The COVID-19 pandemic in Hungary resulted in an unprecedented amount of health-related disinformation with various narratives touching upon issues far beyond public health. As anti-vax sentiments gained ground, mainstream narratives were supplemented by that of not only “professional” anti-vaxxers but far right/pro-Kremlin fringe media, as well. This second research piece, supported by the International Republican Institute’s Beacon Project, highlights anti-vaccination disinformation trends in Hungary, prevalent narratives across the media space, as well as the Hungarian government’s reaction to the domestic anti-vax movement.
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 pandemic has posed an unprecedented public health challenge around the globe for various reasons – ranging from governments struggling to gain access to a sufficient number of vaccines to convincing the public of the need to be vaccinated, amongst many others. A number of anti-vaccination actors, encouraged by the chaos and uncertainty caused by the pandemic, undermined public health crisis management efforts and vaccination campaigns. The case has been no different in multiple countries of the Central European region since the eastern flank of the European Union, as shown by a recent survey of the European Commission, has proved to be less resilient to anti-vaccination messages. Hungary’s pandemic record shows a similar path in line with regional tendencies.
As our previous article found, the appearance and subsequent outbreak of a new, major disease led to an overload of unreliable information, creating societal demand for alternative solutions and theories about COVID-19, both in a public health and a political context. This demand was satisfied by a number of newly emerging anti-vaccination actors: alternative health experts delivering simple - but dubious - explanations about the virus, conspiracy theory websites seizing this exceptional opportunity, as well as far-right media and social media pages with a pro-Kremlin foreign policy orientation focusing on the geopolitical angles of the coronavirus story.
The evolution of the Hungarian anti-vax movement
By far, fake COVID-19 experts lead the pack, quickly turning into the most prominent voices of the Hungarian anti-vax community. Starting with an initially cautious manner, these self-proclaimed experts, who usually had a medical degree but worked as alternative health and medicine providers, advocates or even businesspeople, gradually went on to provide alternative explanations on the origins, transmission and diagnose of? COVID-19, mixed with their political and societal views, often describing pandemic as a tool to curb human rights and/or endorsing anti-elite conspiracy theories. This group of opinion leaders included, József Tamasi M.D., a naturopath infamous for his coronavirus-denial views, Gábor Lenkei, an alternate health businessman who owns a vitamin business franchise and György Gődény, a pharmacist-turned-health influencer who has emerged as the de facto leader of the anti-vax movement, among others.
Following the first wave of COVID-19 in Hungary (March-May 2021), the health influencers mentioned above began to pursue a more institutional and sophisticated approach, creating an “expert forum” called Orvosok a Tisztánlátásért (Doctors for Clarity) and organizing a conference in Budapest involving Russian and German conspiracy theorists. By that time, Gődény had already set up a fringe news website called Médiaforrás (Media Source) and started a 20,000-strong petition against the compulsory wearing of face masks. While the initial lines of communications were centered around denouncing the reality of the pandemic, the evolution of the Hungarian anti-vax movement took an increasingly strong turn after the second coronavirus wave hit the country in September 2021. Emboldened by the steady public discourse about vaccine options developed in the West, the anti-vax movement further radicalized as the second wave spread through Hungary. Narratives promoted by Doctors for Clarity gradually shifted from coronavirus-sceptic lines to ones discussing alleged concerns over the then-future vaccines. Embracing anti-Western conspiratorial attitudes, a major evolution point occurred when Gődény organized the so-called “COVID 9.11” protest in early September. Held in front of the U.S. Embassy in Budapest, the demonstration, which attracted an estimated 1,000 people, pushed a narrative saying that the pandemic was “just as fake” as the 9/11 bombings.
The anti-vax movement appeared to be the strongest in October-November 2020, spurred by uncertainty over the vaccine options during the second half of 2020 that was further strengthened by Hungary’s controversial inquiries into Russian- and Chinese-manufactured vaccines. Domestic polls showed that vaccine hesitancy stood at high levels, with 47% of Hungarians rejecting the vaccine against 17% with a positive view. As the Hungarian vaccination campaign started to proceed in late December, the growth potential of the anti-vax movement was seriously weakened, however, this did not mean that the movement would not survive.
