Historically, the presence of Russian culture in Hungary was strengthened by the state during the years of communism. Russian was introduced as an obligatory foreign language, and politically acceptable pieces of Russian literature were widely read. Youth exchange and other forms of day-to-day cooperation existed for four decades. At the same time, Russian cultural rapprochement immediately disappeared after the fall of the Iron Curtain. What remained was mostly a mindset of fragmented models of individual behaviour. In the 2011 census, only 159 947 Hungarian citizens declared that they spoke Russian. Out of these, 28 000 used Russian as their first language, while the majority of the rest studied Russian in the communist era and their language skills were unknown. The aggregate number of Russian speaking citizens is equivalent to 1.6 % of the Hungarian population.
Russia’s enhanced intention to influence Hungarian media rose after 2012, as the Kremlin tried to influence European policymakers linked to the Nord Stream and South Stream pipelines. This effort evolved with the crisis in Ukraine, and the recent migratory pressure which has posed significant challenges for the European Union. Russia also tried to legitimate its Syrian intervention, by suggesting that the principal goal was to counter the Islamic State. Attempts to contact, infiltrate, and influence individuals and organisations that shape Hungarian public opinion were clear signs of the Russian presence. By 2015, the region’s media and politicians were speaking openly about ‘hybrid warfare’.
Within Hungary, sentiments towards Russia vary considerably, depending on context. In the latest poll, two-thirds of respondents supported the strengthening of economic ties, but only one-third wished for more political engagement. General openness towards Russia increased significantly between 2006 and 2012, but has since fallen off. There are many reasons for this, and Russia was a hotly debated domestic policy issue both between 2007 and 2009 and following 2014. Sentiments overall are more and more related to political preferences, influenced, for example, by meetings between President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Viktor Orban, and the Russian-financed Paks Nuclear Power Plant development,which is the single largest development project in modern Hungarian history with a 12 billion EUR budget. The bilateral agreements and contracts are not public, as the government has declared the information to be sensitive, leading the opposition to believe the lack of transparency is due to corruption behind the development.
The Russian Cultural Centre in Budapest is open to the public. While Russian soft power organisations in Hungary are not competitive in terms of film, exhibitions and performance art when compared to such institutions in the West, they do offer programmes for Russians living in Budapest.
The Russkiy Mir foundation has become more active in Hungary during recent years. Beyond Budapest, it opened Russian Cultural and Educational Centres in Pecs, and in Debrecen in April 2017. Since the opening of the Russian Consulate General in Debrecen, relationships between Russia and eastern Hungary have intensified rapidly. Beyond political and business relations, the Russian Studies Department of the University of Debrecen is an important partner in these developments, co-organising conferences and hosting the Centre financed by Russkiy Mir.
The Russian Orthodox Church is present in Hungary, and the last meeting between Putin and Orban, head of the ruling party Fidesz, gave a significant boost to the reconstruction of the Church, as the Hungarian government adopted a decree supporting the initiative with 7.7 million EUR. Politically speaking, though, it is not active and contains very few members in Hungary.
Political relations are on an extremely high level. Orban met Putin on four occasions in the last three years, and a fifth meeting is planned for the summer of 2018, following Orban’s re-election on April 8. The main issue to be discussed is the planned extension of the nuclear power plant in Paks.
Pro-Kremlin disinformation channels have occasionally supported Hungarian government-controlled media in spreading anti-migration ideas and news, and they resonate well among the Hungarian population. When it comes to migration and the Soros network, such channels are mostly in the form of Facebook pages or webpages that could be linked to administrators with strong pro-Russian attitudes. When it comes to broader European issues, Sputnik and RT often serve as sources of pro-government media. An RT crew was present on the border between Hungary and Serbia during the most tense moments of the migration crisis, and broadcast from Budapest on refugees camping at the city’s central train station.
