While Fidesz is a member of the European People’s Party, the pro-governmental and pro-Russian media is producing anti-Brussels messages on an industrial scale. There are practically no articles in which the European Union appears in a positive way.
Before the European Parliamentary elections, Political Capital made research to reveal the image of Brussels in pro-Russian and pro-governmental media pieces that are frequently spreading disinformation1.
Political Capital analysed 367 Hungarian-language articles published between 15 March and 15 April by eight different portals known to be spreading disinformation regarding the European Union. Three of them (Origo, 888, Magyar Nemzet) are a part of the de facto government-controlled Central European Press and Media Foundation (KESMA); one is the online portal run by the Public Broadcaster (MTVA), which heavily promotes the government’s views; and the other four are less popular alternative pro-Kremlin portals (News Front Hungary, Orosz Hírek, Balrad, Világ Figyelő).
Most important topics in the period under examination
The main target of government-controlled portals was the European Union. We tagged 98 articles, or 27% of the total sample, as Eurosceptic. In contrast, 20% of the 446 texts on RT/Sputnik English that we analysed were Eurosceptic. These are articles that spread disinformation about the EU to negatively influence the population’s perceptions on the bloc. The majority of these articles discussed ultraconservative values (e.g., migration), national sovereignty and the bureaucratic nature of the Union.
Figure 1 The daily number of Eurosceptic articles in Hungary over the examined period.
As far as openly pro-Russian messages – articles trying to make Russia, Russian policies look favourable in the eyes of their audience through disinformation – are concerned, there were far less of these, only 14% of all articles were put in this category – compared to 41% on RT/Sputnik English.
The majority of pro-Russian articles concerned the Ukrainian conflict or spread anti-NATO, anti-US messages. Fringe portals played a much more active role in spreading such messages than government-controlled media.
While the latter discussed Ukraine in the context of the Hungarian minority and thus – probably unintentionally – contributing to Russia’s anti-Kiev narrative, the former aligned themselves completely with the Kremlin’s propaganda.
Interestingly, even government-controlled portals seemed to have favoured Jurij Bojko before the first round of the Ukrainian presidential election, claiming that he is only called the “Russian candidate” because he is not hostile enough to minorities and that he would provide Ukrainians with cheap gas. All in all, openly pro-Russian and especially anti-US, anti-NATO messages were very scarce in the Hungarian information environment, unlike in RT/Sputnik English or the Czech Republic.
Figure 2 The daily number of pro-Russian articles in Hungary over the examined period.
Europe in the spotlight: forging an empire, full steam ahead
Figure 1 reveals that the audiences of the eight Hungarian portals were subjected to a constant anti-EU campaign, with the peak coming the day after Italian Minister of Interior Matteo Salvini announced the formation of his European Alliance of Peoples and Nations (EAPN) group.
They spread the Hungarian ruling party’s messages, suggesting that the EU is controlled by bureaucrats influenced by George Soros, the Soros-NGOs and the leftist-liberals, who are working in accord to “legalise” migration in order to destroy nation states, national identity, Christian culture and national sovereignty, which would allow them to create a United States of Europe.
The prime minister’s national security advisor György Bakondi even claimed on the Public Broadcaster’s main news channel (M1) that “the leaders of European bureaucracy have already stated there is no illegal migration, so protecting the borders is unnecessary, and even the existing fences have to be torn down.”
Two important issues emerged that allegedly proved Brussels’s complicity in the continuing migration crisis. First, the government said, based on the statements of a government-controlled think tank, that “migrant caravans” were forming in Greece, consisting of a potentially large number of immigrants who want to enter the EU.
Second, when Hungarian authorities arrested a suspected terrorist – Hassan F. – at Liszt Ferenc Airport in Budapest, they found a blue credit card that is distributed to refugees in Greece on him. The government rhetoric labelled it a “migrant card” and said that “Brussels” is paying 500 EUR a month to all migrants in Greece every month.
Additionally, the outlets we studied misinformed their readers about the operation of the EU’s institutional system. An article by 888 stated that the European Commission can approve resolutions by itself if it is authorised to do so by the Council and the EP and that the treaties do not detail how special legislative procedures, which are used in the case of migration, work – these are simply decided on a case by case basis.
All Hungarian portals under examination promoted Eurosceptic actors such as Matteo Salvini, Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage, and they also praised Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s seven-point anti-migration plan. The plan vows to take back control over migration from EU bureaucrats, abolish migrant cards and ban discrimination against Christians.
