The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed and transformed the Hungarian anti-vax milieu that evolved from a small group composed primarily of parents concerned over childhood vaccination into a mass movement led by medical professionals and businessmen turned conspiracy theorists. This new breed of anti-vaxxers no longer hide their identity behind obscure webpages; they pursue their political, “professional,” or business interests openly, while their rhetoric is echoed by fringe pro-Kremlin, pro-Chinese and far-right figures, parties and media. This first research piece, supported by the International Republican Institute’s Beacon Project, highlights the modest beginnings of a new movement that has revolutionized the anti-vaxxer phenomena in Hungary during the first few months of the pandemic in 2020.
This publication has been prepared with support from International Republican Institute’s (IRI) Beacon Project: “The radicalization of the Hungarian anti-vax movement during the COVID-19 epidemic.” The research explores the radicalization of the Hungarian anti-vax movement through the far-right and pro-Russian subculture, using qualitative textual and quantitative statistical analysis. The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of IRI.
The COVID-19 epidemic has led to an unprecedented health, economic, social and political crisis around the world. Although, vaccine uptake and support for vaccines among Hungarians significantly increased by mid-2021, vaccine-sceptic groups and various conspiracy theories undermine the effectiveness of containment measures. Anti-vaccination attitudes in Europe are a result of a paradoxical situation to begin with: thanks to successful vaccination programs in the past, the most significant childhood infections have been in a steady decline, leading to a rejection of vaccines and vaccination programmes. A recent survey of 149 countries published in the Lancet found that at by the end of 2019, only half or less than half of respondents in 19 European Union countries expressed a "strong" confidence in vaccines, while Europe could be considered the most anti-vaccination continent globally. The low trust of Europeans in vaccination programs, together with the strong online presence of vaccine-sceptic social movements, foreshadowed epidemic-denial and the rampant spread of disinformation related to COVID-19.
Hungary proved no exception. Former Eastern Bloc countries as a whole have proven to be even less resilient to anti-vaccination movements or messages, as a higher share (from 18%-34%) of their populations tend to reject the new coronavirus vaccines compared with those living in Western member states (4%-24%), reported the European Commission. The new crisis caused by a novel, unknown disease simultaneously created an overload and a lack of reliable information on health-related issues since not even health experts, including the WHO had extensive knowledge of the symptoms, means of transmission or possible treatments in the first months of the pandemic. In addition, globally only 51 and 53% trusted traditional media and government respectively to provide them with solutions and leadership in the current crisis, according to the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer global survey, “moral entrepreneurs” or new pandemic “experts” appeared who promised easy answers to a variety of complex problems in order to quickly ease individuals’ and communities’ fears by downplaying health or economic threats to one’s wellbeing.
There was a clear demand for snake oil salesmen, alternative solutions and conspiracy theories throughout February-March of 2020, when the Hungarian government seemed to be out of step with the quickly evolving societal reaction. Hungarians voluntarily started to work from home, took their children out of schools and cleared the streets and supermarket shelves. Even PM Viktor Orbán, for a brief moment, looked into the abyss when his own Fidesz-KDNP parliamentary faction began to formulate a resolution demanding the government to take swift action against the coronavirus.
Eventually, the Hungarian government declared a state of emergency on 11 March, followed by the adoption of the authorization bill (Act XII of 2020 on the Containment of the Coronavirus) by the National Assembly on 30 March 2020, granting the government special powers, including the amendment of the Criminal Code to fine and prevent the spread of fearmongering about the pandemic. Still, conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers took notice of the opportunity to influence public opinions by denying or questioning – almost uninterrupted by the authorities – the existence of the coronavirus, the health benefits of the new vaccines or containment measures based on anti-establishment attitudes fueled by health and economic concerns.
The first baby steps of the antivax movement
After analysing 114 articles and Facebook posts of well-known Hungarian anti-vax “experts,” such as Dr. György Gődény, and fringe media, such as Clime News, a total of 39 fringe anti-vax sources between January and March 2020, it is clear that the pandemic became prevalent around mid-March, when several dozen articles and/or posts dealt with COVID-19 on a weekly basis.