In terms of content, pro-Kremlin and anti-Hungarian sources of disinformation produced surprisingly little content tailored specifically to the Hungarian audience. Disinformers missed the opportunity to play off the anti-Romanian, anti-Slovak, nationalist-revisionist attitudes present in certain layers of Hungarian society. Neither have they focused on inducing or heightening tensions between the Hungarian and Roma parts of the population. We have to note that, as tensions increased between Ukraine and Hungary, following the passage of an education bill that includes restrictions on teaching in minority languages, there were a number of articles on potential threats to the Hungarian minority. It is unclear how much of this content were homegrown and taken over by disinformation and pro-Kremlin websites as they served their interest, and how much was created by these sites. Based on this description, we believe the following groups are most vulnerable to pro-Kremlin disinformation:
- 1) The rural population that access almost exclusively pro-government media. Therefore they can more easily become subjects of pro-Kremlin narratives spread by government channels via traditional media.
- 2) Voters with anti-establishment attitudes, with limited media literacy and increased distrust in mainstream media are more vulnerable to alternative news channels on the Internet, which are the main sources of disinformation in Hungary.
- 3) Fidesz voters accessing information mainly from pro-government sources, because news on Russian disinformation, hybrid warfare, and Russian influence in Hungary is exclusively covered by opposition media. This trend was verified in the latest opinion polls.
- 4) Hungarians living outside Hungary. There are about 2.2 million Hungarians in neighbouring states consuming Hungarian language media, mainly from pro-government sources (1.25 million in Romania, 500 000 in Slovakia, 250 000 in Serbia, and 150 000 in Ukraine).
According to Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press Report, Hungary’s constitution protects freedoms of speech and the press, but complex and extensive media legislation enacted under Orban’s government has undermined these guarantees. Public broadcasters favour Fidesz and its policy goals, and are often used to discredit the party’s political opponents, as could be seen in 2018 parliamentary election campaign. The country’s media freedom is ranked as the worst in the European Union.
We also have to highlight the shrinking space for independent journalists. There are fewer positions and workplaces for them, and less demand for the job they do. The oligarchic financing of Hungarian media and the vulnerability of advertisers also limit independent media. Therefore, there have been cases of journalists deciding not to publish a story, being afraid of the consequences. While in Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and the majority of the EU countries, radio is the most trusted media channel, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) says that television plays that role in Hungary.
There are currently two big commercial television broadcasters with national coverage in Hungary. RTL Klub is independent and critical of the government, while TV2 is owned by an oligarch who also works as a government commissioner in the Orban government. Their average daily news viewing figures are 850 000 (RTL) and 750 000 (TV2). Out of the two, only TV2 occasionally spreads pro-Kremlin narratives. The news channel of public television (M1) provides news 24 hours a day, but only has a couple of thousand viewers. There are Chinese and Russian language news hours, but the target group in unknown. Public TV’s national sports channel news is the most viewed, with one-minute newsflashes in the breaks of sporting events.
Hungary is characterised by a specific phenomenon regarding Russian disinformation channels, namely that the Russian narrative often appears in the mainstream media. This is prevalent primarily on TV channels and in newspapers that are either state-owned or influenced by the government.
Within mainstream media channels, the state news agency MTI is the most important, as it is the primary source of news for every Hungarian media outlet. The reason for this is that, in 2011, the Orban government decided to provide MTI content for free, which killed the competition, and led to the closure of alternative news agencies. In terms of content, MTI does not publish fake or fabricated news. However, it does give room for Russian opinions, either of leading politicians or influential newspapers, which serve as channels of disinformation on multiple levels. For some reason, statements from Ria Novosti, Interfax, and even Russia Today are published in large numbers without any critical remark or content control in Hungarian. This ranges from referring to separatists in eastern Ukraine as if they were a legitimate state to blaming the United States for the civilian death toll in Syria.
A number of major daily political newspapers also contain articles that may qualify as Russian disinformation. However, we should note that readership of print editions of these newspapers varies between 5 000 and 25 000. None of them could operate under market rules, and they are used primarily as political tools of the Hungarian oligarchs who own them. Their importance comes from their online readership and the fact that their articles are shared by the biggest online media. Therefore their impact goes beyond their primary audience.