Throughout the third wave of the pandemic in Hungary (February-April 2021) and beyond, Gődény and the Doctors for Clarity have continued to rally supporters not only against the vaccine, but against mainstream politicians and media who were accused of creating mass hysteria over the pandemic. Gődény held three subsequent anti-lockdown demonstrations in February, March and June, while the group of alternative doctors organized another international conference. Held in August, the event featured prominent German and U.S. anti-vaxxers, including top American conspiracy theorist Robert F. Kennedy who sent a dedicated video message for the Hungarian audience.
The radicalization of the anti-vax movement took another major step when bridges started to be built between alternate health influencers opposing all mainstream politicians and Mi Hazánk (Our Homeland), a far right and pro-Russian political party that declared itself an anti-lockdown party, which held subsequent demonstrations in March and. Consequently, Mi Hazánk started exploring the possibilities of an anti-vaccination policy. The party fiercely speaks out against compulsory vaccines and the vaccination of children. Mi Hazánk is currently running a nationwide billboard campaign against compulsory vaccination.
Aiming at the wrong target
The almost uninterrupted evolution of the Hungarian anti-vax community in 2020 comes down to two major factors. First, the Doctors for Clarity easily managed to penetrate the mainstream media sphere as the second wave hit Hungary in the fall. Gődény, like other members of his community, became recurring guests on mainstream radio and TV channels. The uncertainty over the potential health impacts of the virus was still riding high after the first COVID-19 wave in the summer of 2020, allowing the fake experts above to be hosted and argue with actual experts with the proper medical specialization on national radio and national TV. This significantly elevated Gődény’s status, resulting in a partial legitimisation of his movement.
Second, the Hungarian authorities failed to recognize the gravity of the threat posed by the emerging anti-vaccination movement in time. As shown by Political Capital’s previous research, conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers continued their activities almost uninterrupted during the first half of the pandemic period. The first public medical institution to take notice and subsequent concern of anti-vaccination health experts and their dangerous views was the independently run Hungarian Chamber of Doctors (MOK), which denounced the first anti-vaxxer health conference in August 2020 and called on the government to do the same. The first meaningful statement from the government denouncing the movement publicly came on October 30, 2020, almost half a year after Gődény and his fellow experts started spreading dubious messages about the pandemic. Nonetheless, the Hungarian police eventually launched an investigation into Gődény’s activities broadly spreading health-related disinformation in December 2020 that was followed by an indictment in June 2021. Gődény was also fined by police after he held an anti-lockdown demonstration in March 2021, coinciding with the deadliest period of the pandemic to date.
The slow response of the authorities to counter actual anti-vaxxers came despite the fact that the government waged an all-out disinformation campaign against the Hungarian opposition parties, accusing the opposition of being anti-vaccination. Notably, the opposition parties were initially against the purchase of Russian- and Chinese-manufactured coronavirus vaccines since the government started criticizing what they called a slow EU procurement and reached out to Eastern authoritarian powers for help. However, while the government claimed the opposition was fuelling anti-vax sentiments to weaken PM Orbán politically, the initial criticism, which has remained publicly supportive of vaccination, in general, was related to justifiable concerns over lack of information on Russia’s Sputnik and China’s Sinopharm vaccines.
Simultaneously as the government and pro-government media outlets were hitting the opposition politically, the fringe anti-vax movement remained largely able to continue their operations online almost undisturbed; in September 2020, unilaterally moved to delete homepages and groups linked to Gődény and other anti-vaxxers for spreading disinformation on health, although some of these pages and groups were later reorganized. As Hungary was struggling to get people vaccinated following the third wave, the deadliest period of the pandemic, the government simultaneously started a pro-vaccination billboard and ad campaign, featuring public figures, medical experts and celebrities. This proved more efficient than a controversial piece of legislation from March 2020 when the Fidesz-controlled National Assembly amended the country’s Criminal Code to fine and prevent the spread of fear-mongering about the pandemic and the health crisis management. Despite being intended to stop disinformation on health, the legislative amendment backfired spectacularly. While no actions were taken against Gődény and his fellow experts at the time, the Hungarian police, invoking this legislation, placed two private individuals, one of whom an activist of the liberal opposition Momentum party, under preliminary arrest. Both individuals criticized the government on social media for failing to protect elderly people from the pandemic, though neither denied COVID-19 or the existence of the pandemic.
