Pro-government Social Media in Hungary

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Paul Cézanne: The Artist's Father, Reading "L'Événement", 1866 // Public domain

During the second decade of the 21st century, liberalization of the media has been significant. By liberalization I don’t mean that liberal voices are more popular than ever, quite the opposite. In Hungary you don’t have to be a hired journalist anymore in order to spread your ideas and opinions on the internet.

With the help of Facebook, Instagram and even TikTok, all you have to do is download the app, sign up and your journey as a political influencer can begin. Of course, when the government funds you to do so, that is a big plus. Let’s see how the Hungarian governing party and their own influencers dominated social media platforms during the 2022 general election campaign.

Before we get to that, it is important to touch on what happened in the Hungarian media industry in the last few decades.

“The media history of the period beginning with the change of regime is often referred to as the ‘media war’. The name refers to the fierce infighting that took place within Hungarian media between journalists, editors, owners and various governments, between governments and the media, and between the opposition and other actors in political and public life, or even between individual media outlets and the parties, interest groups and within the media itself.”[1]

During the first two decades after the change of regime, right wing parties often criticized the media system in Hungary. Their main problem was that the opposing side had way more platforms than they did, which was somewhat true. In the first 20 years governments came and went, but the media war was always a heavily discussed topic.

This changed in 2010 when Fidesz – KDNP won the general elections and started a new era in Hungarian politics.

“In the 2010 parliamentary elections, with a two-thirds majority in parliament, the Fidesz-KDNP coalition made a new media law. This new law was passed to replace the radio and television law (which has become truly outdated with the development of technology). Before the draft legislation was submitted, neither professional and civil society representatives were consulted, nor the opposition parties MSZP, Jobbik and LMP. These parties voted against the legislation.”[2]

The package of laws, which is still in force today, created a new media authority, which was not only for radio and television, but also for print media and the Internet. All members of the Media Council were nominated and elected by a two-thirds majority in parliament by the Fidesz-KDNP coalition. Its chairman was appointed by the Prime Minister, initially Annamária Szalai, a former Fidesz MP.”[3] It is needless to say, government control over media increased vastly.

At this point, we have to talk about a famous figure in Hungarian media – Lajos Simicska. Simicska used to be a key figure in the media empire that Fidesz started to build form 2010, he owned various media platforms and helped spread the Hungarian governing coalition’s messages. In 2015, however, a rather famous conflict between him and the Prime Minister broke out.

Between 2015 and 2018, Simicska’s platforms started working as an oppositional voice, and with that, the government lost a great chunk of their media platforms. About the same time, the government changed its communication style to an increasingly aggressive and populist style. In those years, even though new (social) media platforms already existed, politics hadn’t yet discovered their true power, however, in recent years, this has changed.

Fast forward to the 2022 general elections, the usage of social media during the campaign was stronger than ever. Sure, the governing coalition still had newspapers, tv channels, and even print media, but they discovered an even more powerful and more accessible way to spread their message. In 2019, they started a new company called “Megafon”, the aim of which was to spread right-wing messages through social media platforms. Now, how did they do that?

Megafon is working with 9 “infuelncers”, for the lack of a better word. Most of those influencers were known before Megafon, from pro-government media platforms. Their main products are short videos where they outline their ideas about current political events. These videos are mostly between 30 seconds and 1 minute 30 seconds long, so they are fast paced and easy to watch.

The most interesting thing is that there are not any differing opinions in these videos. They aren’t arguing about ideas and themes, they agree with the government 100% of the time. There isn’t any place for criticism when they talk about Fidesz-KDNP, on the other hand, when it’s about the opposition, they obviously disagree with everything the opposition stands for.

Another ‘important’ part of their work is making memes or funny videos about the oppositional parties, media platforms or even activists and voters. Since these videos and images are not too hard to make, those who work with Megafon can make up to 100 post per day combined. If these posts are daily, repeating the same messages over and over, a hundred times per day, you can’t really ignore them. Making hundreds of posts daily is one thing but to be successful you must reach your audience, too. Of course, this can’t be a problem when you are supporting the government and in return, they give you virtually infinite funding.

Luckily, on Facebook, anyone can check how much money a page is spending on advertisements. Unfortunately, since the 2022 campaign, Facebook has changed its advertisement check box, so you can’t check the exact amount of money a page spent on ads, but a Hungarian news site called Telex has this data until the 28th of march which was a week before the elections.[4]

According to this, the influencers associated with Megafon spent 1 003 010 555 HUF (2 639 501,46 EUR) since the April of 2019 until the 28th of march. Just some more interesting data:

“The top list is followed by the site Fidesz (412 million HUF)( 1 084 210,52 EUR), then the site Aktuális (270 million HUF)( 710 526,31 EUR), which is very close to Megafon, then Erősítő (228 million HUF)( 600 000  EUR) and Ezalényeg (206 million HUF (542 105,26 EUR) – although the total spending of the whole network of about 80 sub-sites is 430 million HUF)( 1 131 578,94 EUR).”[5]

To be clear I should note that Erősítő and Ezalényeg are oppositional pages, so you can count those spendings to the anti-government side.

