internet sites came into being, among them ripost.hu, a tabloid that has a decent-sized readership (179,842/day in July 2016).


The two most popular sites are origo.hu (561,494/day) and index.hu (513,854/day). The former was recently purchased by a cousin of György Matolcsy and has since turned decidedly to the right. Apparently the future of index.hu is not at all assured because the current owner, Zoltán Spéder, is no longer a favorite of the prime minister. There are still a couple of popular independent internet sites like hvg.hu and 444.hu that trounce the official government hirado.hu in readership. Could they be in the government’s crosshairs? Surprisingly, nepszabadsag.hu is not a popular news site, despite the fact that the print version is the most popular nationwide daily paper. But even Népszabadság’s fate is not quite settled yet. There is talk about Vienna Capital Partners selling Népszabadság to the owner of Duna Aszfalt, László Szíjj, who was described by Népszava as a possible front man, along with Lőrinc Mészáros, of Viktor Orbán.

On the television front, government propaganda lost HírTV, but after a lot of finagling Andy Vajna, the former American-Hungarian movie producer who is now the owner of several casinos and a loyal friend of Orbán, purchased the German-owned TV2. Vajna, who is not exactly a poor man, didn’t have enough money for the purchase so the Orbán government gladly lent him 8 billion forints, which most people believe will never be paid back. TV2 was heavily indebted at the time of Vajna’s purchase, and it is unlikely that it will suddenly become wildly popular, surpassing the favorite commercial television station in Hungary, RTL Klub. Only a couple of their shows are attracting a larger audience, while RTL Klub has at least six such favorites.

Passing TV2 to Vajna was not quite enough for Orbán, who would like to have a quality television channel specializing in news. It looks as if there is an attempt to upgrade Echo TV, which is owned by Gábor Széles, a rich man of extreme right-wing political views. Echo TV’s current audience is very small. However, I just read that Ferenc Szaniszló, who had a weekly program and who belongs to what I call the lunatic fringe, was fired and that Echo TV is being reshaped to be a more respectable outlet of news and political discussions serving the government’s needs.

Apparently, Orbán hoped that Lajos Simicska would give up his losing media outlets. In the past, when the two men were still friends, Magyar Nemzet and HírTV received government ads galore in addition to thousands of subscriptions for government offices. Since the blow-up no government advertising money has come Magyar Nemzet’s way. Moreover, the paper isn’t getting much in the way of ads from the private sector either since rich businessmen who are heavily dependent on government orders are afraid to advertise in opposition papers. This is the way the government ensures that papers they consider to be disloyal will starve to death.

Orbán’s aim was the total destruction of Simicska’s media outlets, but so far he hasn’t succeeded. The only victim was the free newspaper Metropol, which used to be distributed at metro stations. One day the Budapest Transit Authority (BKV) broke its contract with Simicska on the grounds that he had received the right of distribution without a tender. BKV immediately signed a contract with Árpád Habony’s Modern Media Group Zrt., whose new publication, Lokál, took its place. I might add that Modern Media Group also received its contract without any competition. Lokál, being a free paper, depends on advertising, and it is chock full of government ads. The government is keeping it afloat.

The picture is grim and, I’m afraid, it can be grimmer still. One can only hope that Orbán, in his insatiable appetite for a servile media, will not gobble up every important outlet, leaving only crumbs for the opposition. If, for example, pro-government owners were to acquire hvg or index, it would be an irreparable blow to the democratic opposition.

September 22, 2016

Russian propaganda aimed at weakening the European Union

The once fiercely anti-Russian Hungarian right and far-right have changed their tune in the last six years, encouraged by Viktor Orbán’s Eastern opening and his openly pro-Russian foreign policy. It was about two years ago that the Hungarian media began to look into some of the far-right internet sites which, as it turned out, used servers located in Russia. Some of these have since disappeared, but more than 90 such sites are still in existence.

Of course, Hungary is not the only target of Russian penetration within the European Union. In fact, I suspect that Moscow expends relatively little money and effort on Hungarian pro-Russian, anti-European Union, anti-American propaganda. After all, the Orbán government itself is doing its best to aid Russian subversive activities in Europe.

The European Union was slow to recognize and combat the ever-growing presence of Russian propaganda, which is tailor-made to influence public opinion country by country. This propaganda aims at turning EU member states against one another, a task made easier by the refugee crisis.