One of them is Magyar Hírlap, a pro-government (almost far-right) outlet belonging to a controversial pro-government oligarch. However, it is a relatively marginal newspaper, with a print-run of around 7 000 to 10 000 copies. There are numerous authors (such as Istvan Lovas and Gyula Mate T.) on the staff who regularly publish pieces of outright disinformation, anti-NATO, and anti-EU propaganda. The background of these journalists is well-known, and many of them have close connections to Russia and Russian ideologies; moreover, the whole editorial staff shares the same political views.
The staff of the other conservative and independent daily newspaper, Magyar Nemzet (Hungarian Nation), is often critical of the government and employs few journalists who are well known for their pro-Kremlin sentiments. The outlet’s leading foreign policy journalist, Gabor Stier, can be characterised as pro-Russian (though not necessarily pro-Kremlin), and was an informed expert on Russia well before Moscow began its coordinated disinformation operations. His publications are a perfect example of how hard it is to distinguish between honest convictions and intentional disinformation operations. The owner of Magyar Nemzet announced the closure of the paper following the elections. The last issue was published on April 11, 2018, but negotiations with possible investors are ongoing.
In addition, the semi-official, but extremely marginal government newspaper Magyar Idők (Hungarian Time) has published several pro-Russian articles recently.
Fidesz-linked oligarchs also recently bought the biggest tabloids. These publications have better readership and, although they have changed their attitude, they mostly publish MTI materials when it comes to news. Still, the number of articles with Russia-friendly themes is growing fast. According to Stier, this demonstrates the tabloids’ loyalty to Orban.
We have to highlight that the readership of tabloids is under 100 000, while political daily newspapers have circulations of between 8 000 and 25 000, so traditional print media might be less important than other channels.
Regarding other channels for pro-Russian disinformation, there are currently about 80 to 100 websites in Hungary spreading the Kremlin’s narratives. However, the clear majority of them do not seem to have a serious impact. Among them are here are around six to 10 propaganda websites which have real influence, such as the Hídfő.ru, Oroszhírek.hu, Napimigráns.com, and Kuruc.info. Not all of these are active in the social media sphere, at least not directly. Due to the lack of Twitter culture, only Facebook has significant pro-Russian pages and groups in Hungarian.
Russian-inspired websites have an indirect, yet important, impact on the security risk in the region. For example, many predicted that the Ukrainian conflict would spread to Hungary, and claim that the world is run by obscure societies. The Sputnik News Agency, a Russian media outlet for foreigners, shows a distorted image of Hungarian official politics. The country’s historical experience with the Soviet Union looms large in the public psyche. Russia-linked websites are not new in Central Europe, but the intensity and amount of propaganda increased after the annexation of Crimea in early 2014. The aim seems to be to legitimise the annexation and undermine Ukraine.
The Act on Electronic Public Service of 2009 and the Information Security Act of 2013 are the two most important regulations linked to information security. The Act on Electronic Public Service highlights the requirement of information security as a basic principle. As a general rule, all public administration bodies have to provide their electronic public services through the Central Electronic Service System, and communicate with their clients through the same system in public administrative proceedings. Hungary’s National Security Strategy aims to strengthen the security of electronic information systems, enhance the protection of critical national information infrastructure, and develop adequate cyberdefence.
Furthermore, the government adopted the National Cybersecurity Strategy of Hungary and the National Cybersecurity Act in 2013. In line with its goals, a National Cybersecurity Coordination Council was created to oversee the developments.
Both the Cybersecurity Act and the Strategy focus mainly on cybersecurity issues such as processing data of national data assets, European critical infrastructure elements, and national critical infrastructure elements. The law prescribes the essential items known in the information security field as the CIA triad (confidentiality, integrity, and availability of information security requirements in electronic information systems and data). However, it is important to highlight that the threat of information warfare and the need for development to counter this threat effectively were already included in the 2013 Strategy.