That number may not seem much, but only about four to six messages per week were published on the issue of vaccinations or the pandemic between January and the end of February 2020 in the anti-vax fringe media monitored. The anti-vax discourse was dominated by such “old-school” topics, like how vaccinations cause autism in children (Vaccine Critics Life Protection Association) or how global warming could contribute to future pandemics, echoing a real warning made by Sir David Attenborough (Clime News). Quite early, fringe health experts who usually had a medical degree but worked as “alternative medicine” service providers or entrepreneurs started to control fringe news threads, initially in a balanced, cautious manner. Erika Balaicza M.D., for example, summarised in a series of Facebook posts the clinical symptoms of the COVID-19 infection, how government-sanctioned restrictions limit everyday life and access to general medical care services. József Tamasi M.D, who later turned into one of the most prolific anti-vaxxer experts, published the Hungarian government’s decree on mandatory curfew regulations point by point without any further negative critique or comment. Anti-establishment views or attitudes that have become the number one driving force behind the new Hungarian anti-vax movement were already present. For example, the fringe outlet HírAréna, now an integral part of the anti-vax media ecosystem, harshly criticized the government for not taking the pandemic seriously enough. Dr. György Gődény, a trained pharmacist and the de-facto leader of the new anti-vax movement even went so far to publish an article of a Hungarian biologist about how to keep the novel coronavirus’ social transmission under control based on the information produced by genetic sequencing of the pathogen.
The slow radicalization of the anti-vax scene started around May 2020. By then, the most prominent fake experts, who either had no medical specialization in infectious diseases or disseminated conspiracy theories regardless of their medical training, presented the first in their series of joint YouTube briefings on the new crisis, started offering alternative therapies and launched new online fringe media pages, offline entities to organise the movement. The anti-vax “breakthrough” had to do with the new leader and public face of the antivax-movement, Dr. György Gődény, who has considerable experience in setting up new organisational structures to financial ends. He founded, for example, a fake party called “Common Denominator” (Közös Nevező) during the 2018 general elections to access public campaign funds worth of HUF 153 million (EUR 425,000) possibly utilising bogus voter registration data. In the same fashion, he started organising the Hungarian anti-vax scene. He founded the clickbait homepage Médiaforrás in March, created the Facebook page Give us back our normal lives (Adjátok vissza a normális életünket) and the now-banned Facebook group People who want a normal life (Normális élethez ragaszkodók csoportja) in May, followed by the establishment of a new party called the Party for Normal Life (Normális Élet Pártja) in June 2020. His movement also launched at least 27 additional local Facebook groups with a total membership of about 100,000 to channel Hungarian anti-establishment attitudes into the movement on a regional level. At the same time, he began to radicalize the anti-vax narratives on his personal site by claiming that
- The pandemic is mostly an overhyped media panic.
- The coronavirus mortality is similar to the seasonal flu.
- People should not wear masks following the WHO’s (previous) guidance.
- The new mRNS vaccines may contribute to a more severe form of the coronavirus infection, which poses no real danger to the young and healthy immune system.
The trigger-happy pro-Russian media
Unlike the Hungarian anti-vax movement, the Hungarian-speaking pro-Kremlin media established by Russian and Hungarian far-right actors who have long been supporting the Russian President and his “sovereigntist” and “traditional Christian” political agenda pursued at home and abroad, started to formulate and spread the most viral disinformation narratives and conspiracy theories associated with COVID-19 early on. Their quick reaction was probably due to three main factors. First, the fringe media world view could easily integrate the phenomenon of a new virus into more general conspiratorial narrative frameworks which always point to the existence of sinister “powerful” players trying to rule the world, or Hungary, by any means necessary. Second, the pro-Russian fringe media had been created in the first place to react to fast changing geopolitical events that span multiple countries or regions in an instant by default. After explaining major and complex geopolitical events, such as the migrant crisis of 2015 or the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, spinning the facts and opinions about a new pandemic was not a great or particularly difficult thing to do. Third, the far-right/pro-Kremlin media is comprised of a vast network of social media pages, embedded into a powerful far-right Hungarian subculture with many hyperactive actors and organisations, which makes the articulation and dissemination of conspiracy theories or any messages much easier compared to the much smaller Hungarian anti-vax milieu. We included the top 30 of fringe pro-Kremlin and/or far-right sources for monitoring purposes.
Our data revealed that the trendline of fringe news items about COVID-19 reached its first major peak, similarly to the antivax-discourse, between 16 and 23 March, closely following the escalation of the actual crisis in Hungary, the first bulk of conspiracy theories was, in fact, produced by a much smaller peak around the end of January 2020.