Last August the European External Action Service, which is the European Union’s diplomatic service, decided to set up a small task force, eight men and women, “to respond to massive Russian propaganda directed both at the home and at international audiences.” Although the group was supposed to start work on September 1, 2015, the EU allocated no funds for the project. Several members of the task force “are detached national experts, paid by their countries.” I hope that the EU is not pinning its hopes for combating Russian propaganda on eight people.

Meanwhile it was becoming increasingly evident that, just as in the case of the American presidential campaign, Russia is also directly meddling in European elections. The best documented instance of such interference occurred in Germany, where a Russian propagandist came up with a phony story about the gang rape of a German-Russian girl by Muslim refugees. The story ran just ahead of the German regional elections, and it may have contributed to electoral losses for Angela Merkel’s party. The “Lisa Affair” was a real eye-opener. Political analysts feared at the time that Moscow was planning something similar for the British referendum as well. Some also suspected that Russia was involved in the Dutch referendum vote, which rejected an EU treaty with Ukraine. Sputnik apparently hailed the result as “a step toward ‘Nexit.’” Speaking about Russia’s anti-German propaganda campaign, Jürgen Hardt, foreign policy spokesman in the Bundestag for the CDU/CSU alliance, said, “the underlying logic is that when you discredit Chancellor Merkel and Germany, you also weaken Europe.”

The Hungarian foreign policy analyst Botond Feledy, in an article written for Index, summed up the current goals of Russian propaganda. The aim is no longer persuasion, as in Soviet times, but to “pound it into the heads of Europeans” that (1) the West is weak, (2) democracy is useless and bad, (3) the United States is not an ally but only exploits Europe, (4) the West is decadent and has lost its values, and (5) the world order originally created by the United States is close to collapse. I don’t think I have to point out that Viktor Orbán is the perfect messenger of Vladimir Putin’s propaganda.

Disinformation coming from Moscow via Russian-financed sites occasionally gets reported as fact by Hungarian pro-government newspapers and the state television and radio stations. An excellent article on vs.hu lists current Hungarian sites that are most likely in the service of the Russian propaganda machine. Moreover, Russia is notorious for its thousands of trolls in the employ of the state who write comments on English- and German-language sites.

The European Commission is slowly waking up to the danger. EU officials now say that “Russian propaganda is powerful in all EU member states, [although] in some of them Moscow barely needed to make the effort, as local politicians are delivering its messages.” I assume Viktor Orbán is one of the highest-ranking members of that group.

The latest contribution to the analysis of Russian propaganda in the European Union is a study published by the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, titled “The Bear in Sheep’s Clothing: Russia’s Government-Funded Organisations in the EU.” The Wilfried Martens Centre is the official think tank of the European People’s Party. This particular study focuses on Russian-established foundations, whose sources of financing are carefully hidden. The authors of the study describe them as “government-organized-nongovernmental-organizations” or GONGOs. They are based in Russia but can have numerous branches in EU countries. Money is also channeled to established European think tanks to influence political and intellectual elites. A prominent example of this kind of think tank is the French Institut de relations internationales et stratégiques, but there are several others.

Source: Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies

Source: Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies

All in all, the Russian threat comes in many shapes and sizes–from ordinary trolls to sophisticated think tanks. The authors offer a number of recommendations to combat Russian propaganda and disinformation. Mainly they suggest ways to strengthen the EU’s positive messages. But negative messages are incredibly powerful. Just think about those politicians who try to run a positive campaign. They quickly run into the buzz saw of negative advertising.

August 1, 2016

In Viktor Orbán’s world is foreign policy the handmaiden of propaganda?

The storm created by János Lázár’s comments about American designs on Europe and George Soros’s vital role in shaping U.S. foreign policy hasn’t subsided. One commentator after another is trying to figure out what this frontal attack against the United States. and particularly against the Democratic Party, is all about. Viktor Orbán’s radio interview this morning further stoked the fire because, echoing earlier remarks by his foreign minister and chief-of-staff, Orbán accused George Soros of masterminding the anti-Hungarian policies of the current U.S. government. In a way, the Orbán government is injecting itself into the presidential campaign, indicating that Hungary’s interests are aligned with the opponent of Hillary Clinton who, we can by now be all but certain, will be Donald Trump.

