The antidotes of Hungarian government propaganda

Even if we are not able to reach as many people as the millions of Megafon posts or TV2 news, it is worthwhile and important to speak out. It is important to voice our own opinions on our own platforms, on Facebook, on blogs, on TikTok, and in doing so to correct lies and misinformation in our own network of contacts. We know of examples where speaking out in public has had serious consequences - for example, the expulsion from school of Lili Pankotai, the student who spoke out at the protest - but these are still the exceptions, and the more vociferous we are, the harder it is to single out one speaker. We defend each other and, hard though it may be to believe, the public itself defends us. Those who are silent can be set aside without attracting attention. Those who are loud are supported by others.

Let's not believe that there is no independent media and journalism, that everyone serves someone! That is not true. No doubt, every journalist has a world view. But independent media are not dependent on any political power, either financially or in terms of ownership. It is up to you to decide what becomes news and how you report it. Of course, these may be wrong decisions, the journalist may be wrong. But independent journalism can correct, it can self-reflect. There is such a thing as independent, autonomous, quality journalism.

That is why we should respect and support independent media as much as we can! There are still many who are doing excellent journalistic work. In 2021, the Mérték Media Analysis Workshop has compiled a list of media that do their job uncompromisingly and provide genuine, independent information. The list will change, but the bottom line is that everyone can find credible information and choose the news outlets they think are worth supporting.

Let's make the effort to learn more about how the media works. Find out who owns which media, don't share anything without reading it, read up on how social media algorithms work. This knowledge will make us stronger against manipulation.

Know and understand the current government narratives and have an opinion on them! Let's not make the mistake of criticising not the content of the message, but only the person delivering the message. Don't just rant and rave, but have counter-arguments, even if they don't convince everyone. Any situation in which the parties express their opinions about each other rather than the subject of the debate becomes a pointless stand-off.

Let's also find out from foreign news sources. It is important to get a broader perspective and to see ourselves from the outside. There is a lot of information available for free, including access to the best-known foreign and international media products.

It is almost impossible to find an effective and systemic antidote to this incredible volume. At the same time, an important feature of this system is that it does not seek to silence all critical voices, there is no direct censorship and no physical violence against journalists or any other critic. In fact, the aim of this communication system is not to impose its truth on everyone, but to keep just enough voters under its influence to win every election. So there is plenty of room for individual strategies.

This also means that finding your way around is time and energy consuming. Just as democracy requires effort from all of us.

The ways of Hungarian government propaganda

The transformation of the Hungarian media system after 2010 is the result of the simultaneous fulfilment of many conditions, which is why it cannot be repeated in this form in other countries and in other periods. The period between the regime change of 1989/1990 and 2010 was also characterised by an excessive focus on politics and politicians. In fact, there was no period when political pressure was not dominant in the development of the media system. However, there were legal, economic and social safeguards that were able to correct violations of media freedom time and time again, and after 2010 these protective mechanisms disappeared and the media system underwent a greater transformation than in the 1990s.

The 2008 financial crisis had a direct impact on the media markets in Hungary and Eastern Europe. After the regime changes of 1989/90, the region's media markets became an attractive opportunity for Western European and American investors. However, the financial crisis hit the advertising markets hard, coinciding with the emergence of a dominant position of global platform providers (Google, Facebook) in the advertising market. As a result, the vast majority of Western investors left the region. Just as Viktor Orbán was taking power in Hungary, and building a stable media backdrop to support him and his government was an integral part of his power concept. The first aggressive media policy moves not only confirmed to investors that their presence was too risky, but also showed the likely media policy directions for the coming years: the political control of private and public media watchdogs and the expansion of pro-party businesses in the media and media-related markets. The media laws of 2010 created the institutional framework for this, and the market takeovers and takeover attempts that started immediately after the change of government foreshadowed deeper structural changes.

Until 2014, there was a highly centralised, essentially single-player media empire close to Fidesz, which was replaced between 2015 and 2018 by a diversified system with smaller owners, but even more closely linked to the party and Orbán. In 2018, the Central European Press and Media Foundation was created, which owns nearly 500 media outlets and is the dominant, but not the only, player in the pro-government media. An important player in the pro-government media is the TV2 Group, whose largest channel, TV2, has become the most watched television channel in Hungary. A relatively independent player in the pro-government media is, owned by Miklós Vaszily, a key figure in Fidesz's media strategy. The media of the governing parties include Rádió1 and Pesti Srácok. The state media should also be included in the ruling party media. Its organisational structure, the identity of its leaders and the way it is financed make it clearly vulnerable to political influence, and the content it publishes is a constant testament to the success of this influence.

The most important function of this highly centralised system is to effectively convey government (and pro-government) messages. It takes on the current themes, words and worldviews immediately and without reservation. The source of these central messages and narratives is the Cabinet Office of the Prime Minister, headed by Antal Rogán, which is formally responsible for government communication and manages the National Communications Office, which plays a key role in the distribution of public advertising. It is also in charge of, among other things, cinema and audiovisual policy and, most recently, the management of civilian national security services and civilian intelligence activities. It is not difficult to see the risks involved in concentrating all these tasks in one hand.

The media close to the government are not autonomous and have little room for manoeuvre in terms of decision-making and editorial freedom. It is completely incapable of controlling power and has no intention of doing so. In exchange for ample public subsidies and other resources, it allows itself to be used by politics, namely by the government and the governing parties.

It is not only the proliferation of channels that provides the volume of propaganda, but also the public money that keeps them alive. Public advertising serves both to disseminate government propaganda as widely as possible and to finance the pro-government media. The pro-government media can thus count on stable funding regardless of the prevailing economic situation and their own performance, which is also a seriously market-distorting situation.

In 2022, the Cabinet Office of the Prime Minister spent the most on advertising, followed by the state-owned gambling monopoly and the state tourism agency. The vast majority of public money spent in this way, 86 percent in 2020, will go to media companies and media outlets close to the government. Even if a non-government media outlet reaches the same or even a larger audience in a given market, in the commercial television market, public operators spent eight times more than the leading government-owned player in the commercial television market, and forty-five times more than their largest non-government competitor in the news portal market. The daily newspaper market, on the other hand, is entirely based on state advertising, with the only daily newspaper critical of the government receiving 78% of its advertising revenues from the state.

Since 2020, public money has also been the fuel for propaganda on social media, with the creation in 2020 of the Megafon Centre, whose main activity is to promote the Facebook posts of pro-government influencers. Facebook is the most popular platform in Hungary, but voters have also seen a lot of political advertising on YouTube. The funding background of the Megafon Centre is not transparent. However, the court has ruled in a press vindication lawsuit that it is not illegal to claim that Megafon is indirectly financed by public money through a foundation and a company. Megafon spent €2.7 million on Facebook between April 2019 and April 2022, making it the largest political advertiser on Facebook in Hungary. Between April 2019 and April 2022, it spent more than €11 million on Facebook with the government parties and €6.3 million with the opposition parties. Social media became the main channel for Hungarian political communication in the 2022 election campaign, making it clear to Hungarian voters that social media platforms are dominated by the player with more resources.