Two of the most significant far-right and pro-Kremlin fringe media, Nemzeti.net and A világ titkai, almost immediately accused the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation of orchestrating the new pandemic to sell their new vaccines developed by a biotechnology firm owned by the US tech billionaire. A világ titkai, along with a smaller pro-Russian homepage, Bal-Rad, has already put a spin on the Chinese origins of the virus by claiming that the novel coronavirus was a man-made pathogen released by the Western elites and/or the United States as part of the “Agenda 21 Protocol” to prevent the global rise of China, “annihilate its population and cripple its entire economy.”
Another major pro-Russian conspiracy site, A Világ Helyzete tied the loose ends together by presenting an elaborate theory about an Anglo-Saxon freemason conspiracy that executed its eugenics masterplan through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to kill 65 million people, and hide the “flu-like” effects of the 5G network on people’s health in the city of Wuhan – a secret mission allegedly popularised in the Netflix Docuseries "Pandemic" released in January 2020. If we look at more closely some of the original sources of the theory, it turns out that “Bill Gates’ population reduction plan” was first reported on a Russia Today show aired in 2017 (the hyperlink is no longer functional beyond the URL-name), while the Anglo-Saxon mission was invented back in 2010 by the “Project Avalon” (formerly, the Project Camelot) site run by Kerry Lynn Cassidy, a well-known conspiracy theorist who attributes COVID-19 symptoms to the “activation” of 5G networks.
The new developments on the Hungarian anti-vax front started to build bridges between the anti-vax and far-right milieus on both organisational and narrative levels. From a narrative point of view, the merger of geopolitical and pure anti-vax conspiracy theories was somewhat inevitable given the global spread of the new crisis and the global race to first manufacture and distribute new vaccines abroad in which Russia and China were competitors to the West. In the public space, Gődény’s new anti-vax media channels, contents found on his personal page, Facebook pages, groups were widely shared, commented on or referenced by the far-right/pro-Kremlin Hungarian media and subculture. The new “expert forum” established by Dr. Gődény and two other medical “experts”, the Doctors for Clarity (Orvosok a tisztánlátásért), tried to build bridges to Russian and far-right actors right away. Their first large scale event, a “Scientific Conference,” was organised in the building, and under the auspices, of the World Federation of Hungarians, which organised a pro-Russian forum in 2014 about Ukrainian “fascism” and how the new war in Eastern Ukraine could undo the Trianon Treaty by precipitating the breakup of Ukraine. The “Scientific Conference’s” agenda also featured two Russian experts, alongside German conspiracy theorists: Dr. Igor Alexeyevich Gundarov, a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and Dr. Alina Aleksandrovna Lusavina, President of the Alliance of Independent Russian Doctors.
Consequently, our data revealed that the transformation and the renewal of the Hungarian anti-vaccination movement was not pre-determined in any shape or form. The changes detailed above reflected a strategic calculation and re-positioning on the part of fringe media, experts for personal, financial or other benefits related to the COVID-19 crisis. The development of the Hungarian anti-vax scene was further exacerbated by two external factors: the large pro-Kremlin/far-right fringe media network eager to disseminate antivax theories and the Hungarian government’s anti-hoax law that prevented reliable and credible independent media from in-depth reporting on the COVID-19 situation, thereby creating a strong demand for “alternative” and non-governmental information on the crisis. The rise of the anti-vax movement reflected both the limited freedom of media in Hungary and the multifaceted vaccine-sceptic populations or groups present in the V4 countries that needs a variety of different media sources to inform themselves.
Methodology: our research employed both qualitative and quantitative methodology to monitor and collect historical media data present on Hungarian fringe anti-vax and far-right/pro-Kremlin webpages and Facebook pages, groups. The quantitative dataset used in the analysis was generated using the SentiOne social media listening platform. After a manual compilation of the top 30 far-right/pro-Kremlin and 39 antivax-fringe sources based on a snowball sampling, we monitored their data production 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. Data collected on the platform were analysed by Political Capital’s experts to locate, categorise, quantify, and contextualise disinformation narratives, conspiracy theories produced by the fringe sources under consideration.
Author: Lóránt Győri
The link to the original publication can be found here.