Viktor Orbán didn’t say anything new over and above what Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó and János Lázár, head of the prime minister’s office, said on Wednesday and Thursday. The difference was that Viktor Orbán himself repeated all the nonsense we heard earlier from his underlings. He made no effort to backpedal. Although the complete transcript of his interview is still not available, the few sentences most newspapers quote are indicative of the prime minister’s thoughts on the subject of “the American plans inspired by [George] Soros.” We learn from Orbán that “George Soros is behind the leaders of the Democratic party and although the mouth is that of Clinton, the idea belongs to George Soros.” Soros’s “clandestine power” (háttérhatalom or, in German, Hintergrundmacht) is far greater than Hungary’s domestic opposition

Of course, one’s first reaction is that the man is mad or, as the foreign policy expert of Gábor Fodor’s Magyar Liberális Party, István Szent-Iványi, suggested, the members of the Orbán government demonstrate signs of paranoia or suffer persecutory delusions. Surely, these utterances cannot be taken at face value. It is ridiculous even to spend time and energy pointing out their absurdity. And yet, whatever we think of Szijjártó, Lázár, and Orbán, we can be sure that they are not that mad. Therefore, Szent-Iványi’s final verdict–that “they lost their critical faculties, which poses a great danger to the country”–is off target.

I myself am guilty of lamenting the negative reaction of foreign leaders to Hungary as a result of these incredible statements by politicians in important governmental positions. It is hard to fathom that the prime minister of a middle-sized European country would spin these bizarre, utterly unbelievable tales. I often ask my friends: “Are they not ashamed of themselves?” A very pragmatic American friend usually answers after such outbursts: “No, try to understand. They don’t care.”

A friend from Hungary goes further. Not only do they not care, but all this is nothing but propaganda for domestic consumption. Right now they have only one goal: a valid referendum that would prove that the Hungarian electorate overwhelmingly rejects the resettlement of any refugees on the territory of Hungary. So, to further the cause, time to dredge up Orbán’s bogeyman again. The brain or brains behind Fidesz propaganda, perhaps Árpád Habony, may have come up with the idea of personalizing this attack against Hungary. George Soros represents the antithesis of Hungarian Christian/national values. He’s a financial speculator who moves money around instead of doing honest work that produces tangible products. He is a Jew with Hungarian ties who funds enemies of the Hungarian government. He is a liberal with an international reach. His Open Society Foundations “work to build vibrant and tolerant democracies whose governments are accountable to their citizens.”


All in all, linking Soros’s name with some wild theory of a hidden, antagonistic power might ring true with a large segment of the Hungarian electorate. According to a poll conducted by Political Capital, a think tank, 42% of Hungarians believe that it is not the Hungarian government that in effect conducts the affairs of state but that “somebody in the background is pulling the strings.” As long as the Soros story resonates, Viktor Orbán could care less whether the world thinks he is mad or whether Hungarian-U.S. relations suffer as a consequence. He doesn’t care whether, if Hillary Clinton becomes the next U.S. president, she and her husband might remember his comments. Someone suggested to me that in fact Orbán turns up the volume in order to create even greater noise, calling attention to himself.

György Balavány, who before 2010 worked for the then pro-Fidesz opposition paper, Magyar Nemzet, wrote an editorial in which he said, “I don’t know whether the prime minister believes what he says. If he does it is really worrisome, but it is an even bigger worry if the people believe all the nonsense he spreads around.” It seems that Orbán’s advisers are convinced that Hungarians will believe him, that this strategy will achieve the desired result. And that is the only thing that matters at the moment.

May 20, 2016

Joseph Forgas: The disdainful leader–Planting primitive propaganda in fertile soil

Although Orbán’s communication seems increasingly shrill, much of the government propaganda consciously relies on manipulating the damaged Hungarian national identity. In Hungary future generations will suffer the  psychological consequences of the combatant, anti-Western, hostile public narrative  – says the world-renowned social psychologist  Joseph P. Forgas, in Hungarian Forgács József,  who has for the past five years been studying the Fidesz communication strategy built upon Hungarian national character.

What does Viktor Orbán know or think about the Hungarian people, when he declares war not only on the Western world, but slowly on common sense too?

