With the 2019 Hungarian municipal elections approaching, disinformation campaigns and trolling activity will play an increasingly prominent role in Hungarian political life. Pro-government trolls, often working in concert with government-controlled media, are already shaping online discussions. These trolls’ profiles frequently discredit anyone perceived to be in opposition to the current cabinet of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. The profiles not only target the domestic audience; they support the messages and policies of the ruling Fidesz party both domestically and abroad. The trolling behavior seen in Hungary often resembles Russian trolling activity and follows the logic of active measures.
Disinformation and trolls walk hand in hand
A few months before Hungary’s parliamentary elections in April 2018, the Facebook profiles of the right-wing opposition party Jobbik gained thousands of fake followers almost overnight. All of them pretended to be from the Middle East, had Muslim names, and hailed Jobbik and shouted out against PM Orbán. All the profiles repeated the same messages. Soon afterwards, a pro-government newspaper wrote an article “proving” that Jobbik is a pro-Muslim party, using the comments of the Middle Eastern “fans” as evidence.
The Jobbik example showcases how the pro-government troll army in Hungary creates “stories” for pro-government media. It is difficult to determine whether or not pro-government media journalists know that they are party to a false flag operation, but they most likely do.
Fidesz has used its media dominance to spread disinformation narratives on a wide array of domestic and foreign policy issues – as evidenced by the 2019 European Parliament elections campaign or the evaluation of its results. In many ways, Hungary is a “post-truth laboratory,” where fake news and conspiracy theories are spread on an industrial scale, using almost unlimited state resources.
What makes it possible? The Orbán government’s almost decade-long effort to build a centralized media empire that even Vladimir Putin would admire. The result is state domination of the national and the local media market alike. When it became apparent that the online world lay beyond the government’s media control, the ruling party quickly recognized its need to control online discussions as well.
Nowadays, Fidesz‘s political machinery increasingly uses trolls to attempt to control online Facebook discussions about public affairs. Why Facebook? In Hungary it is the only highly active social media platform with almost 6 million users in a country of 10 million.
But who are these trolls? Trolls are online, often fake profiles controlled by real individuals and used to provoke online users. Trolls are suitable for a wide variety of tasks: mobilizing and demobilizing the electorate on a local or national level, supporting or launching smear campaigns against politicians, disseminating disinformation narratives, and stimulating seemingly legitimate discussions in which one side of the argument is in fact built on manipulated information. Thus, disinformation and trolls go hand in hand: the latter are very useful for amplifying the former, and vice versa. One of the key advantages of disinformation media and troll operations for authoritarian regimes is that once the apparatus is built, its tasks can be changed very easily for no extra cost. The system is extremely flexible.
Municipal campaigns can be often extremely dangerous in competitive authoritarian regimes. Municipal elections in Istanbul and Moscow illustrate this well. In Hungary, even if the ruling party is very popular, there are fears that a more united opposition could take away positions from Fidesz-KDNP’s candidates. To avoid that possibility, the government has activated the troll army to prevent such a development.
In a city near Lake Balaton, there is strong opposition against the municipality’s plan to transform Keszthely’s last free beach into a wellness park. Hungarian opposition media revealed that Facebook profiles labeling protesters as “brain dead” are, in fact, fake identities created mere months ago and using various pictures found randomly on the internet. Comments from the profiles aimed to both undermine the credibility of the protesters and create an antagonistic discourse that would keep locals from participating in the debates. As in the earlier case, a journalist from the government-controlled outlet PestiSrácok then quoted the comments to justify that the “citizens of Keszthely” are supporting the Fidesz-backed mayor’s plans. In the third biggest city in Hungary, Szeged, fake profiles are used to help the ruling party-backed “independent” candidate by increasing “grass-roots” activity on his Facebook page.
Fidesz has employed its trolls abroad as well. After a debate in the European Parliament on the so-called Sargentini report condemning the Hungarian government’s rule of law record, comments from Hungarian users flooded the Facebook profile of former MEP Judith Sargentin. Many of the comments came from fake profiles that repeated the same messages word by word. Afterwards, the pro-government outlet Origo quoted these comments as proof that Hungarians support their democratically elected government and condemn the “Soros-orchestrated” attack against the nation. This phenomenon is not restricted to Hungary, as the Hungarian government itself copied Russian methods while adding a Hungarian spin.
A decade of Russian examples
Trolls have been used for political purposes in Russia for almost a decade. According to informants who have infiltrated Russian troll farms, most notably the Internet Research Agency (IRA), the idea of using online trolls might have been developed by the Kremlin in 2011. Their creation came after Moscow realized that there was a wide gap between the narratives on electoral fraud in that year’s Duma election in state media and those in the online space. This gulf may have prompted Russian decisionmakers to build the Kremlin’s alternative reality in the online space as well. The Hungarian government’s motivations were likely similar.
Russian trolls aim to convince the Russian people that Putin’s policies serve national interests while the decadent West is trying to undermine the regime. Moscow is also waging a disinformation campaign beyond its borders, though it is considerably more substantial than Hungarian efforts.
According to former IRA employees, Russian trolls are controlled in a centralized manner to create a unified propaganda campaign. The main logic: use non-existent “citizen” voices to promote a narrative/candidate or to destroy the opponent. The same logic can be applied to experts as well: Russian, and increasingly Hungarian, disinformation media empire often quotes unknown experts, commentators, and pundits.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller recently told the US Congress that Russia continues to interfere in US elections. If Mueller is correct, and he likely is, Russian trolls will be involved again. Meanwhile, Russia’s illiberal online and offline media environment will continue to serve as an example for authoritarian regimes.
Countering disinformation and online trolling will be essential in the future to maintain support for the transatlantic alliance in the United States and among its allies. The Hungarian case illustrates that the illiberal pupils of Vladimir Putin, even if they are in the EU and NATO, are quickly learning how to most efficiently use social media for malign purposes.
Péter Krekó is the director of the Political Capital Institute, a Hungarian think tank. Patrik Szicherle and András Rácz are analysts at Political Capital.