Instead of holding the government to account, the media serve as an instrument of influence over the public. They are utilised for attacks on political opponents and help the spread of fake news. In Central and Eastern Europe, pro-government mainstream media often are the main source of disinformation: Hungary is leading the charge in this regard.
Looking at Central and Eastern Europe 30 years after the fall of communism, the possibility of communicative action as the foundation of democracy has proven to be overly optimistic, at best. Roughly ten million people visit websites that spread disinformation and trust them as a relevant source of information for Central and Eastern European affairs.
The concept developed by Jurgen Habermas to explain how people aim to achieve mutual understanding and consensus throughout a cooperative search for truth based exclusively on rational arguments appears utopian in the age of disinformation and post-truth politics.
When Habermas first formulated his ideas regarding the ideal speech situation, it lacked any kind of reference to manipulation or the wider political context. The concept assumed that well-grounded arguments could be provided in the format of an open dialogue. Participants would not be excluded.
The communicative reality concept that underpins his idea of deliberative, discursive democracy has been challenged already during the transitional process at the beginning of the 1990s. Yet, significant realignments within the public sphere in recent years pose a further threat to the concept.
Mass communication and the ubiquity of the Internet shifted the balance between political insiders and outsiders. The technological gap between the centre and the periphery narrowed, and people were enabled to be part of debates.
However, this form of “digital emancipation” did not see a spill-over in economic terms nor the emergence of information sovereignty. Rather, this emancipation was exploited by populists and in parallel provided a favourable background for democratic backsliding.
While Habermas claimed that the overflow of media-driven subsystems and cultural impoverishment together create the colonisation of the lifeworld – constituted by communicative actions – the latter has undergone new threats, especially through the use of new technologies. At the same time, there are new conflicts generated by authoritarian system-building efforts.
A grave pressure point in Central and Eastern Europe is the fact that all Visegrad Group (V4) governments have been trying to capture the media in their respective countries, although to varying degrees and by using different tools.
It has become difficult for journalists to provided balanced, fact-based information to hold those in power to account, either due to direct political pressure or conflicts of interests with the owners of media groups.
Hungary has long been hailed as one of the successful poster boys of the post-1989 democratic transition. However, in the last decade, it became a classic example of media capture when the government of Viktor Orbán first started with the public media and then, in cooperation with loyal oligarchs, turned most of the independent media outlets into propaganda instruments.
Apart from smaller media outlets, RTL Hungary and the Central Media Group have remained the only independent portfolios. Yet, part of this media is still dependent on the government due to the latter’s influence on the advertising market.
The media war has shifted into a higher gear after the elections of April 2018, thereby creating less space for any media independent of the government. In the autumn of last year, the Central European Press and Media Foundation was created (KESMA in Hungarian) and became one of the continent’s largest media conglomerates.
A large part of the regional newspapers in Hungary have been swallowed by KESMA, led by Gábor Liszkay, known by his long-standing loyalty towards Viktor Orbán. As a result, about 16 newspapers are echoing the same messages published by the pro-government media. The conglomerate has made it harder the few remaining independent media companies. Now, they have to compete with a single behemoth.
Orbán exempted KESMA from regulatory scrutiny claiming that it is of national strategic importance and in the public interest. This protection has provided further space for his cronies to go beyond Hungary’s borders to disseminate Orbán’s narratives in a broader European context.
V4NA, an online news agency established by Árpád Habony, Orbán’s main spin doctor in London, provides content in Hungarian, English and French, often echoing pro-Orban views.
In the 2019 edition of the Global Inventory of Organised Social Media Manipulation, the Oxford Internet Institute points out that the Hungarian media space is a venue of domestic state-led manipulation. Both bots and human operates are used to attack the domestic opposition and distract the public from relevant problems related to the government. Moreover, they exploit existing divisions within society.
Having built a successful competitive authoritarian regime, the Orbán government has been abusing its power in multiple spheres, all to undermine its opponents.
