Divide and Conquer

New social media research indicates that the Hungarian government’s attempts to shape the narrative among diaspora communities have been paying off.

Jeremy Druker is the editor in chief of Transitions. This article has been prepared with support from IRI’s Beacon Project. The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of IRI. 

In a multicountry investigation, researchers have uncovered evidence that the Hungarian government’s huge, financial investment in supporting ethnic Hungarian communities abroad has contributed to the circulation of narratives on social media favoring its positions while faulting national governments for their treatment of minorities. The Slovak Security Policy Institute (Bratislava, Slovakia), Expert Forum (Bucharest, Romania), and independent Ukrainian researcher Dmytro Borysov used sophisticated social media analysis to track these narratives, their success, and their reach.  

The International Republican Institute’s Beacon Project, a counter-disinformation initiative, provided support and funding for the investigation.   

“We consider this issue to be very important to the relationship between the minority and the majority in the country, as some of the narratives we have examined have the potential to polarize society but also to radicalize members of the minority community,” write the authors of the Slovak study from Infosecurity.sk, echoing comments made by researchers that looked at the situation in Transylvania and Transcarpathia, areas in Romania and Ukraine, respectively, that contain large ethnic-Hungarian minorities.   

Distribution of magyars in neighbouring countries
source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MagyarsOutsideHungary.png

 

The Social Media Gap

The Hungarian government’s massive financing of ethnic Hungarian minorities abroad is no secret and previous research has uncovered tremendous growth since Fidesz, the governing party of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, returned to power in 2010. Infosecurity.sk cites a 10-fold increase from 2010 (around 38 million euros to around 383 million euros). Earlier work by Expert Forum has pegged the annual funding in Transylvania alone at roughly 145 million euros, including 5 million per year for a Hungarian-language media trust active in the region.

Until now, however, little work had been done on how such funding has affected the local, online information space and influenced narratives about national governments, the Hungarian state, and citizenship, among others. In general, analysis is lacking on ethnic Hungarians’ media consumption in the analyzed countries, especially as concerns social media. To a large degree, these particular information spaces remain unexplored as they fall in between the majority traditional media/social media space (and the

accompanying language barrier) and the information space in Hungary (which differs for obvious cultural/social reasons from diaspora media).

In response to this gap, researchers used Facebook’s CrowdTangle tool and Pulsar to analyze the activity on the Facebook pages of local Hungarian-language media outlets and significant personalities in the local Hungarian communities (both politicians and others). The research aimed to both uncover the pages with the most interactions (likes, shares, and comments) and the most popular narratives circulating within the ethnic Hungarian communities in each of the target countries.

The findings in Slovakia suggest that narratives close to the position of the Hungarian government are prevalent in the Hungarian-speaking Slovak part of Facebook. For the most part, these narratives receive support – often overwhelming support – from those who comment on the various posts. These narratives cover areas such as the supposed poor standing of the Hungarian minority in Slovakia; the position that ethnic Hungarians should be able to accept Hungarian citizenship; the need to protect “traditional” values, i.e. Orban's fight against liberal elites and the EU; the legacy of the Trianon Treaty; and Budapest’s support for the Hungarian community in Slovakia. 

“According to our findings, we can conclude that the narratives which can potentially support nationalist or even irredentist ideas have their place in the Slovak-Hungarian information space. Some have stronger support and are more common than others, and many are supported by various politicians and media outlets.” As the authors point out, the prevalence of such opinions is particularly problematic in Slovakia given the current lack of ethnic Hungarian political representation in parliament to offer competing viewpoints.    

Researchers in Slovakia also found that Hungarian-language media, at least partially funded by the Hungarian state, often supplied the content that sparked heated debates around these issues. For example, the website Felvidék.ma wrote: “They [those in power] did everything to keep this continent, the Christian faith, the Hungarian state afloat. Nobody knows it but us. The fact that the noon bell tolls for the heroes who sacrificed their lives on Nándorfehérvár [when the Hungarians repelled the Ottoman Turks in 1456]. I don't think it's our fault that Western Europe has forgotten the heroes who sacrificed their lives for them." Felvidék.ma has more than 50,000 followers on Facebook, and over the course of the 8-month research period, managed to gain 283,000 interactions for 4,600 posts on its page. 

Felvidék.ma has more than 50,000 followers on Facebook
Number of Posts by Page Felvidék.ma from Jan-Aug 2021; Source: CrowdTangle 

 

More of the Same in Romania, but Not in Ukraine 

Similar narratives could also be found in Romania. Researchers from Expert Forum found the most common narratives praise Hungary as a defender of traditional values and protector of Hungarian communities abroad – popular tropes of the Hungarian government. The Hungarian-language media also frequently portray Romania as a failed state that is unable to guarantee the prosperity of the general population – and even less that of the country’s ethnic minorities. Local authorities are most often blamed for poor public services and the lack of political stability. This is a common complaint in the Romanian mainstream media, too, the report’s authors point out, but, they write that in the Hungarian-language media, “the extent of criticism creates a disproportionate perspective of the reality and tries to depict the Romanian institutions as negatively as possible.” The net impact is particularly powerful and efficient, say the report’s authors, “because stereotypes already exist in society and propaganda can use this historic bias in order to amplify its effects online.” The problem is only exacerbated because some in the majority society often view ethnic Hungarians as supposedly disloyal members of Romanian society, harboring revisionist attitudes.  

