Wishful Thinking in Disinformation Media after 2019 EP Election: Envisioning Huge Role for Eurosceptics

Olga Łabendowicz

During the EP election campaign, Political Capital and its three partners found out that both official Kremlin-backed portals (RT and Sputnik) and local pro-Kremlin media supported the campaigns of Eurosceptic parties by only describing their policy recommendations positively and exaggerating their chances in the EP elections1.

Eurosceptic groups failed to achieve any kind of breakthrough on the election day, and will be unable to exert a strong influence on a European level. Still, pro-Kremlin portals do not stop talking about their sweeping influence.

Russian Media on the EP Election Results

Russia’s assessment of the EP election result can be divided into two parts: Russian-language media targeted at the domestic audience and Kremlin-backed English-language media.

According to a report by the Atlantic Council’s DFR Lab,2 Russian-language media also reported that Eurosceptic forces made considerable gains, while the current EU elite was defeated.

In the case of the Greek results, RIA Novosti portrayed Alexis Tsipras’ defeat as a failure of an EU country, but did not mention that it was defeated by the pro-EU centre-right New Democracy. The Rossiya 1 news channel claimed that “the far right has shaken the ground as promised,” since European elected Eurosceptic forces, such as the Brexit Party.

The results of the Italian League and the French RN were both categorised as total victories over their competitors, even though Marine Le Pen’s RN only beat Macron’s Renaissance by around one percentage point.

Domestic Russian pro-Kremlin media, according to the report, offered a narrative that we did not observe elsewhere. They admitted that the so-called “Putin’s faction”3 would have little influence on EU decision-making, but vowed that in the next election in 2024 it would be able to destroy Europe.4

English-language Kremlin-backed media (RT and Sputnik) also emphasised the gains made by Eurosceptic forces, although they mentioned that greens “surged”5 and that traditional parties remained the largest in the EP despite their losses.6

Sputnik quoted Matteo Salvini as saying that a “new Europe was born” on election night,7 and interviewed the AfD’s Joachim Paul8 and Joerg Meuthen,9 and the Czech Freedom and Direct Democracy’s head Tomio Okamura, who all promoted the views that Eurosceptic forces have achieved strong results.10

According to the Kremlin-backed portals’ narratives, the eurosceptics gain big because tht EU has become a “problem and not the solution”:11 it allegedly failed managing illegal immigration,12 it failed economically,13 and EU democracy is “fake.”14

An opinion piece on Sputnik concludes that Europe in the future will have to “involve all member states in the decision-making process” – i.e., follow the Europe of Nations concept – and take into account the interests of all Europeans.

Crucially, these articles also fail to mention, for instance, that the number of illegal border crossings into the EU was at a six-year low in 201815 or that the Italian economy fell into recession under the 5 Stars-Lega coalition government.16

Nevertheless, RT and Sputnik concluded that European voters seek new directions from the EU, and disregarding that could be “costly.”17 One of these new directions is offered by Salvini’s new Eurosceptic alliance, which “Eurocrats, Soros’ allies” were trying to thwart.18 Sputnik believes – quoting Italian ambassador to Russia Pasquale Terracciano – that the EU should involve “right-wing” forces in decision-making instead of trying to sabotage them.19

Hungarian Pro-Government, Pro-Kremlin Portals

In the last few years, as a result of the positive relationship between Vladimir Putin and PM Viktor Orbán, we could observe a notable convergence between the narratives of the pro-governmental and pro-Kremlin media in Hungary, that the two is most and most difficult to separate. Political Capital set out to assess how Hungarian hyper-partisan20 and fringe pro-Kremlin portals21 assessed the results of the elections and the developments afterwards22.

fig1As the diagram above shows, the majority of articles evaluating the EP election results were published on the first two days of the monitoring period (over 100 articles on both days)23, so right after the elections.

Europe of Nations Concept Allegedly Triumphant in the EP Elections

The chart below shows that the vast majority of the articles we analyzed contained positive references to Eurosceptic forces, often referred to as “nationalist” or “sovereignist”24 actors – which is the beloved self-definition of these forces, but at the same time, strongly contradicts to their often serviently pro-Russian stance.

