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 multi-country 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.
“[S]ome 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.
As part of a study supported by the International Republican Institute’s Beacon Project, media analysts in each country scrutinized Facebook activity to track these narratives, their success, and their reach.
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 in support for the diaspora from 2010 to 2018, to around 383 million euros. Earlier work by the Expert Forum think tank, the study’s Romanian partner, 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 has 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, studies of ethnic Hungarians’ media consumption in the analyzed countries are lacking, especially as concerns social media. To a large degree, these particular information spaces remain unexplored as they operate below the radar for researchers that operate in the majority language and write about majority traditional media and social media. At the same time, diaspora media cannot be simply grouped together with outlets back in Hungary as they clearly differ for cultural and societal reasons.
In response to this knowledge gap, researchers used Meta’s CrowdTangle social media monitoring tool to assess activity on the Facebook pages of local Hungarian-language media outlets and of the most influential political and other personalities in local Hungarian communities. The research aimed both to uncover the pages with the most interactions (likes, shares, and comments) and the most popular narratives circulating within the ethnic Hungarian communities on Facebook 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 messages receive support – often overwhelming support – from those who comment on the various posts on such topics 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 Trianon, the 1920 treaty that stripped Hungary of two-thirds of its territory and population; 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,” the report’s authors state. They suggest that 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.
The Slovak study 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 Felvidek.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 Nandorfehervar [Belgrade, where 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.”
Felvidek.ma has a considerable audience: 54,000 followers on Facebook, and over the course of the 12-month research period, the site managed to gain 283,000 interactions for 4,600 posts on its Facebook page.
More of the Same in Romania, but Not in Ukraine
Similar messages could also be found in Romania. Researchers from Expert Forum found that Facebook posts frequently 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, although in the Hungarian-language media, they write, “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 effective, they continue, “because stereotypes already exist in society and propaganda can use this historic bias in order to amplify [these] effects online.” The problem is 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 comments on social media in Romania is potentially vast. As the researchers note, just three Facebook pages openly financed by the Hungarian government through the Association for Transylvanian Media Space garnered 2 million interactions over a 12-month period and had a total of 200,000 followers, with a consistent growth rate in followers of over 7% per year.
“[T]he Hungarian community is increasingly isolated from the rest of Romania in terms of news, priorities, and entertainment,” write the authors of the report. “The current trend is to form an information bubble in which any information uncomfortable for Viktor Orban is suppressed while distrust in the local authorities is encouraged.
“This is not a new trend in Transylvania,” they add. “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 [its] political competitors in Budapest – and create the image of Fidesz as the only available protector of the diaspora and its values.”
If this analysis describes a well-developed effort to push the Hungarian government’s agenda in the near abroad, Ukraine’s Transcarpathia 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 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, contribute Facebook posts echoing Hungarian government narratives such as portraying the state as a protector of traditional values and the traditional family.
On the contrary, views seen as more locally relevant attracted more interaction and reach on the Facebook pages of local minority media outlets. As researcher Dmytro Borysov writes, “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.” To some extent, however, the spark for posts with such a viewpoint is often blurry since Hungarian government officials also regularly speak out about the infringement of minority rights in Transcarpathia, most recently this month, when Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto lashed out at a Ukrainian bill that could bar dual citizens from holding public office.
While the Beacon Project reports indicate that some of these messages 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 organization – found no secessionist or historical revisionist narratives among diaspora communities in traditional media or on social media (except among far-right parties or organizations) in its earlier research on Slovakia, Romania, and Serbia, said Lorant Gyori, an analyst at the organization.
Political Capital’s research failed to support the idea of a Hungarian government-led effort to radicalize the diaspora communities and whip up “irredentism or territorial revisionism,” Gyori said, while adding that Fidesz “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.”
Instead, the Hungarian government’s main goal appears to center 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 at the parliamentary elections in April.
“Nevertheless, this process [of fomenting certain narratives abroad] resulted in even greater [isolation] of ethnic minority communities from majority societies,” said Gyori, adding that this “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.”
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