Will Massive State-Funded Disinformation in Hungary Give Orbán One More Win?

May 22, 2024
Strong campaigning skills are one reason why Viktor Orbán has won four consecutive elections in Hungary. But he has also never been shy about spending public money heavily to influence citizens with falsehoods.

As the June 9 European Parliament and local elections have neared, the Fidesz government in Hungary has again spent almost without limit on social-media disinformation about its political opponents. Using its unfettered control of public funds to do so helps Fidesz remain dominant, and social media platforms appear reluctant to address the issue as its advertising campaigns bring them huge revenues.

Since the beginning of the year, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s party and its individual candidates, the pro-government media, and government-organized “NGOs” have spent almost €4 million on social-media advertising according to the spending tracker of the Political Capital Institute and its partners, based on data from Facebook and YouTube ad libraries. One such “NGO” and one influencer platform together spent more than €1.6 million in just 18 weeks on Facebook and YouTube. With that amount of money, one could buy almost 400,000 Big Macs in Hungary.

Fidesz has spent 2.5 times as much as the 13 opposition parties that advertised their messages on social media combined, and 8.5 times as much as the second-biggest spender, the opposition Democratic Coalition Party. The pro-government media has spent 11 times as much on Facebook ads as the independent and pro-opposition media combined. The influencer platform Megafon has spent more on electoral campaigning than all advertisers in EU countries such as Croatia, Portugal, and Slovakia. All advertisers combined in Hungary have spent more on political ads than all those in Germany, which has a population eight times bigger and an economy that is 20 times larger. 

The pro-government media has spent 11 times as much on Facebook ads as the independent and pro-opposition media combined.

Hungary has the most centralized and politically controlled media system in the EU. Orbán has built up a media empire since returning as prime minister in 2010, creating an informational autocracy with control over public discourse. Following the 2022 elections, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe highlighted the highly uneven informational environment, concluding that “there was a pervasive overlap between ruling coalition and government messaging and activities […] biased news coverage limited voters’ opportunity to make an informed choice”.

Fidesz has long kept many voters disinformed about important issues. The 2022 campaign was the most successful in Orbán’s laboratory of post-truth, when the most pro-Russia leader in the EU secured another large majority in parliament 40 days after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Research indicates that government-funded disinformation significantly affected all citizens rather than just those who support Fidesz. 

Prior to the 2022 elections, a vast majority of voters were exposed to false narratives: 86% heard that the main opposition parties wanted to deploy troops to Ukraine (there was no such plan), 67% that the left endorsed sex-change surgeries for underage children (no opposition politician on the left ever said this), and 85% that Hungary had effectively managed the COVID-19 pandemic (the country had the second-highest mortality rate in the EU). A significant share of these voters accepted them as true: 60% regarding the Ukraine deployment, 55% regarding the pandemic response, and 45% regarding the sex-change surgeries. 

Similarly, Political Capital found that more than a third of voters, and the majority of Fidesz ones, thought at the end of 2022 that the government had never supported any sanctions against Russia—although it had supported eight sanction packages in the European Council. 

A More Challenging Year for Fidesz?

The political environment has changed a lot since then and Fidesz faces a rising new challenger. After the scandal when the president pardoned the helper of a convicted pedophile, it lost hundreds of thousands of potential voters to Respect and Freedom (Tisza), led by ex-regime insider Péter Magyar, which could become the most popular opposition party. As a result, Orbán has spent more than before on campaign ads to keep setting the agenda. For example, more than €1 million has been spent on social media so far to smear Magyar as a leftist, wife-beater, aggressive liar, and a part of the so-called “Dollar Left”.

Regime disinformation about EU policies, politicians, and the war in Ukraine is widespread. Government-organized actors spread the narrative that European “leftist”, “pro-war” politicians want to start a new world war. This paints as dangerous left-wingers EU leaders who are in fact from center-right, like European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Poland’s Prime Minister Donald Tusk. There are widespread attacks on Germany and the United States for allegedly being “pro-war” and supporting the opposition. 

It remains to be seen how successful this will prove. Tisza surged to 26% support among likely voters in less than three months without spending a cent on social-media campaigning, although Magyar has successfully used social media. During the same period, Fidesz’s popularity declined from 53% to 45% despite all its spending. It seems inevitable that it will lose two or three of the 13 seats it holds in the outgoing European Parliament. 

Social-media platforms have not put checks in place to prevent Fidesz-style disinformation efforts. They, and particularly Facebook, do not turn away the substantial revenue from such ads. Their moderation and removal of disinformation ads is at best sporadic, arbitrary, and inconsequential. The EU’s Digital Services Act, aimed at pushing platforms toward more ethical policies, is under implementation and time will tell how much the EU as a regulator can do so, especially when it comes to state-sponsored computational propaganda. This month the European Commission opened a case against Meta, Facebook’s owner, over disinformation from third countries (mainly Russia) during the elections campaign. 

The case of Hungary shows that governments can be the most efficient super-spreaders of disinformation. It demonstrates that illiberal governments can create almost Orwellian media spaces on social media, just as they can in traditional media, by abusing their control of public funds. How Fidesz performs in the elections will thus be relevant beyond Hungary. If Orbán is successful again, his techniques will be further copied by others across Europe. However, a strong performance by Tisza would indicate it is still possible for opposition actors to break through the government-controlled media space.