Almost 10% of the articles referred explicitly to the Europe of Nations concept, an EU built on strong nation states with more competences than they have today and, preferably, on unanimous decision-making in all EU bodies. This idea is always discussed in a positive light, while the so-called United States of Europe (USE) concept – allegedly supported by the current EU elite, leftist-liberals and the entire Hungarian opposition – is portrayed negatively whenever it is mentioned explicitly.

The main topics used to prove that the USE concept is doomed to fail were migration and the protection of traditional values, where the previous EU elite failed. In the dichotomy employed by the Hungarian ruling party (and, by extension, disinformation media), the EU elite, bureaucrats, George Soros and leftist-liberal actors (the “globalists”) are working together. Their plan is to settle migrants into the continent, who would help dilute nation states, paving the way for the creation of the USE, which would destroy national sovereignty, identity, culture, and the Christian foundation of Europe.

In this context, Eurosceptic forces are the only possible saviours, which is why globalists do everything in their power to hinder them, for instance by banning them from Facebook. Of course, this is a distortion again, because populist forces could enjoy the benefits of the social media extensively in their campaigns in the last few years.

fig2As far as the concrete narratives on EP election results are concerned (see figure 2) the Hungarian portals we assessed quickly announced the “tremendous” victory of the ruling party25 and reported on the promising results of the anti-EU Our Homeland Movement.26

Numerous articles mentioned that “right-wing parties” won in almost all member states,27 although in this instance right-wing forces that Fidesz usually criticises for following the liberal consensus, such as the CDU or the Estonian Reform Party (which sits in Renew Europe).

The outlets praised especially the victory of Fidesz-allies. For instance, the result of Matteo Salvini’s League was hailed as an “historic triumph.”28

In contrast, the CDU’s victory was labelled as an “historic failure.”29 In contrast, leftist-liberal forces were constantly portrayed in a negative light.30 It is quite ironic in the light that the pro-Fidesz disinformation media was spectacularly promoting the radical right actors – officially the bitter rivals of EPP (Fidesz’s party family).

Europe-wide results were consistently described as a considerable success for Eurosceptic forces31 and a failure for the mainstream – including in the public media32, ignoring the fact that two-thirds of the MEPs still belong to mainstream pro-European parties.

The articles largely avoided mentioning that the EPP earned the most mandates in the new EP, and EPP lead candidate Manfred Weber was personally criticised not wanting to build a coalition with Eurosceptic forces even in light of the party family’s weak performance.33 The articles we analyzed interpreted the results as a clear sign that European citizens want change.34

However, few of the portals under examination was honest about the kind of change Europeans want, as the fact that the liberals and greens made considerable gains was practically missing from these reports. Even more, Fidesz-affiliated publicist Zsolt Bayer criticised “progressive” and “independent” media for trying to suggest that right-wing forces did not achieve a breakthrough in the EP elections.35

Fidesz Is Winning the Whole Europe

According to the narratives we observed, Fidesz has allegedly expanded its manoeuvring space in Brussels, since the ruling party has a strong mandate to work against the creation of a “European empire,” which leftist-liberals support.36 Viktor Orbán himself said that Hungarians tasked him with “stopping immigration and defending Cristian Europe,” adding that Europe needs leaders who represent European people’s interest.37.

The articles never explain how the Hungarian government and its allies managed to improve their chances of influencing European decisions, although – as Political Capital’s previous findings proved – disinformation sites often thrive on spreading manipulative information concerning the function of the European Union.38

Moreover, PM Orbán’s suggestion that European leaders should represent European people’s interests; i.e., follow an anti-immigration policy, is interesting considering that pro-EU, pro-immigration parties have also made gains in the elections – although this was rarely mentioned in the articles under examination.