A nation’s national identity is determined by the history and the culture of its inhabitants, an essential element of which is how we interpret the world and how we see ourselves. The Hungarian national character is in many ways fundamentally distorted and flawed, the causes of which are deeply rooted. For many centuries, Hungarian history consisted of setbacks, defeats, and crushed revolutions. These failures were accompanied by a typical narrative, which, according to social psychology research, is characterized by a marked victim mentality, resignation, self-pity, blaming others and an absence of accepting any responsibility. This pessimistic mental representation is compensated for by an often grandiose, unrealistic and romanticized nation-image, which visualizes a world-beating role for the Hungarians. A typical example is the bizarre system of selecting of “hungaricums”. There is no other country where the national identity is so fragile that it has to be bolstered in such a blatant manner and where an official committee decides that we should be proud of – for example, of a Hungarian salami or sausages, as if such goods did not exist elsewhere. Apparently the Hungarian national character needs such crutches to maintain its brittle self-esteem.

The Fidesz communication in the last five years has manipulated this damaged, self-pitying national identity by using demagogic and populist strategies to create non-existent enemies to blame for every failure. Such strategies can work because of the absence of a sufficiently well-informed and autonomous middle class who see through this. Actually, when Orbán speaks about the middle class, he means something completely different. He seeks to create a clientele dependent on the state, but a real middle class is characterized by independent thinking, by success achieved through individual effort and autonomous thinking and behavior.

To what extent can a defeated nation improve its self-esteem if it demonizes the most unfortunate? While the dead bodies of hundreds of refugees are washed up on the waterfront of Lampedusa, we are consulting with the government whether these asylum seekers are terrorists.

Given that xenophobia, ethnocentrism and mistrust are much stronger in Hungary than in surrounding countries, such dishonest and misleading communication can indeed work here for a while. It is remarkable that the Prime Minister seems to believe that his followers are so unintelligent that even the transparently manipulative intentions of the “national consultation” will go unnoticed. The term “national consultation” is itself a lie. It is not “national”, but party political propaganda at taxpayer’s expense, and not a “consultation” because as a poll it is completely useless. A first-year student would fail if he/she produced such a questionnaire, because this poll doesn’t meet any criteria for a usable survey. Perhaps this may be the point when the remaining Fidesz faithful will slowly realize that they have been cheated and that their leader simply looks down on them.

Isn’t there a risk that the political left will also be forced to embrace the emotional communication, to simplify and aggressively convey their message? Can a sensible and intelligent debate be conducted with so much “noise” around?

I think the Left has to find another way to address voters. There is great need for patriotism and national pride in Hungary given our damaged and insecure sense of national identity, and this can be addressed in more acceptable ways. It is hard to understand why the opposition has completely ceded the concept of patriotism to the Right, they seem scared to speak on this topic. Yet there is scope for a positive, patriotic approach from the opposition, that unlike Orbán, emphasizes our true historical values. One could be justifiably proud of Hungary’s thousand year history as an assimilative, integrative culture absorbing many different groups. Historically, the culture and strength of Hungary have always been enhanced by the assimilation of countless minorities. For example, although our national hero Petőfi had not one drop of ethnic Hungarian blood, he became Hungarian, as did many other great figures of our history. The divisive, ethnocentric politics of Fidesz looks for enemies everywhere, yet our thousand-year history is about exactly the opposite: about the success of inclusion and assimilation as a means to survival.

We lack solidarity not only toward “foreigners”, we are not solidarity with each other. The nurse with the educator, the bank debtor with the students. Is this discord associated with the Hungarian national character, and can it be used or abused respectively?     

A typical feature of successive dictatorships is that they expect their citizens to keep out of public affairs and to show no group solidarity. This has a strong cultural tradition in Hungary, the Kadar regime worked the same way. This is what “we got used to”, the lack of solidarity has become a distinctive Hungarian feature. The results of one of our representative national surveys show that Hungarians see of the world as fundamentally unfair, they are convinced that public life is not worth participating in, that people can have no control over the affairs of the world, and so the suffering of others are none of their concerns.

If we have nothing to do with the western cultures, nor do we care about out compatriots, is it worth opening toward the East, for example, hard-working Chinese man and women?       

