Putinist trolls in Hungary are a threat to objective journalism

A action figure of a green troll
Teaser Image Caption
Good times for russian trolls in Hungary

Putinist trolls are having a good time in Hungary these days. Articles published by pro-Kremlin, anti-immigrant news sites are shared by thousands of readers, often mistaken for actual news stories. Objective journalism has thus been degraded to just one of many possible narratives for interpreting the world around us.

Distrust of the media is not a new phenomenon in Hungary. For the last 25 years, mainstream publications – especially left-wing newspapers and commercial TV stations, as well as public broadcasters during the years when Fidesz was out of power – have been viewed as biased and partisan by people on the right end of the political spectrum, and sometimes even labelled “Western” or “liberal” propaganda.

With Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s new friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the extreme right’s open pro-Kremlin sympathies, Russian-style propaganda has become even more of an alternative to Western democratic media in the eyes of right-wing politicians. What is new, however, is that now even moderate right-wing media have begun to sympathise with Russian propaganda.

A study by the Hungarian think tank Political Capital titled “I am Eurasian” mentions that many websites close to Jobbik, such as the radical right-wing news site Kuruc.info, can be seen as “almost unconditional supporter[s] of Putin’s policies”. Kuruc.info is the longest-running anonymous extremist news site in Hungary and one of the largest. It has proven ties to Jobbik and has laid the groundwork for many similar endeavours.

The study goes on to point out that many of these sites receive support from Russian intelligence services, and that Putin sympathisers can even be found among the ranks of journalists working for mainstream Hungarian right-wing media organisations. The study does not provide concrete numbers, but identifies journalists working for privately owned media organisations such as the Magyar Nemzet and Magyar Hírlap newspapers, as well as the private television station Echo TV.

Anti-Ukrainian, against migration, pro Russia

As part of Transparency International’s investigative journalism project, the journalists Attila Bátorfy and Zsuzsa Szántho have found that there are at least 90 so-called “news sites” in Hungary (most of which have been registered in the last two years) focusing on issues that are high on the agendas of Russian propaganda media. Sites such as Meteon.org, Hidfo.ru, Napi Migráns (“Daily Migrant”), Orientalista.hu (which was identified by the investigative news site Atlatszo.hu as the organiser of an “Anti-Maidan” demonstration in Budapest) and many others spread fake news stories that disorient readers and undermine their faith in mainstream news sources.

Hungary’s many propaganda sites are similar in their contents, but it is nevertheless difficult to discern whether they are part of an organised mischief network or merely the products of enthusiastic Putin supporters and refugee-haters. Certain connections have been demonstrated, however: according to Bátorfy and Szántho, many of these sites were registered with the same user name or email address. There are many cross-references, and they also advertise each other’s Facebook pages in order to improve their reach.

Many of these sites began with anti-Ukrainian messages, while others promoted the Russian-backed Paks II Nuclear Power Plant Expansion project in Hungary. Since last summer, however, they have focused mainly on immigration and asylum – a topic that is also ardently debated in the Russian news media, as well as on Russia’s two state-funded international media networks, Sputnik and RT.

The truth gets burried

A notable example is the case of a 13-year-old Russian girl living in Berlin who claimed to have been attacked by man of Middle Eastern appearance (later it turned out that she had been on a sleepover at a friend’s place). The case escalated into a serious diplomatic scandal in which Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov openly criticised German authorities and the mainstream media for keeping the “news that she had disappeared [...] secret for a very long time” for reasons of “political correctness”.

This same “political correctness” is also a buzzword in Hungarian right-wing and Putinist media, as more and more Hungarian readers are suspicious of the regular press, believing that the truth gets buried to serve some political agenda. Readers are thus more inclined to give credence to alternative sources. And even if a conspiracy theory is exposed as such, readers do not see this as a big deal; they believe that all media are lying and there is no difference between them.

This modus operandi has many similarities to current Russian media, as well as to fake news sites in other European countries: their goal is to convince readers not that what they publish is the truth, but merely that they are one of many legitimate news sources and that what they publish is just as plausible as stories appearing in the mainstream media. The crux of this strategy is succinctly captured in the title of Peter Pomerantsev’s book Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible.”

