One of the main channels through which Viktor Orbán has consolidated his power in Hungary is control of the media. All but one major TV channel are openly pro-government or owned by people with close ties to the government, and the same holds for daily newspapers.
The two biggest independent online news sites, Origo and Index, have been gradually turned into pro-government outlets. Népszabadság, a daily newspaper critical of the government, was taken over by a businessman with ties to the government and then closed. During elections, opposition politicians have been shunned by public TV, an important channel through which they could have reached audiences beyond their core voters. All regional newspapers are owned by a foundation with close ties to the governing party, Fidesz, and are centrally controlled. By taking over the ownership of a large share of media outlets, it became possible for the governing party to control the flow of information.
Against this backdrop, a recent opinion poll by the 21 Research Centre investigated how people perceive different media outlets and how they access political information. Part of this poll investigated respondents’ willingness to agree with some statements critical of the media and also tested respondents’ ability to identify fake news.
State of the media in Hungary and how people perceive them
Hungarian news outlets can be classified in four categories. First, some outlets are openly pro-opposition and are funded by opposition parties. However, their outreach is rather limited and they serve to energize core opposition voters or to attract voters from other opposition parties. In the opinion poll, no such outlets were mentioned. Second, a large network of newspapers, TV channels, and online sites, directed by the Central European Press and Media Foundation, are pro-government, get most of their revenues from government ads, and are considered to be a campaign arm of the ruling party. Third, there is a grey area where there are links between the owners and the government (Index, ATV) or state institutions through advertisements (Népszava) but they sometimes report on issues that openly pro-government media don't cover. At these sites, opposition politicians are covered, but they typically need to avoid some sensitive topics. Fourth, there are independent media, mainly in the online news sector, but prominent politicians are not willing to talk to them and they don't get advertising revenues from the government or government contractors.
The respondents, regardless of party affiliation, ranked the outlets roughly in the same order on a scale ranging from pro-government through independent to pro-opposition. However, Fidesz voters see pro-government outlets as more independent (though they acknowledge that those outlets are pro-government to a certain extent) and other outlets as more pro-opposition compared to other voters. In sum, all voters tend to regard their favourite sites as independent, although Fidesz voters may be more willing to acknowledge their sites as being pro-government.
Interestingly, Fidesz voters regard Index.hu, ATV, and Népszava (the platforms in the grey area, all seemingly pro-opposition or independent but financially dependent on the government) as independent platforms, placing them on the scale at roughly the same place as platforms without ties to the ruling party. By contrast, swing voters and opposition voters perceive a difference between these outlets and others (except in the case of ATV), ranking them somewhere between openly pro-government and independent platforms. A reasonable explanation for this might be that pro-government voters are not as well informed about the ownership structures of these outlets, as these discussions hardly feature on pro-government platforms. ATV might be thought of as more independent or pro-opposition because opposition parties and politicians get considerable speaking time there as opposed to TV2, an openly pro-government channel, or M1, public TV.
Controlling the news on TV, in print outlets, or any other type of media is only useful if people are willing to consume their output. In the survey, respondents were therefore asked about their news consumption patterns.
Print outlets and radio were rarely or very rarely mentioned as primary news sources. However, having control over the news in print or on the radio might play a reinforcing role, as those not aware of media ownership structures might think a piece of news is more likely to be true if they hear or read it from different platforms.
The three most important platforms are online news (36 %), TV (32 %), and social media (21 %).In general, more women indicated TV as their primary news platform than men, and more men indicated that they read news mostly online. Nearly no young people (18-29) indicated TV as their primary source of news, and the frequency of mentioning TV increases with age. Social media and online news consumption decreases with age, except for people aged 65 and above, who were more likely to mention consuming it than respondents in the 50-64 age group. More educated people and people living in the capital tend to read more online news and get less information from TV or social media.
Government voters were more likely to get their news from TV (44 %) compared to 24 % of opposition voters and 28 % of other voters, while opposition voters read more news online (51 %), compared to 30 % for government voters, and 32 % for other voters. Reliance on social media is around the same regardless of party affiliation. It is also apparent that M1 (public TV), and TV2, a strongly pro-government channel, are watched almost only by government supporters. Although more opposition voters watch RTL, an independent channel, and ATV, a pro-opposition channel with government support, government voters also watch these channels.