How they got this unbelievable amount of money, you might ask? Well, it’s another interesting story. According to them, of course, it’s not state funding, which, in a bureaucratic sense is true, but the story is much more convoluted than that. An investigative article published by Telex figured out that there must be state funding going into the upkeeping of Megafon.

“István Kovács (the owner-manager of the Megafon Center for Fundamental Rights) is currently the strategic director of the Center for Fundamental Rights, which was built and operates with public funds, and the Megafon Digital Incubator Center Nonprofit Ltd., which he founded and owns, employs 16 people, and there is no explanation for its revenues. Following the company’s creation in May 2021, it has recorded sales revenues of HUF 0 in 2020. The first court report of Megafon Digital Incubator Centre Nonprofit Ltd. already made it clear that in just two months, HUF 56 million of funds were injected into the company from unidentified sources, and that after its launch last summer, the company, which is called a non-profit, received HUF 251 187 348 million in operating grants from unnamed ‘individuals’ and presumably other organizations.”[6]

After the publication of this article Megafon took legal action against Telex, but Telex won the case. The court has ruled that Megafon operates with public money.

In comparison it’s interesting to see how much the opposition spent during the same time. On 444.hu, which is also a Hungarian news site, you can check this data between April of 2019 and the 23rd of march, 2022.[7] According to this article the biggest oppositional party called Demokratikus Koalíció spent 170 627 421 HUF (449 019,52 EUR), the second biggest party called Jobbik spent 147 923 110 HUF (389 271,34 EUR). Momentum which is also an oppsitional party spent 129 288 874 HUF (340 233,87 EUR), Mi Hazánk, a far-right party spent 116 244 570 HUF (305 906,76 EUR).

Peter Marki-Zay who was the oppositional PM candidate spent 111 541 993 HUF (293 531,40 EUR). MSZP, another small oppositional party spent 64 092 978 HUF (168 665,73 EUR). Párbeszéd Magyarországért and LMP the two green parties spent 111 754 724 HUF (294 091,37 EUR) combined. If we add those numbers, we get 2 240 719,99 EUR total, which is still a smaller sum than what Megafon had spent alone, although there are some oppositional side pages who spent a lot during the campaign for example Ezalényeg 206 million HUF (542 105,26 EUR) and Erősítő 228 million HUF (600 000 EUR).

According to this data, we can say that the right-wing has much more to work with financially. Although the opposition also spent enormous amounts of money on Facebook, we still can’t say that the field is balanced. Social media has a power that is yet to be fully discovered, but I think we can say that it’s a game changing platform in democracy. I wouldn’t say that only this aspect of the campaign decided the outcome of the elections, but it’s an important part of it.

After the outbreak of COVID-19, all countries had to deal with some sort of economic crisis. Though before the elections, the financial state of Hungary wasn’t as worrying as nowadays, it was to be expected that some sort of limitation of spendings will be unavoidable. When your country is on the verge of economic crisis, you should think twice before spendings millions of euros on Facebook advertisements, as it’s not the most important expenditure, not even during an election campaign.

The spreading of populism is a worrying tendency in Hungary, and even more worrying is the fact that so much money is spent on it. When we see the fact that only one party’s messages spread this aggressively, and we see the amount of money spent on ensuring this, I think we can speak about one-sided public opinion.

Also, an important aspect of the story is that what happened with Megafon after the elections. They’re still going of course, but the amount of money they spent during the campaign and after it are heaven and earth. Sure, they still shamelessly promote the government and attack the opposition, but they spend much less on ads, they are doing it for their own audience.

During the campaign there was an infamous TV channel called Pesti Tv, most of the riporters on this channel were, you guessed it, from Megafon. After just a few weeks of the elections they announced that the channel will stop its broadcasting activity. Interestingly, the viewership of their programs was very low, but somehow, they still managed to remain in business for almost two years. After the elections they weren’t needed anymore.

Fidesz-KDNP wasn’t the most popular party among youth before. They still aren’t if we think of the opposition as one, but when we check each party alone, Fidesz is the strongest one right now. Populism always finds its way, but the help of social media is still an important factor. Regardless of the economic crisis, the government is plenty strong, the current mainstream way of thinking is in line with what they think. With the help of uneven media power that’s unlikely to change anytime soon.

References:

[1] http://real.mtak.hu/108575/1/media-tudomany-paal-vince-szerk-a-magyarorszagi-mediahaboru-tortenete-cikk-53.pdf

[2] http://real.mtak.hu/136130/1/bajomi.pdf

[3] http://real.mtak.hu/136130/1/bajomi.pdf

[4] https://telex.hu/belfold/2022/03/28/ujabb-alomhatart-ertunk-el-egymilliard-forint-felett-a-megafon-facebookos-reklamkoltese

[5] https://telex.hu/belfold/2022/03/28/ujabb-alomhatart-ertunk-el-egymilliard-forint-felett-a-megafon-facebookos-reklamkoltese

[6] https://telex.hu/belfold/2021/11/25/kozpenz-milliardok-a-kormany-szakertoire-alapjogokert-kozpont-batthyany-lajos-alapitvany

[7] https://444.hu/2022/03/23/meg-mindig-tobbet-kolt-a-kormanyoldal-a-facebookon-mint-mindenki-mas-egyutt


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