The sun rising above the clouds. Aerial views of a foreign country. Flags flutter in the wind as the black Mercedes speeds through the deserted streets.
With a bloated and overly dramatic soundtrack, some might think this is a trailer for a blockbuster action movie – and that’s totally decent. This is actually a video posted by Peter Szijjarto, Hungarian Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, on Facebook, documenting his diplomatic visit to Tallinn, Estonia.
“I don’t want to exaggerate, but it’s like watching a Tom Cruise movie. Wow, it’s good to be Hungarian! There is no other country that has such a cool minister,” commented (perhaps ironically) a Facebook user on another of Szijjarto’s action shorts, this one depicting his day in Moscow, which began with a morning run in the snow.
With unprecedented levels of spending by the ruling Fidesz party, Szijjarto is one of many politicians trying to get the attention of young Hungarians ahead of crucial April 3 elections that could present the government and Prime Minister Viktor Orban with their biggest challenge in almost 12 years. years of reign.
Across all age groups, Facebook is the most popular social media platform in Hungary. In February there was 7.3 million Hungarian Facebook users out of a total population of almost 10 million people. About 40% of them were between 18 and 35 years old. And it is this age group that is the most reluctant to vote for Fidesz: in 2018, only 37% of Hungarians between the ages of 18 and 30 voted for the right-wing party, which still manages to keep both third of the seats in parliament.
Alexandra Szentkiralyi is another politician who realizes the importance of capturing the youth vote. Hungarian government spokesperson Szentkiralyi regularly posts videos on Facebook and TikTok, one of her most famous showing her putting Eros Pista (a famous Hungarian spicy paprika cream) in a cappuccino instead of a soup. . “POV: Lefties,” the caption text reads. The soup was labeled “Stand proud in front of the press, like Viktor Orban” and the coffee, “Avoid the real question”. The punchline, according to Szentkiralyi, is that the left chose the latter.
Katalin Novak, the country’s president-elect and close Orban ally, is another active poster child, often sharing wholesome photos of her husband and children on Facebook with the username @csaladesifjusag (family and youth). While regularly supporting the Fidesz party line on “traditional” families, one of the most controversial posts the watch cleaning a window with what appears to be a wet wipe.
“[Women shouldn’t] believe that we women must constantly compete with men. Don’t believe that every moment of our lives we have to compare ourselves to each other and that we have to be in the same position, with the same salary,” she said in a video posted on the youth site. Axioma’s curator. Facebook page.
Racking up thousands of views, the politicians’ posts are just part of a colossal campaign by Fidesz, which is pumping money into social media ads. According to AdLibrary, an open Facebook spending database, since April 2019, the Fidesz-led government has spent more than 500 million forints (about $1.5 million). The party itself has spent an additional 400 million forints since April 2019, when AdLibrary started monitoring.
Ad spending is offset by growing revenues from “Fidesz influencers”, mostly young people who post content supporting Orban and the government and memes denouncing “liberal leftists”.
People like Daniel Bohar, a successful Fidesz influencer who received more than 30 million forints in advertising revenue from the pro-government PR agency Megafon. Proud father and husband, he posts photos of his family and selfies with politicians. It also posts memes, such as one showing MEP Katalin Cseh and a former president of the centrist Momentum movement, Andras Fekete-Gyor, smiling at the pride of Budapest Event.
“With 5 million forints in your pocket, you would laugh too,” reads the caption, referring to allegations in pro-government media that Cseh stole EU funds. Cseh denied the allegations and won a lawsuit against the Origo news site, which published the charges.
“Your face, when you finally agree on the amount of the commission when you sell the parliament”, reads one another memethis one posted by Daniel Deak, 30, one of Fidesz’s highest-paid influencers and a political scientist at the pro-government 21st Century Institute.
It shows opposition candidate Peter Marki-Zay smiling with entrepreneur, economist and former caretaker Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai and refers to allegations by Fidesz and pro-government media about left-wing politicians and corrupt real estate sales. Six opposition parties rallied behind Marki-Zay, a conservative mayor seen as more pro-EU than Orban and the incumbent’s biggest challenger in years.
