Inbox: Fighting Homegrown Disinformation

Photo: Viktor Orban and Vladimir Putin in Moscow, July 16, 2018. Credit: Prime Minister of Hungary
Photo: Viktor Orban and Vladimir Putin in Moscow, July 16, 2018. Credit: Prime Minister of Hungary

Disinformation tactics are being used to burnish the reputations of Russia and China in Hungary, but by Hungarian elites themselves, and for their own purposes.

Inbox is a CEPA series on priorities for the next administration – and its allies.

Disinformation has done a lot of damage to Western solidarity and ideals over the last few years, even as it has itself mutated. It is no longer solely an outside-in affair, with voters in democracies influenced by deceitful foreign messaging from external authoritarian regimes. These days, more often than not, disinformation is used indigenously. Narratives helpful to Russia and China still resonate with voters, but the goal is to strengthen the hand of local elites rather than of those in Moscow and Beijing. Hungary during the COVID crisis makes for a good case study.

Traditionally, disinformation has been seen as being sponsored by external actors for the purpose of shaping domestic public opinion for their own ends. As the virus started its rampage across the globe, Russian and Chinese propaganda outfits predictably focused on spreading spurious rumors about its origins throughout Hungary — and met with some success. According to a poll by NDI and Political Capital, about one-fourth of Hungary’s young people now agree that American scientists invented COVID-19.

Lately, however, China and Russia have shifted into post-COVID mode, and are now pumping out standard geopolitical narratives through their disinformation channels. These are falling on deaf ears. Russia is, for example, focusing on how the West is using Ukraine as a stalking horse, alleging that Alexei Navalny cooperates with the CIA, and intimating that his poisoning was a false flag operation to stop Nord Stream 2. Chinese information activity is, for its part, more focused these days on the development plan of the Chinese Communist Party for the next five years and systemic racial segregation in the United States than on COVID. Most of these narratives appear to be getting little engagement on social media and rarely making it into mainstream news outlets.

But Russian and Chinese prestige has not suffered as a result. This has everything to do with the fact that local authoritarians seem to have calculated that bashing Europe via embracing alternatives is a useful tactic. From the beginning of the COVID crisis, government leaders have justified their Eastern Opening policy as a smart way to benefit from cooperation with Russia and China, while at the same time criticizing the West in general, and the European Union in particular, for multiculturalism, weakness, double standards, and broad mismanagement of the pandemic. While Brussels, illegal migration, and multiculturalism are constantly being blamed for the spread of the virus, the Chinese state’s lack of transparency in the early phases of the outbreak is conspicuously never mentioned.

Indeed, China is only praised. Hungary has been one of the most willing recipients of Chinese mask diplomacy. Viktor Orbán, just like several other leaders in Central and Eastern Europe, staged a photo op at the airport where Chinese medical supplies were being delivered. And while his government keeps criticizing the EU and its member states for their lack of support (ignoring an unprecedentedly large recovery package voted in Brussels), he personally thanked the leaders of the Chinese state for their “friendly help.”

Orbán, unlike many of his fellow travelers such as Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump, took COVID seriously from the very beginning. He did not bash doctors, scientists, and epidemiologists. Instead, he praised them for their work. Now, with COVID figures skyrocketing in Hungary, there are restrictions being introduced. These restrictions are being slow-rolled, but the reason for the delays are not related to COVID-denial. Instead, decisions are being driven by Orbán’s justified fears that a brutal economic slowdown can risk his chances for reelection in the next parliamentary elections in 2022. After a period of hesitancy early on, government leaders are now seen wearing masks in public. And Orbán himself has been preparing his voters for the arrival of a vaccine — a vaccine he says will be manufactured by China or Russia. Hungary is a notable outlier within the European Union in assiduously working to acquire Chinese and Russian vaccines as soon as possible, even as the EU is about to acquire 300 million doses of a promising vaccine developed by BionTech and Pfizer.

None of this is to suggest that Russian and Chinese disinformation is no longer a problem in Hungary. Of course, it is. But state-sponsored disinformation by local authoritarian governments is probably an even bigger concern, as tackling its effects is more fraught for Western democracies. The end result may be the same: in Hungary, a growing number of Hungarians are expressing stronger sympathies towards Russia and China, and are obsessed with anti-western conspiracy theories about George Soros, Brussels, NGOs, Brussels, and Jews. But understanding that these opinions are being shaped by domestic actors for their own ends is vital. The Hungarian service of Radio Free Europe has just published a series of articles with audiotapes of the political orders in the public television from editors that make it blatantly clear that disinformation is not just accidental but systemic and industrial, and follows political guidelines.

The incoming US administration should pay special attention to this emergent reality, as well as to the linked issue of how mainstream media is centralized and controlled in these societies. The possible strategies for tackling this problem are qualitatively different from those that we use to fight disinformation from abroad.

November 13, 2020