COVID-9.11: The transformation and anti-West radicalization of the Hungarian antivax movement

November 10, 2021

This project is a months-long media research supported by the International Republican Institute’s (IRI) Beacon Project. Political Capital looked at the transformation of the Hungarian anti-vax movement from a small, parents-led community into a hyperactive, network-building movement mainstreaming disinformation and conspiracy theories. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of IRI.

Using qualitative and quantitative approaches of narrative and statistical, network analysis, Political Capital revealed how the Hungarian far-right and pro-Kremlin subculture contributed to the radicalization of the anti-vax discourse and audience, which became both the recipient and producer of anti-West, more specifically anti-US narratives and conspiracy theories related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The data-sets used in the media research were generated using the SentiOne and CrowdTangle social media listening platforms, used to monitor and collect historical media data present on Hungarian fringe anti-vax and far-right/pro-Kremlin webpages, Facebook pages and groups. After a manual compilation of the top 30 far-right/pro-Kremlin and 39 anti-vax fringe sources based on snowball sampling, we monitored their operation between 1 January 2020 and 1 June 2021 through a pre-set of keywords to identify and collect any relevant communication in the forms of articles, posts or comments related to the COVID-19 pandemic or the vaccination programs.

Executive summary

  • The coronavirus pandemic in Hungary created an infodemic unprecedented both in its scale and nature, profoundly impacting the country’s anti-vax community which transformed from a small circle of parents concerned over childhood-immunization into a hyperactive, network-building movement mainstreaming disinformation and conspiracy theories. As a result, the Hungarian vaccination campaign is rather stagnating, with only 66 percent of the adult population is fully vaccinated (compared to the EU average of 75%).
  • Established itself through social media, the Hungarian anti-vax community is predominantly led by a new generation of self-proclaimed/alternate health experts such as Dr. György Gődény who, as the prominent member of the leading branch of the antivax movement called the Doctors for Clarity, is leading a crusade against COVID-19 vaccines through a newly established network of clickbait homepages, social media pages and groups.
  • Our media research clearly suggests a strong link between the Hungarian anti-vax community and the far right and pro-Kremlin subculture: the Hungarian anti-West far-right messages were picked up by the new antivax movement, such as the alleged “eugenics” plan executed by Bill Gates, Henry Kissinger, or George Soros;[i] or that the novel coronavirus was released by the West to bring down China.
  • According to research data, two societal mechanisms can be identified in the online radicalization of the new Hungarian antivax movement. First, a high degree of synchronisation occurred between the networks of far right and antivax fringe media which shared 33,74 % of all domains in 2020 and 41,82% 2021 in a form of hyperlinks used in their messages, contributing to the spread of far-right conspiracy theories in antivax communities led by prominent pro-Kremlin conspiracy sites, such as Awakening the World. Second, the antivax movement became a novel and primary producer/consumer of geopolitically charged disinformation narratives being in an open competition with the far right and pro-Russian Our Homeland (Mi Hazánk) party for the same anti-establishment audience.
  • The interaction between the far right and antivax movements resulted in an anti-West, more specifically, anti-US turn of the Hungarian antivax communication. A prime example of this attitude was on plain sight during the “COVID 9.11” protest organised by the leader of the antivax movement Dr. Gődény in September 2020. Whereas, far-right narratives were more Eurosceptic and pro-Russian.
  • When it comes to China, however, Hungarian discourses in the anti-vax and far-right communities both displayed a level of anti-Chinese propensity, once again confirming China’s damaged image over the pandemic.
  • The antivax communication was supercharged by the new social media network capable of mobilising at least a 100.000 strong-audience online and thousands offline. The new antivax movement has become the real engine of mobilisation in Hungary in 2021 with 18% of all their messages calling for some form of activism, as opposed to only 1% of far-right messages, despite all the efforts of social media platforms to ban such contents.

Despite the anti-vaxxer and far-right movements fearmongering and disregard for public safety measures, the Hungarian authorities were quite slow in their reaction to vaccine-sceptic communication due to the Hungarian government’s preoccupation with the opposition, its disinformation campaign supporting Russia or China against the EU or the West, which even further bolstered the anti-government communication of the antivax movement.

The link to the original publication can be found: here.