The so-called “opening to the east” is an entirely demagogic and doomed conception. Such a romanticized Eastern ‘Turanian’ (ancient totem eagle) nationalism was first invented in the Horthy era and is now revisited. There is no historical basis for this, and, of course, there is no viable eastern alternative either. People in the East would also like to live like the Westerners, they are trying to adapt the successful social and political models created by the Western civilizations. There is simply no viable alternative to Western liberal democracy and the market economy. Western societies are the best place to live in and the world’s richest and most influential countries all follow this model. Incidentally, all Hungarian emigrants also head west, and not east. The various eastern role models named by Orbán have nothing to do with each other, except their autocratic orientation. It is foolish to say that they represent a viable future. It seems that Orbán fundamentally misunderstands the Western world, underestimates the power and adaptive ability of Western democracies. He has never lived in the West, the concepts of democracy and the market economy are alien to him. It is a national tragedy that such a half-educated man, a typical product of the late Kádár system now leads the country, who unfortunately understands only autocracy.

And the fight. As if he defines himself with that alone.

Every authoritarian regime, everyone with a dictatorial tendency needs enemies to define his profile, to make himself important. The Fascist and Communist periods were also defined by the constant struggle against real or imagined enemies. For the first time in 500 years, Hungary does not need to fight with anyone, we have no real enemies, we finally were able to join Western Europe, and are free to develop autonomously. It is a national tragedy that instead taking advantage of this historic opportunity, Orbán has decided to turn against the West, and so leads the country into a hopeless dead-end street. Our set of values are also moving away from western world, and away from our immediate neighbors as well, as several Tárki surveys show. The national consultation, the debate about the death penalty are nothing more than manipulative distractions from the growing number of scandals, the endemic corruption and the ever more transparent lies. One can only hope that the majority of voters will finally wake up and realize how badly cheated they were.

What could be the long-term consequences of the Orbán world? What kind of psychological legacy could these years leave us with?

The economy can be revived, the institutional system can be renewed in a couple of years, but the psychological consequences of creating such a distorted mental representations about the world may handicap Hungary for many generations. My friend András Inotai summed it up: there is a spiritual genocide going on in Hungary right now, and I think there is a lot of truth in this.

In a country which happens to be already rather backward compared to prevailing European culture and values, Orbán’s dishonest propaganda capitalizes on an enduring sense of inferiority and lack of self-confidence, in order to stir up feelings of hostility against the West, also increasing xenophobia and ethnocentrism. Democracy presupposes a certain kind of individualistic and autonomous mental view about the world and corresponding psychological attitudes. For democracy to work well, citizens must adopt a self-confident, independent, rational and responsible mind-set and a sound national identity grounded in reality. What is happening now, fundamentally undermines the future opportunities for such a development. This is extremely irresponsible and is likely to cause continuing damage for the nation.

This interview, conducted by Anna Kertész, appeared on May 16, 2015 in Vasárnapi Hírek. It was translated by a member of our community, “Observer.”

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—Joseph Forgas is a social psychologist, professor at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. He was born in 1947 in Budapest and emigrated to Australia at the age of 22. He earned two doctorates at Oxford University, lived in England, the US and Germany for several years. “As a Hungarian it is a huge disappointment to me that Hungary seems to turn away from the democratic values ​​and the free market economy of the West and seeks a kind of authoritarian, dictatorial alternative.”


To understand how this could happen requires a socio-psychological approach – what shaped the Hungarian mentality, and why does the otherwise transparently demagogic and primitive Fidesz propaganda find such fertile ground here? “- says the professor.

His main area of ​​research is examining the role of emotions in social behavior. One of the dominant and internationally recognized figures in the field, his experiments contributed significantly to our understanding of the influence of emotional states on the formation of stereotypes and the development of social processes.

He published about 26 books and countless scientific articles and chapters; in recognition of his contribution, he was awarded the Order of Australia, the Humboldt Research Prize, the Rockefeller Award and was elected member of the Australian and of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

Before 1989 his work could not be published, however, since then several of his books have been translated into Hungarian, and his books are used in the teaching of social psychology, for example, his book The Psychology of Social Interaction. He visits Hungary regularly, and follows Hungarian public life closely; in the last few years, since the rise of Fidesz’ power he has been studying the role of Hungarian national identity in political communication.