Cyberwarfare is present in Hungary. In 2016, government computer servers and a number of state institutions were blocked for a couple of hours, when 62 000 cyberattacks took place in a single day. Global ransomware and cyberattacks also have an impact in Hungary, as was the case when WannaCry attacks took place all over Europe. The pro-Russian Ukrainian CyberBerkut, and the globally operating anarchist Anonymous hacker groups, are well known in the country as well.
Although the government decrees 1035/2012 on National Security Strategy and 1139/2013 on Cybersecurity Strategy mentioned threats related to information warfare, we have to highlight they do not mention Russia at all, and contain no information about countering these threats. It is also important to note that there were no major adaptations in the strategy, nor in the act, despite massive changes in the international environment.
At the end of 2010, the Hungarian parliament passed legislation to tighten government control over news. It deteriorated slightly in 2014, as the government continued to exert pressure on private owners to influence coverage, and a new advertising tax disproportionately affected a major private television station. However, in the same year, a proposed tax on Internet data traffic was withdrawn after opponents mounted large demonstrations.
Fidesz has used its majority in parliament to amend the constitution at will, at times doing so to enact legislation that had previously been rejected by the Constitutional Court. In 2013, changes adopted in this manner included a rule that political advertising during campaign periods may only be placed in media outlets free of charge. Critics argued that private outlets would have little incentive to carry such material, further limiting media access for opposition parties in particular.
Hungary has no special units for dealing with information warfare. Although the government acknowledges the existence of information warfare, it downplay its role in hybrid warfare.
As one member of staff at the Hungarian Ministry of Defence said while being interviewed for this study:
‘Disinformation actions are appearing in various fields of the media as part of hybrid warfare. Therefore, detection and identification of the players (states) is carried out by the local national security services and law enforcement bodies, who share the information continuously’.
Indeed, this was the standard answer when the biggest Hungarian online news portal tried to investigate who is responsible for countering information warfare. Our source added that cooperation among the different agencies has been more effective since 2016, which marked the founding of the Hungarian Information Fusion System (Centre for Anti-terrorism, Information and Criminal Analysis – TIBEK). Nonetheless, there is still not a single special task force dealing with the issue.
Existing government agencies such as GovCERT, the National Cybersecurity Centre and others focus exclusively on the cybersecurity aspect of the threat and gave no response to questions about information warfare. Other professional bodies overseeing media, such as the National Media and Infocommunications Authority, claim they do not have the authority to investigate whether news articles are fake or not.
Whenever MPs from the opposition raise the problem, government representatives downplay the threat and respond that this issue is among the standard operational competences of the national security services. This was also referred to by our sources (including from the MoD) in a number of interviews.
Digital debunking teams
There are a number of non-governmental organisations dealing with digital debunking, among which Political Capital is the most influential. Unfortunately, thematic debunking sites don’t exist in Hungary, so journalists and NGOs (including Political Capital and CEID) have focused on countering Russian disinformation in recent years. Investigative journalists largely work on exposing governmental disinformation, but their work is only present on critical opposition websites. The most important media organisations dealing with Russian disinformation are:
- Index (index.hu)
- Átlátszó (atlatszo.hu)
- Direkt36 (direkt36.hu)
K-Monitor has some IT projects to identify and track fake news, and automatically search for patterns and specifics. These are developed for tracking corruption, but are also applicable in the fake news field.
One of the closed Facebook groups includes all major stakeholders dealing with counteracting Kremlin-led disinformation in Hungary. These stakeholders are Russia-focused NGOs, experts on transparency, opposition politicians, investigative journalists, and foreign policy journalists. The group currently consists of 25 individuals.
Media literacy projects
In December 2015, the Hungarian government adopted the 2012/2015 Government Decree on the Digital Success Programme, based on which three strategies were defined, two of which affect media literacy. These are the Digital Child Protection Strategy of Hungary and the Digital Education Strategy of Hungary. Both strategies include media literacy elements, primarily through complex programmes targeting students, parents and teachers.
The professional implementation of the Digital Education Strategy is supported by the Digital Pedagogical Methodology Center, which provides methodology, a professional background and expert base, and deals with the professional supervision of applications and projects related to the implementation of the Strategy.