During the recent local elections of October 2019, the pro-government mouthpiece Magyar Nemzet disseminated the conspiracy theory that Gergely Karácsony, the opposition’s lord mayoral candidate, made a deal with Frans Timmermans, the First Vice-President of the European Commission, on settling Muslim migrants in Budapest and other cities. The newspaper claimed this was a main precondition for receiving EU funds in the future.
The government has had almost a decade to strengthen its empire: currently, more than 500 government-controlled media outlets altogether ensure that Fidesz dominates the political discourse with its anti-West, anti-immigration, pro-Russian rhetoric built on fake news and conspiracy theories which frame both the opposition and independent NGOs as enemies of the state.
Viktor Orbán’s claim that the leftist-liberal parties are “overwhelmingly dominating” the Hungarian media sphere has no ground in reality. Yet, the claim is used to justify the state-led manipulation.
Free for all
Media capture is only one side of the coin. Russian and Chinese disinformation warfare poses another danger, to which the V4 governments have responded differently. The Orbán government has made no attempts to counter disinformation coming from abroad.
While the Hungarian media has been penetrated by around 100 locally operated, Russia-linked disinformation sites, which have supported Fidesz’s agenda, the pro-government mainstream media became the main venue of Russian disinformation.
According to a research study called Computational Propaganda Research Project, published by Oxford University, news manipulation on the internet was dominated by the Russians until 2013-2014, but then it was taken over by the Hungarian fake news empire in strong cooperation with the official pro-government media. This disinformation ecosystem (embodied mainly by individual human operators) is technically independent of the Kremlin and willfully spreading the Russian narratives regarding anti-Western, anti-EU sentiments, exploiting moral panic-mongering regarding migrants and demonizing George Soros.
All these outlets together are promoting the main tenets of Russian disinformation regarding the West and the European Union. They demonise George Soros and the opposition in one breath.
Despite the shrinking media space and lack of conscious resilience building, part of the remaining independent media is making efforts to build at least somewhat resilience among their readers. The biggest website Index, 24.hu and 444.hu but also investigative websites such as atlatszo.hu and Direct36 has published thematic articles and videos about the systemic threat posed by subversive disinformation and fake news to democracies.
The research community did its part as well. Because pro-Russian propaganda intensified to a record-high level in Central and Eastern Europe after the annexation of Crimea, Political Capital together with its Slovak and Czech partners launched a bi-weekly disinformation monitor to bring the public’s attention to the distortions of Russian propaganda.
Also, urbanlegends.hu is aiming to debunk broader urban legends, rumours, hoaxes, and other fake contents spread by the national and the international media. While the website has only a small outreach, it is an important media literacy initiative launched by Ivan Marinov.
Modern solutions to post-modern problems
Although media capture is a global phenomenon, Central Europe serves as a warning system to the West, because a low level of trust in democratic institutions and mainstream media make societies even more vulnerable to manipulation.
While the remaining independent media outlets strife to challenge disruptive anti-Western, pro-Russian propaganda, it is rather difficult to provide modern solutions to such post-modern problems, especially from the perspective of Habermas’ universalised concept of communicative action.
In the case of Central and Eastern Europe, there is a broader, systemic strategy at play in which autocrats are relying on a threefold tool kit. They hollow out the substance of democratic institutions, they sideline key players using state resources against them and, finally, they rewrite the rules to create a grossly uneven political playing field.
What can the EU do in this situation? The fact that the revised version of Europe’s main piece of media legislation – the Audiovisual Media Services Directive (AVMSD) – obliges member states to designate one or more independent national regulatory authorities to oversee the broadcasting and audiovisual media sector is a first good step. Yet, it is not nearly enough.
Recent developments in Hungary and elsewhere prove that a much more holistic approach is needed from the EU. Therefore, the next European Commission should also address it systemically and effectively by creating an ethical and legal framework to counteract these anti-democratic activities.