Much of the Fidesz campaign is coordinated by Megafon, the social media PR firm that pays figures like influencer Bohar. Offering courses as well as funding for Facebook ads, Megafon claims it is independent of political parties and influence.
The company’s founder, however, is Istvan Kovacs, the strategic director of the Center for Fundamental Rights, a friend of Fidesz, who began his political career in the youth organization of Fidesz and was appointed to the European Parliament by Fidesz in 2019 Despite their claims of political independence, in an introductory video on the company’s website, Kovacs says, “Our goal is to find and amplify nationalist voices on the internet.
Of the 20 Facebook pages with the biggest ad spend in Hungary, Megafon is behind six of them, according to AdLibrary. The pages include those run by Bohar, the producer of a government-funded feature film, Most Vagy Soha! (Now Or Never!), YouTuber Philip Rakay and TV presenter Stefi Der, who regularly annotates Marki-Zay’s speeches. “He has no idea of the damage he could do if he were able to govern,” she said in a video accusing the opposition candidate of wanting to send Hungarian men to fight in Ukraine.
None of the Fidesz influencers responded to RFE/RL’s interview requests.
During their 12 years in power, Orban and Fidesz took control of almost all of the country’s print and broadcast media, securing the loyalty of many older Hungarians. Social media, often owned by global corporations, has been more difficult to master, but could potentially be more lucrative, with 63 percent of Hungarian adults get their news from Facebook.
This has worried many in Hungary’s opposition, who say Orban and the government are trying to do with social media what they did with traditional media – gaining an unfair advantage with their wealth, takeovers and large advertising budgets.
“It’s time to say that Facebook and Google are responsible for what happens on their platforms during election campaigns. Otherwise, these platforms will become a slot machine for election fraud”, tweeted Anna Donath, president of the centrist opposition Momentum Movement and member of the European Parliament, on January 19.
Preparing for a debate on the Digital Services Act, a bill that could regulate tech giants Meta (Facebook’s parent company) and Google across the EU, Donath stressed the need for oversight close during a country’s election period. “The government’s smear campaign is now so aggressive that a parent can’t even launch a cartoon for their child on YouTube without the government’s propaganda ringing across the room,” she said on the Twitter feed.
“If the EU does not act vigorously enough, we will not be able to create regulations capable of dealing with these abuses,” Donath told RFE/RL in an interview, referring to Fidesz’s large advertising budget. . “And the issue needs to be regulated at European level because the platforms clearly go beyond the boundaries of nation states, as individual governments can abuse their power over social media platforms.”
Donath recognizes that every government must inform its citizens on some platform, including social media. “[But] we cannot afford greater social media presence for those who can pay the most for advertising,” she said. “We cannot allow those who lie but have infinite funds to dominate digital advertising.
A few days before the legislative elections in Hungary, the race is still very close, according to some estimates, with Fidesz having only a few points ahead of the common opposition. However, other pollsters say the six-man alliance has very little chance of beating Orban.
The billion-forint question is: Will the ruling party’s attempts to woo young Hungarian voters work?
Or, more frankly, will these repetitive messages, shared on social networks, have an impact on people, asks Szilvia Nemet, doctoral student at the Faculty of Media at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest.
In his research, Nemet examined the work of pro-government actors on social media, including their use of memes. “Facebook can be a hotbed of abuse, especially in a fierce campaign situation where you can burn almost endless money, not to mention coordinated campaigns trying to hide the fact that they are sponsored…like humor and memes,” she said. noted.
“Megafon tries to be funny, but they never lose sight of their goals, which are assassination and incitement to hatred,” Nemet said.
“So instead of a subtle system of references ingrained in pop culture or the internet, they choose to troll, which may or may not be appealing to young people. So it’s possible that even if they’re touring for a band young, they [actually] find greater resonance among baby boomers. »