The differences between the behaviour of government-controlled hyper-partisan and fringe pro-Kremlin websites were subtle39 and fringe pro-Kremlin sites frequently shared articles from hyper-partisan media without any changes.40

In terms of narratives, fringe pro-Kremlin portals often used a harsher language than hyper-partisan media, but the messages were generally the same: the idea of the European superstate that would create a “mixed-race nation”41 failed, as it would lead to the destruction of the continent.42

Naturally, the failure of the project was proven by the success of “sovereignist” parties, who beat – for instance – French President Emmanuel Macron, an advocate of the USE.43

In a bizarre manner, the pro-governmental disinformation media also presented Ursula von der Leyen’s election as a big success for Orbán-while her program is the total opposite of what Orbán represents: further European integration, humane response to the refugee crisis, a strong stance against Russia, fight against global warming, and strong emphasis on rule of law issues.

Conclusion: Narratives Converge in Hungarian and Russian Media

Narratives on the EU overlap in the Hungarian and Russian media under examination. They both portrayed the EP election campaign as a competition between globalists and nationalists, and both considered the results as a breakthrough for actors promoting the Europe of Nations concept, which – according to them – is the ideal institutional structure for the European project.

In fact, Russian media was even bit more reserved: it only suggested that the EU should work together with them (voluntarily), while Hungarian portals claimed there was a mandate for Viktor Orbán and, by extension, his allies to implement an anti-immigration policy.

Numerous important facts are missing from the narratives of the portals under examination: they very rarely mention the large gains made by the liberals and greens, they almost never mention the EU’s achievements in various policy areas, and they make the EU look like an empire where member states and citizens have no say in policy matters.

Both the Hungarian and Russian media outlets described here are likely to continue their anti-EU campaigns exploiting divisions on the continent, tangible and perceived challenges and people’s lack of understanding of how the EU actually functions.

It is also certain that local anti-EU media, parties, experts and other actors will continue playing the central role in disseminating anti-EU disinformation, while official Kremlin-backed actors will continue to serve as surfaces to broadcast Moscow’s narratives towards its European allies.44

This research was carried out in partnership with the National Endowment for Democracy.

1 Patrik Szicherle et al., ‘Investigating Russia’s Role and the Kremlin’s Interference in the 2019 EP Elections’ (Political Capital, 2019), https://politicalcapital.hu/pc-admin/source/documents/pc_russian_meddling_ep2019_eng_web_20190520.pdf.

2 ‘“Putin’s Faction” in the European Parliament – DFRLab – Medium’, accessed 24 June 2019, https://medium.com/dfrlab/putins-faction-in-the-european-parliament-6bbbc5f807a1.

3 Which essentially consists of the Eurosceptic forces praised by the Hungarian outlets we examined.

4 ‘“Putin’s Faction” in the European Parliament – DFRLab – Medium’.

5 ‘EU Elections over: Exit Polls Show Surge for Right-Wing & Green Parties amid High Turnout’, RT International, accessed 24 June 2019, https://www.rt.com/news/460324-eu-elections-exit-polls/.

6 ‘Traditionalists Secure Majority in EU Parliament, Face Right-Wing Competition’, Sputnik International, accessed 24 June 2019, https://sputniknews.com/analysis/201905271075368459-eu-parliament-general-election-outcome/.

7 ‘Renaissance Is Coming? European Election Shows Emerging “New Right” Chorus’, Sputnik International, accessed 24 June 2019, https://sputniknews.com/europe/201905271075392784-european-election-results/.

8 ‘EP Patriotic Parties to Resist Policy of Further EU Integration – AfD Member’, Sputnik International, accessed 24 June 2019, https://sputniknews.com/interviews/201905271075387134-european-parliament-afd-germany-right-wing/.

9 ‘Euroskeptics’ EU Parl’t Gains to Serve as Foundation for a Strong Faction – AfD’, Sputnik International, accessed 24 June 2019, https://sputniknews.com/analysis/201905281075409178-euroskeptics-eu-vote/.

10 ‘Czech Party Chairman on EU Elections: We All Respect the Results’, Sputnik International, accessed 24 June 2019, https://sputniknews.com/analysis/201905281075395830-eu-elections-political-ambitions-public/.

11 ‘Anti-Establishment Parties Scored Big in EU Elections since Bloc Became “Problem & Not Solution”’, RT International, accessed 24 June 2019, https://www.rt.com/news/460340-eu-elections-nationalists-success/.