Not a demand-driven attitude

Why is the Hungarian right so supportive of the Kremlin? Obviously, leading politicians in Jobbik and Fidesz have decided that Russia should be seen as a friend rather than a foe. But there also seems to be genuine enthusiasm for Russia in these parties. Not long ago, a member of Jobbik told me that as a young man he used to hate the Soviets, and for many years he had viewed Russia as the successor to the Soviet regime, but that Putin’s rule has led him to change his mind. He now regards Russia as a conservative Christian country that could even serve as a role model for Hungary.

And the Hungarian right’s support for Russia is not only verbal: Jobbik backed Russia’s military intervention in Georgia and proudly announced that it was one of the few European parties to stand by Russia’s side. In the meantime, Orbán has been strengthening Hungary’s economic relations with (and energy dependence on) Russia.

This approach, however, is not in line with Hungarian popular attitudes towards Russia, as Political Capital notes. A survey conducted at the end of 2014 by Medián, one of Hungary’s major polling firms, shows that even Jobbik voters would favour the U.S. over Russia if Hungary were forced to take sides in a resurgent cold war between the two powers.

The Russian way of dealing with problems

Who knows how attitudes will change if those who are prone to believe in conspiracy theories are persuaded by the propaganda? In the end, the goal is to demonstrate to readers that the Russian government is a rational and remarkable actor in contemporary international politics.

To strengthen this view, the Hungarian propaganda sites share made-up stories (borrowed from other European propaganda sites or from Russian sources), misrepresentations and mistranslations of stories that have appeared in mainstream newspapers (a report about sexual harassment in Sweden can easily turn into a story about “migrants” raping underage European girls), as well as statements by Vladimir Putin, whom these sites see as severely underrepresented in the Hungarian media.

Napi Migráns has reported, for example, citing the Russian site Newsli.ru, that Afghan refugees tried to harass women in a Russian disco, but because Russia’s laws (as well as the Russian people) are not as soft as in the EU, 18 migrants ended up in hospital and 33 in jail. Meteon.org recently published a piece based only on questions: “Where does the money that migrants withdraw from the Western Union [close to the refugee camp] in Bicske come from? [...] Is it true that they could be soldiers who are here to invade the continent? And is that money their service pay which they receive from a Middle Eastern power?”

Since these sites’ articles spread all over the internet, mainly thanks to Facebook, and most of these sites have over 10,000 likes, it is not surprising that some of their news items make it into the mainstream media.

Mainstream media adopts right-wing propaganda

Gábor Széles, one of the wealthiest people in Hungary and the owner of the radical right-wing daily Magyar Hírlap, regularly shares these kinds of fake news items on his Facebook page (alongside legitimate news sources). Even his private television station, Echo TV, which is openly supportive of Fidesz, has been inspired by the producers of fake news.

For example, it used to broadcast a show hosted by conspiracy theorist László Szaniszló, who has claimed, among other things, that Austrian far-right politician Jörg Haider was killed by a U.S. drone strike, and that George Soros is behind the stream of refugees entering Europe. This demonstrates how easily this mentality has already infiltrated the mainstream media.

Moreover, in the wake of the Brussels airport and metro attacks, Hungarian public television reported, based on an article by the Russian propaganda site Sputnik News, that the attacks had been plotted by Belarusians who had converted to Islam. And Hungary’s largest tabloid, Blikk (owned by the international media conglomerate Ringier Axel Springer), is not immune to this propaganda either: Blikk published a montage about an alleged Islamic State fighter who was revealed that the person in the pictures was actually a former Syrian rebel commander who had already told his story to the Associated Press.

Blikk later added a note to the article indicating that fact-checkers had debunked the story, but that “neither side has tangible evidence to prove that they are right”. This one sentence perfectly illustrates how the Kremlin logic has even infiltrated the thinking of those who prepare the news in the mainstream media. If not even journalists know what sources to trust, how should the readers?