Hungary Exports Nationalism Via Facebook

Photo: A woman shows a recent photo with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban on her mobile phone. Credit: REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo
Photo: A woman shows a recent photo with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban on her mobile phone. Credit: REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo.

New research indicates that the Hungarian government is succeeding in leveraging social media to sell its illiberal messages among diaspora communities.

Ethnic Hungarians living in neighboring countries face discrimination. They suffer in Romania, a failed state plagued by poor public services and political instability. They struggle in Slovakia and the EU’s liberal elites offer little protection. The legacy of Trianon, the 1920 treaty that stripped Hungary of two-thirds of its territory and population, must be condemned.

Victor Orban’s nationalist Hungarian government spreads these poisonous messages through conventional media – and above all, through Facebook, according to the International Republican Institute’s Beacon Project. The narratives are destabilizing. They “have the potential to polarize society but also to radicalize members of the minority community,” researchers commissioned by the Beacon Project conclude.

Since nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban returned to power in 2010, the Hungarian government has supported the ethnic Hungarian diaspora.  Infosecurity.sk cites a 10-fold increase in funding from 2010 to 2018, to around €383 million.

Until now, little research has investigated the impact of such funding on social media. Beacon Project used Meta’s CrowdTangle monitoring tool to assess activity on the Facebook pages of local Hungarian-language media and influential ethnic Hungarian politicians. The research calculated the pages with the most interactions (likes, shares, and comments) and the most popular narratives.

Popular posts in Slovakia stress the poor standing of the Hungarian minority. Ethnic Hungarians should be allowed to accept Hungarian citizenship and to protect “traditional” values. Liberal EU elites are demonized. The Felvidek.ma news site urged its 54,000 Facebook followers to support the Orban government, arguing that it “did everything to keep this continent, the Christian faith, and the Hungarian state afloat.”  Over the course of the 12-month research period, Felvidek.ma generated 283,000 interactions for 4,600 posts on its Facebook page.

Hungarian sponsored websites in Romania promoted similar messages.  Three Facebook pages financed by the Hungarian government through the Association for Transylvanian Media Space garnered two million interactions over a 12-month period and attracted 200,000 followers, with a consistent growth rate in followers of more than 7% annually. These pages praise Hungary as a defender of traditional values and protector of Hungarian communities abroad - while denigrating Romania.

“The extent of criticism creates a disproportionate perspective of the reality and tries to depict the Romanian institutions as negatively as possible” the research reports.  The “Hungarian community is increasingly isolated from the rest of Romania in terms of news, priorities, and entertainment.”

In Ukraine’s Transcarpathia, four out of the ten minority media outlets proved receptive to local narratives of Hungarians as a "mistreated minority.”  Hungarian government officials regularly denounce 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.

Earlier research has largely discounted the notion of a Budapest-led strategy aimed at stoking irredentist views. Political Capital, a 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, a Political Capital analyst.

The Orban government’s main goal appears to center on domestic politics, according to Gyori. Votes cast by ethnic Hungarians abroad with dual citizenship could translate into one or two seats for government parties at the parliamentary elections in April. This might keep Victor Orban in power. In the long run, Oran’s determination to provoke anger in ethnic Hungarians could leave deep scars in his neighbors.

Jeremy Druker is the editor in chief of Transitions, based in Prague. This article was prepared with support from IRI’s Beacon Project. The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

February 9, 2022