 

The reach of such narrative on social media in Romania is potentially vast. As the researchers note, over a 9-month period, just three Facebook pages of media that that the Hungarian government openly finances through the Association for Transylvanian Media Space (Székelyhon, Krónika, Bihari Napló) had a total of 200,000 followers and 2 million interactions, while having a consistent growth rate in followers of at least 7% per year. The oldest of the three, Krónika (est. 2010), had a 12-month follower growth rate of over 55%. 

Growth of Page Follwers of three Hungarian language media outlets in Romania; source: CrowdTangle
Growth of Page Follwers of three Hungarian language media outlets in Romania; source: CrowdTangle 

 

“The reality that we acknowledged from our research is that the Hungarian community is increasingly isolated from the rest of Romania in terms of news, priorities, and entertainment,” write the authors of the report from Expert Forum. “The current trend is to form an information bubble in which any information uncomfortable for [Hungarian Prime Minister] Viktor Orban is suppressed while distrust in the local authorities is encouraged.  

“This is not a new trend in Transylvania. The Hungarian minority always had a desire for self-preservation, autonomy, and even affinity towards Hungary. The main difference that Fidesz seems to make is the amount of funds it is willing to invest to isolate the community from the rest of Romania – but also from his political competitors in Budapest – and create the image of Fidesz as the only available protector of the diaspora and its values.” 

If the above conclusions represent a well-developed effort to push the Hungarian government’s agenda in the near abroad, Ukraine’s Transcarparthia region appears to be less of a priority. In contrast to the findings from Slovakia and Romania, content analysis of relevant Facebook posts did not indicate that the Hungarian government propaganda was strong among the Hungarian community in Ukraine, at least in minority media outlets and among local political actors. Even those media outlets with strong and obvious political affiliations to Fidesz did not, as a rule, publish social posts representing the Hungarian government narratives.  

On the contrary, locally generated minority narratives, such as the notion that the Hungarian minority has been mistreated in Ukraine, attracted more interaction and reach on the Facebook pages of local minority media outlets. Researcher Dmytro Borysov noted the dangers of these narratives: “The Facebook audiences of four out of the 10 minority media outlets turned out to be receptive to local conflict-oriented narratives (the narratives of Hungarians as a mistreated minority and indigenous minority) that were alienating the Hungarian minority from the Ukrainian society and state.”   

 

End Game: More Seats in Parliament 

While the various reports indicate that some of the narratives may be paving the way for more extremist views, earlier research has largely discounted the notion of a Budapest-led strategy aimed at stoking irredentist views around Trianon. For example, Political Capital – a prominent, Budapest-based policy research institute – did not find any secessionist or revisionist narratives in Hungarian diaspora communication in its earlier research on Slovakia, Romania, or Serbia, said Lóránt Győri, an analyst at the organization.   

“While we do not support the thesis about the Hungarian government-led effort of ‘radicalization’ of the diaspora communities, resulting in irredentism or territorial revisionism, the ruling Fidesz-KDNP government has indeed created a monopoly over the diaspora information spaces, the politics of memory abroad (about, for example Trianon) over the years by directly funding ethnic minority political actors, cultural organizations, and media,” said Győri. 

Instead, the Hungarian government’s main goal, it appears, centers on domestic politics, he said – namely the votes cast by those ethnic Hungarians abroad who have dual citizenship, which could translate into one or two seats for government parties during the April 2022 parliamentary elections.  

“Nevertheless, this process [of fomenting certain narratives abroad] resulted in even greater insulation of ethnic minority communities from majority societies,” said Győri, “which, in turn, suppressed diversity of opinion in these communities, forcing them to accommodate an increasingly nationalist political and media agenda embedded into an ‘illiberal’ model of politics.  

“The media bubbles dominated by the pro-government media also contributed to minority communities’ communication becoming vulnerable to Eurosceptic views, alongside foreign autocratic influence, such as the Kremlin’s, trying to drive a wedge between minorities and majority societies, especially in Ukraine.” 

 

Other reports in this series

Hungarian Government Propaganda in Transcarpathia: Monitoring report July-August 2021
Hungarian Government Propaganda in Transcarpathia: Monitoring report May-June 2021
Hungarian Minority Political Landscape and Hungarian Minority Media in Transcarpathia
FIDESZ propaganda and the Hungarian minority in Transylvania: context, channels, and narratives
Two a Penny: 5 Million Euros per Year for the Hungarian Language Media Trust in Transylvania
Slovak-Hungarian information space: Parallel reality on Facebook

 

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