A Scandal in Hungary Shows the Limits of Informational Autocracy

February 28, 2024

On February 17, the biggest anti-government demonstration for many years took place in Hungary, organized by well-known social media influencers. This was a rare moment for Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s regime. But what was even more extraordinary is that this was preceded by the resignation of two leading figures of the ruling Fidesz party, who were also two of its very few female politicians. This case shows that Hungarian citizens do not live in totally closed informational spaces. 

The reason for the protest was a scandal in which President Katalin Novák pardoned the former deputy director at an orphanage who had been convicted of coercing children into withdrawing their testimony about sexual abuse against the head of the facility. The pardon was countersigned by Justice Minister Judit Varga.

Orbán has always been very careful to make sure that scandals do not have any personal consequences for him. He has never wanted demonstrators, the opposition, or the independent media to be rewarded with any results for criticizing the government. Learned helplessness—a situation that occurs when people repeatedly experience their actions having no tangible impact—has been a crucial factor behind his enduring political success.

The prime minister made an exception this time for purely political reasons. The first reactions of the regime’s propaganda machine followed the old recipe of denial and crying fake news. But, as polls started to show that the clemency case could be dangerous for Fidesz and not only for the president, the strategy shifted very quickly. Orbán asked for a change in the constitution to make such clemencies impossible, throwing Novák under the bus. Two days later, she and Varga resigned.

Information that is bad for the regime can get through to people.

The case shocked Fidesz’s voter base, despite the pro-government media’s efforts to hide or downplay it. According to a recent poll, the party “lost” 150,000-200,000 voters. After the resignations, Varga’s ex-husband publicly criticized the regime’s cronyism, blackmail practices, and propaganda apparatus. The first interview he gave to an online portal has been viewed by more than 2.2 million people so far—a huge  audience in a country with 8 million voters that Orbán’s state television cannot dream of. This shows the limits of a political communication machinery that seemed hyper-efficient and almost omnipotent in keeping voters in information bubbles and echo chambers.

Hungary is an informational autocracy, with the most controlled information environment in the European Union. Yet these are imperfect for creating a homogeneous informational environment. In fact, it is practically impossible for opposition voters to be kept in information bubbles and echo chambers even with the government’s constant and loud communication campaigns. But government voters also do not live totally in them either. They are permeable, and information that is bad for the regime can get through to people. For example, research has showed that one-third of Fidesz voters are aware that there is systemic corruption in Hungary. Studies have  found that about 41 percent of voters (and 40 percent of Fidesz ones) get information from sources that they do not trust or whose political leanings they disagree with.

No Totalitarian Communication Environment

Social media-dominated communication environments are often described as a kind of informational prison keeping people in an almost uniform space. But the idea of perfect “filter bubbles” has been challenged for a long time, even if it is true that there is strong ideological segregation in social media.  

There is a tendency to depict the informational environment of the 21st century in terms rooted in the experiences of the 20th century, emphasizing almost total information control and censorship. But these parallels are incorrect. Even under the most repressive regimes, including in Russia, information critical of those in power gets through to citizens. For example, in a 2017 poll a considerable portion of Russians said that President Vladimir Putin was personally responsible for corruption. In strongly illiberal regimes voters, including those who support the government, are often aware of many abuses of power. And where control of information is highly developed and successful, its manipulation is imperfect. Voters’ active support for the regime, its leader, and its narratives create the demand side for disinformation, which is at least as important as the supply side that is created by the government-driven concentration of media system.

Filter bubbles are at least as much about voters’ trust in informational sources and their identity than about their access to information. They shape voters’ perceptions, including of distrusted sources and narratives, but critical information can get through to them. Sometimes it can even change the attitudes of regime voters, or at least not the most fanatical ones. Voters are not automatic absorbers of information; they have agency in accepting or rejecting news based on their self-identification and preferences.

Moral Panic Strikes Back

Some types of information are more successful in challenging official governmental narratives than others. In Hungary corruption has been put at the center of attacks against the regime many times, but this did not seem to bother its voters much—because they think that politics is corrupt anyway and that in a tribal political war one needs to accumulate resources for fighting the other side. By contrast, as in the case in the pedophile clemency scandal, issues that go against the moral worldview of its supporters can be more harmful to a government that is constantly fueling moral panics.

This was also the case in 2019 when a sex scandal involving a Fidesz mayor  was followed by the surprise victory of opposition candidates in the municipal elections. In the absence of news about this case in the pro-government media, many voters accessed first-hand information from a porn-sharing website to which the videos concerned were uploaded.

Some types of information are more successful in challenging official governmental narratives than others.

It is too soon to know if the clemency scandal could be a game-changer for Orbán. For now, he seems to have prevented the spread of its political consequences. But it has shown to Hungary’s political class that the government’s propaganda machine is not omnipotent and that its voter base is vulnerable to scandals that touch the core values of the regime.

Time will tell who will be able to use these lessons better. But one highly likely consequence of the scandal is that this year’s European Parliament and municipal elections campaigns will be dominated by topics such as pedophilia, sex, and LGBTQ rights. The day after the recent protest, Orbán promised a “child-protection” legislative package,  making clear that he sees the scandal as an electoral threat.