For online news sites, Telex's and Origo's readership patterns are more polarized: Telex is read mostly by opposition supporters while Origo is read mostly by pro-government voters who tend to read sites that are more favourable to their favourite parties and worldviews. Although Index and 24.hu are both more likely to be read by opposition voters, government voters also read them.
Trust in the media
Both Fidesz and opposition voters agreed that at least half of all news platforms are not independent, so it is hardly surprising that trust in the media is very low. On a scale of one to five, respondents on average regardless of party affiliation gave a 4.2 to the statement that almost all media outlets are led by political and economic elites. That is, even if someone perceives only some newspapers as committed to a political side, they think that almost all of them are controlled by economic and political elites. They also agreed, especially Fidesz voters (3.9) (opposition voters: 3.6) that there is no such thing as an independent and free press. The reason for this might be that the pro-government media publicly acknowledges that they are right-wing, but they argue that the remaining media are pro-opposition and most voters tend to accept this narrative.
However, media consumers are sometimes critical of the opposition, too. For example, before 2010, when a left-wing party was in power, they complained that Index, whose journalists now work at 444 and Telex (both sites called out by the government's media for being controlled by the opposition), was too supportive of Fidesz.
There was also agreement on statements such as that the international press is hiding the truth about the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic (3.6 for Fidesz-voters, 3.9 for opposition voters, 4.1 for swing voters and third parties) and that the mainstream press is full of lies and write fake news (3.8).
Recognizing Fake News
In the last part of the opinion poll, participants were asked to decide whether they thought that a particular piece of news, based on a screenshot, was fake. Half of them were provided with fake news (one from an unprofessional-looking but widely-read blog that stated: “The age limit for retirement is abolished for men and women, this is how you can retire after the abolition of the age limit”, and one from a satirical site with the headline: “Animation studios prepare for Christmas with bisexual Spirit and zoophile Shrek”). Apart from the headlines, there were also other suggestive signs of the seriousness of the outlets, such as the layout of the site or the other news reports that could be seen there.
For one outlet, 35% of respondents were unable to decide whether the report was true or not, while for the other as many as 42 % could not decide, but most of those who gave a response successfully detected that these news reports were untrue. This was especially the case regarding the story about the retirement age limit: only 2 % thought it was true, while the corresponding figure for the animation news item was 10 % believing it true.
The other half of the respondents were provided with accurate news pieces. One was from Origo, a pro-government site, which was about President Putin signing a decree on social support for Russian citizens coming from (the internationally unrecognized) People's Republic of Donetsk and Luhansk and from Ukraine to Russia with a very clickbait-like title (“Here is Putin's shocking decision - He has already signed it”). The other was from HVG, an independent site, which was about a dolphin becoming infected with bird flu in Sweden; 48 % of respondents couldn't decide about the former case and 38 % couldn’t decide about the latter, but among those who could, a majority wrongly suspected that this news was fake (34 % for the item about Putin and 48 % for the story about the dolphin.) Therefore, we can say that respondents were more willing to question news items even if they were true. This is true for both opposition and government voters, but politically inactive, third-party voters and non-voters were less likely to give an answer. However, when they did, they were more likely to be correct.
When asked on what basis they made their judgments, respondents mostly mentioned factors that were about their own experiences and background knowledge; they did not mention factors that did not require background knowledge of the topic (such as the lack of an author, or a fake-sounding author in the byline, which was the case for all the articles; the site itself; the headline; or the lack of references in the piece). This allows us to conclude that most respondents can recognize fake news only pertaining topics they already know reasonably well.
Polarized society, polarized media consumption
In sum, government and opposition voters perceive media outlets rather differently, consume different types of media (opposition voters read online while government voters watch TV), watch different TV stations, and read different websites. However, they do agree that the media is controlled by elites (although they might differ on which one), and they have very low trust in the media. Moreover, they are unable to rely on general factors when they try to recognize fake news and are therefore unable to differentiate between fake news and real news.
 The linked research report is in Hungarian.
More on the topic here: cz.boell.org