12 ‘Illegal Immigration Main Reason for Traditional Parties’ Trouble – Lecturer’, Sputnik International, accessed 24 June 2019, https://sputniknews.com/analysis/201905271075381698-eu-elections-france-right-wing-le-pen/.

13 ‘Euro Is Killing Economies, Social Structures & Jobs in EU States – UK Economist’, Sputnik International, accessed 24 June 2019, https://sputniknews.com/analysis/201905271075386889-brexit-party-eu-parliament/.

14 ‘EU Election Results Show People Are “Fed up with Fake Democracy”’, RT International, accessed 24 June 2019, https://www.rt.com/news/460399-eu-elections-fake-democracy/.

15 ‘Illegal EU Border Crossings at Six Year Low, Says New Report’, euronews, 21 February 2019, https://www.euronews.com/2019/02/21/illegal-eu-border-crossings-at-six-year-low-says-new-report.

16 Graeme Wearden, ‘Italy Falls into Recession as Eurozone Economy Struggles – as It Happened’, The Guardian, 31 January 2019, sec. Business, https://www.theguardian.com/business/live/2019/jan/31/uk-house-prices-brexit-eurozone-gdp-italy-business-live.

17 ‘EU Elections: “Voters Seek New Direction From Governments” – Brexit Advisor’, Sputnik International, accessed 24 June 2019, https://sputniknews.com/analysis/201905291075420770-eu-elections-voters-governments/.

18 ‘Eurocrats, Soros’ Allies to Try to Thwart Salvini’s New Right-Wing Bloc – Journo’, Sputnik International, accessed 24 June 2019, https://sputniknews.com/analysis/201905291075432048-salvini-european-parliament/.

19 ‘EU Should Engage With Right-Wing Parties After Elections – Italian Diplomat’, Sputnik International, accessed 24 June 2019, https://sputniknews.com/europe/201905271075377572-eu-right-wing-elections/.

20 Hyper-partisan media are ones that consistently spread messages in line with the ruling party’s stances and interests: Origó, 888, Híradó, Mandíner, Magyar Nemzet and Hír TV. We must note that the worldviews and writing styles of these outlets are diverse. According to our earlier research, the share of anti-EU articles on these portals are vastly different as well. For more information, please see: http://4liberty.eu/fidesz-and-the-european-union-migration-nothing-more/

21 Pro-Kremlin portals generally spread messages consistent with Russian stances and interests: Világ Figyelő, Balrad, Moszkva tér, Orosz Hírek, News Front Hungary, Hungary Express.

22 For this, we used the media monitoring tool SentiOne. We settled on the keyword combination “election and (EU or EP)” for our search, which returned 621 relevant articles. The monitoring period ran between 26 May and 16 June.

23 The next two days produced over 40 articles each, but afterwards the daily output fell to between 4 and 31 texts a day. The articles reached the most people on the first two days of the monitoring period as well, over 82,000 of the 249,000 users these texts reached were engaged in this period. We used a labelling system to indicate the topics a given article discusses, and we used multiple tags if the text dealt with several issues.

24 Meaning that they favour transferring competences from the EU to nation states.

25 ‘Hatalmas Győzelmet Aratott a Fidesz-KDNP Az EP-Választáson’, accessed 21 June 2019, https://magyarnemzet.hu/belfold/hatalmas-gyozelmet-aratott-a-fidesz-kdnp-az-ep-valasztason-6965138/.

26 ‘Dúró Dóra: A Mi Hazánk megvetette a lábát’, Magyar Nemzet (blog), accessed 21 June 2019, https://magyarnemzet.hu/belfold/duro-dora-a-mi-hazank-megvetette-a-labat-6964523/.

27 ‘Szinte az EU összes tagállamában a jobboldal nyerte az EP-választást’, Hír TV, 27 May 2019, https://hirtv.hu/hirtvkulfold/szinte-az-eu-osszes-tagallamaban-a-jobboldal-nyerte-az-ep-valasztast-2481743.

28 ‘Történelmi győzelmet aratott Salvini pártja Olaszországban’, https://www.origo.hu/, accessed 21 June 2019, https://www.origo.hu/nagyvilag/20190527-ep-valasztas-olaszorszag-matteosalvini.html.