With regard to media literacy and online security, the National Core contains elements by school grades. It defines when and to what extent it is necessary to deal with issues of media literacy and online safety. Under this theme, students discuss the role of media, the role and issue of advertisements, media addiction, norm violations, and media influence. In practical classes, they also create and publish their own content. The Accreditation Department of the Educational Authority organises several media literacy training sessions for educators.
Promoting media literacy and online safety through non-formal and informal learning is also supported by the state. For example, in the framework of an EU Programme Future Conscious Media Consumers–Media Literacy and Media Awareness dissemination’, the National Media and Infocommunications Authority (NMHH) established the Magic Valley media education training centre, which aims to support the development of media awareness among young people. The first centre was opened in Budapest in 2014, and another in Debrecen in 2017.
The Media Union, the association of Hungarian media and advertisement companies, aims to identify and publish research on significant social issues every year, and sets out to support and promote them in the media. The goal is to involve as many media outlets as possible, in order to raise social awareness to the maximum in an effective, unified, and widely accessible manner. The Media Union Foundation’s 2014 ‘Don’t you mind?’ campaign addressed the issue and the importance of responsible media use. From May 2015, the campaign shifted its focus to one of the most pressing challenges of social media: cyberbullying.
Other EU media literacy programmes are also accessible in Hungary, but it is worth noting that neither the Hungarian government nor the EU have extensive programmes available for the older generations. Therefore, the vast majority of Hungary’s politically active citizens have never encountered media literacy programmes.
Hungary has not developed an immune system to protect itself from Russian information pressure. Although the direct Russian presence is very limited in the country in terms of Hungarian specific content, like-minded individuals and pro-government media often use pro-Kremlin content in support of their own agenda.
Meanwhile pro-government channels are the primary source of the dissemination of pro-Kremlin narratives and disinformation in Hungary. Obviously, this means that these outlets’ users are the most vulnerable to disinformation.
Although the government has developed and launched a large number of media literacy programmes, their focus is limited to the younger generation.
Thus far, no steps have been made to set up any special units dealing with information warfare. This is because the Hungarian government is often inspired by pro-Kremlin disinformation narratives, and gives no space at all to debunking teams of NGOs or investigative journalists.
That also means that authorities do nothing to limit the spread of pro-Kremlin disinformation. Even when Hungary’s vulnerability was revealed, no political steps were taken to limit or reduce exposure. There is not a single institution or special unit responsible for monitoring and countering disinformation, and we are not aware of any case when the prosecutor general called for a special investigation.
In addition to this, attacks against Hungary also lead to the assumption that the government’s increasingly Russia-friendly policy line is apparently unable to defend the country from Russian information pressure.
- As long as government interests coincide with the interest of the Kremlin, no policy recommendation targeting Hungarian authorities will succeed, and no country-wide programme leading to increased immunity can be implemented successfully.
- Hungary should be targeted through regional programmes to counter Kremlin-led disinformation.
- In this process, possible U.S. and Polish initiatives have the greatest chance of gaining government support, bearing in mind the state of bilateral and multilateral relations. As the U.S. State Department is launching new funding programmes to counter Russian disinformation, the involvement of pro-government think tanks in Hungary is probably the best way to access decision-makers. We are aware of ongoing programme developments focusing on information warfare in Central Europe at the Atlantic Council, CEPA and the International Republican Institute (among others).
- Launching Visegrad Group policy discussions and creating regional teams to counter disinformation has a less professionally-focused but politically logical element. As the core of an institutional framework could be developed in Hungary, the government would be bound to deal with the problem.
- External funding for projects focusing on countering information warfare should be developed, by expanding both content and funding.
- Best practices among civilian projects in the region should be transferred to the few active Hungarian organisations in this field.
- Media literacy toolkits should be developed independently of administrative bodies, to reveal government exposure and responsibility.
- As the government refuses to deal with the problem, special programmes focusing on raising awareness of the opposition MPs should be launched. In this way, the problem could be kept on the political agenda