Competing anti-vax and slightly incorporating far-right narratives
There were two well distinguishable lines of communication about the pandemic in the Hungarian mainstream media that largely depended on political affiliation. Focusing on vaccines, independent media outlets aimed at providing accurate and up-to-date news about vaccine options, with updates on clinical trials, efficacy and safety, amongst other things. In contrast, government-leaning or controlled outlets attempted to blame the crisis on the opposition, particularly the opposition leadership of Budapest. This is also evidenced by the first notable peak of media discourse in April 2020 (with close to 9,000 relevant posts per week) seen on the trendline below when the government openly blamed Budapest mayor Gergely Karácsony for virus-related deaths in elderly care homes. This was followed by another peak in November 2020 (second coronavirus wave, relevant posts averaging 5,000) the center of which was placed over the vaccination issue. The third peak of the mainstream discussion evolved early this year (January-March, relevant posts averaging: 6,000) as a result of Hungary’s purchase of Russian and Chinese vaccines. The Eastern procurements led to a new narrative adopted by the government: Hungary being at the top of the vaccination ranking, likely a counter-narrative to the news of Hungary leading the global coronavirus death toll rates during the worst weeks of the third wave in February/March. In the mainstream, social media emerged as the predominant source of information. On the political front, Budapest’s opposition mayor Gergely Karácsony quickly emerged as the top author on Facebook, while the Hungarian government’s own Facebook page, together with the newly created Koronavírus Tájékoztató Oldal were also ranked at the top, similarly with the Facebook pages of the ruling Fidesz party and the main opposition Democratic Coalition party.
The weekly number of relevant Facebook posts/articles dealing with the coronavirus in mainstream, anti-vax fringe and far right/pro-Russian media between 1 January 2020 and May 31, 2021
Narratives created by the anti-vaccination movement were primarily also pushed through social media. Followed by the first peak on media discourse of these groups and individuals essentially meant downplaying the effects of the virus, anti-vaccination narratives gradually evolved in response to the ongoing EU vaccine procurement (and Hungarian inquiries to buy Eastern vaccines) during the second COVID-19 wave. The overall narrative described vaccination as a major experiment and debated whether vaccines are needed against coronavirus at all. To back up their dubious claims, Hungarian anti-vaxxers often pointed to foreign experts (and used their materials), including Sucharit Bhakdi, a German COVID-19-denier virologist who believes mRNS vaccines are dangerous. The narrative of deadly vaccinations followed shortly afterwards, becoming a dominant line in anti-vax communications by the third wave. Unconfirmed reports of vaccine-related fatalities were also regularly picked up by anti-vax social media groups. Such an article appeared on the 100,000+ followers-strong Facebook page of Gődény who claimed without evidence that 23 people died due to receiving the Pfizer vaccine in Norway. Unsurprisingly Gődény emerged as the top author in the anti-vax field, largely due to his network of fringe social media groups.
Pro-Russian media and social media pages, as well as far right and conspiracy theory pages with a pro-Kremlin stance have also been active in vaccine-related narratives throughout the pandemic period, genuinely focusing on the intersections of the health crisis and geopolitics. A total of 73,783 mentions of the pandemic and vaccinations were registered, with coverage peaking in March-April 2020 (1,500), November 2020 (close to 1,300) and March 2021 (over 2,000). By far, nemzeti.net, a far right and pro-Kremlin news portal and landing page for websites with a similar ideology was the most active in discussing the pandemic. Interestingly enough, narratives spread by these media and social media pages did not only constitute anti-elite and/or geopolitical disinformation, such as blaming the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for exploiting the global vaccination campaign or the US for the spread of an allegedly artificial virus.
Their lines of communications often coincided with pro-government narratives, that is, praising Viktor Orbán for the successful handling of the pandemic situation and blaming the European Union for its failure in doing the same. Accordingly, the highest peak of media discourse was evidenced during March 2021 when the pro-government mainstream was pushing for the narrative of “Europe’s fastest vaccination rollout” that was, according to them, made possible by Hungary’s vaccine procurement deal with Russia.
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: Dominik Istrate, Political Capital
The link to the original publication can be found: here.