29 ‘Történelmi kudarccal maradt első a CDU/CSU’, https://mandiner.hu/, accessed 21 June 2019, https://mandiner.hu/cikk/20190527_tortenelmi_kudarccal_maradt_elso_a_cdu_csu.

30 ‘Le Pen jobbkeze: Macron saját magát buktatta meg’, Világ Figyelő (blog), accessed 21 June 2019, https://vilagfigyelo.com/le-pen-jobbkeze-macron-sajat-magat-buktatta-meg/.

31 ‘Az unió vezető országaiban nyertek a bevándorlásellenesek’, Hír TV, 28 May 2019, https://hirtv.hu/hirtvkulfold/az-unio-vezeto-orszagaiban-nyertek-a-bevandorlasellenesek-2481828.

32 ‘Több uniós tagállamban is jól szerepeltek a bevándorlásellenes erők’, hirado.hu (blog), accessed 21 June 2019, http://www.hirado.hu/kulfold/kulpolitika/cikk/2019/05/27/tobb-unios-tagallamban-is-jol-szerepeltek-a-bevandorlasellenes-erok/.

33 ‘Meggyengült a politikai fősodor’, Magyar Nemzet (blog), accessed 21 June 2019, https://magyarnemzet.hu/kulfold/meggyengult-a-politikai-fosodor-6964004/.

34 ‘A külföldi sajtóban is a bevándorlásellenesek erősödéséről írnak’, Origó, accessed 21 June 2019, https://www.origo.hu/nagyvilag/20190529-kulfoldon-is-a-bevandorlasellenesekrol-irnak.html.

35 Baye Zsolt, ‘Zajos forradalmacskák Európában’, Magyar Nemzet (blog), accessed 24 June 2019, https://magyarnemzet.hu/velemeny/zajos-forradalmacskak-europaban-6969917/.

36 ‘Nőtt a Fidesz-KDNP mozgástere Brüsszelben’, Origó, accessed 21 June 2019, https://www.origo.hu/itthon/20190529-ep-valasztas-eredmeny.html.

37 ‘Orbán Viktor: A magyar emberek megbízást adtak a bevándorlás megállítására’, Origó, accessed 21 June 2019, https://www.origo.hu/itthon/20190527-epvalasztas-2019-orban-viktor.html.

38 Patrik Szicherle, ‘Fidesz in Hungary Is Vowing to Fight Brussels’s Non-Existent Powers’, Visegrad Insight, 24 May 2019, https://visegradinsight.eu/fidesz-in-hungary-is-vowing-to-fight-brusselss-non-existent-powers/.

39 The daily distribution of articles on the latter followed a pattern similar to government-controlled portals and the frequency of various topics were largely similar as well.

40 For instance, see: ‘Szinte az EU összes tagállamában a jobboldal nyerte az EP-választást’, Világ Figyelő (blog), accessed 21 June 2019, https://vilagfigyelo.com/szinte-az-eu-osszes-tagallamaban-a-jobboldal-nyerte-az-ep-valasztast/. The contents of this article match those in a Hír TV article with the same title: ‘Szinte az EU összes tagállamában a jobboldal nyerte az EP-választást’.

41 ‘A kevert fajú Európai Állam ideológiáját akarják keresztülverni a tagországokon’, Világ Figyelő (blog), accessed 21 June 2019, https://vilagfigyelo.com/a-kevert-faju-europai-allam-ideologiajat-akarjak-keresztulverni-a-tagorszagokon/.

42 ‘Gobalista elit akarja örökre uralma alá hajtani Európát – Most dől el sikerül-e nekik’, Világ Figyelő (blog), accessed 21 June 2019, https://vilagfigyelo.com/gobalista-elit-akarja-orokre-uralma-ala-hajtani-europat-most-dol-el-sikerul-e-nekik/.

43 ‘Le Pen jobbkeze’.

44 Szicherle et al., ‘Investigating Russia’s Role and the Kremlin’s Interference in the 2019 EP Elections’.

Patrik Szicherle