Orbán and Salvini are both depicted as the leaders of the so-called “sovereignist” forces. These actors are allegedly the only hope to stop Brussels from restricting national sovereignty any further because even the European People’s Party have given up on its own values.
The EU-related narratives on RT/Sputnik and the Hungarian portals examined are very similar, although the former placed Salvini in the spotlight of attention, while Hungarian portals focused on Orbán.
Brussels is, in fact, not guilty.
However, these narratives are highly manipulative and often lack factuality. First of all, there is no proof that the European Union is trying to encourage migration. In fact, the EU and its member states have largely been successful in stemming the migration flow: the 591 120 asylum-applications registered in 2018 are close to 2014 levels and less than half of the 2015 peak. This does not mean that the EU managed the migration crisis particularly well in the beginning, but it certainly means it is not encouraging it.
Second, there is no proof that the lobbying efforts of the so-called Soros network would be so decisive. According to lobbyfacts.eu, companies and trade associations are much more active lobbyists than NGOs and trade unions.
In early 2017, the companies and trade unions held 3042 EP passes (a requirement for lobbying in the EP), while NGOs and trade unions registered 1906 passes – 12 of which belonged to the Open Society European Policy Institute, which is one more that what the European Milk Board had at the time.
The integritywatch.eu portal, which tracks Commissioners’ meetings with lobbyists, attests that multinational companies (Google, Facebook, Airbus) and Business Europe are the most frequent guests in Commissioners’ offices. In the NGO & civil society category, Open Society is eight with 58 meetings (Google has 201). We know these numbers because the EU has started to regulate lobbying in its institutions.
In contrast, there is no lobbying law in effect in Hungary since 1 January 2011, so Hungarians have no information on who is trying to influence their government. As far as EU legislation is concerned, the Hungarian government and Hungarian MEPs have considerably more influence over it than “Soros NGOs.”
Fourth, the European Commission (EC) cannot approve any EU resolutions in itself, it can only initiate legislation. It is true however that in certain very limited cases the Commission can implement EU legal acts after consulting a committee where every EU country is represented. However, this does not mean that the EC is capable of approving a new common asylum system without the Council and the Parliament – as some of the articles and claims listed above want to suggest.
Moreover, special legislative procedures are described in detail in the EU treaties for every policy area that requires such a vote, while some migration issues require an ordinary legislative procedure, not a special one.
Ironically, exactly because of the precise operation and hierarchy of the EU’s decision-making system, the promises of the so-called sovereignist forces are rather hard to implement: any competence transfer between the EU and member states, regardless of the direction of the move, requires amending the treaties by unanimity, which is an unlikely prospect.
Anti-EU propaganda exploits opportunities created by bad communication
Overall, anti-EU messages misinform the population on the goals and achievements of the European Union and they grossly exaggerate the capabilities of EU institutions. The Hungarian ruling Fidesz-KDNP has used anti-EU, anti-immigration rhetoric to build a world where it and its allies are fighting the evil Soros-led Brussels, which wants to create a United States of Europe, where national identity would not exist anymore.
Disinformation is used to create this reality: it maintains the perception of an impending threat, divides the European and domestic political environment into two antagonistic halves – pro- and anti-immigration camps – and puts all actors in one of the clearly divided categories, and misrepresents the capabilities of external actors to make them look powerful enough to implementing the conspiracy.
Sadly, the opportunity for them to do so was created not only by the tangible problems brought about by the economic recession and the migration crisis, but also by a lack of clear communication from the EU institutions for almost a decade: up to very recently, the European Commission had simply tolerated anti-EU disinformation campaigns.
Additionally, the lack of general knowledge about the European Union’s decision-making systems opens the door wide for manipulative narratives trying to portray the EU as an imperialistic organisation threatening national sovereignty. Therefore, the best solution would be for the European Union’s institutions to continue and improve upon their communication on the bloc’s actions, and to find a way to educate European citizens on how the EU itself works in an easily digestible manner to close a door in front of anti-EU disinformation.
 The articles were collected with the Versus tool with two sets of keywords. The two sets were designed to return articles that answer two questions: how were Russia and Russia-related topics depicted in this period in Hungary and how were EU institutions and the EU described in the same time period? The articles returned by our search were then tagged with labels to help us create a statistical description of what took place in this layer of the Hungarian media environment over a month and to help us with narrative analysis. This process was repeated for RT and Sputnik English to give us a valuable basis for comparison.
This article is part of the #DemocraCE project organised by Visegrad/Insight.