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Hungary's Fidesz party seeks to conquer social media

Stephan Ozsvath
February 6, 2021

Only a small percentage of young Hungarians support the country's ruling Fidesz party. Prime Minister Viktor Orban wants to boost his party's online presence, but media experts aren't convinced by his strategy.

Ungarn Corona-Pandemie | Viktor Orban
Image: John Thys/AP Photo/picture alliance

"Most Hungarians subscribe to conservative beliefs," the young woman tells her viewers. "We would like to see these people share their views not just at home, over dinner, but also on Facebook." The video advertises free workshops by the Budapest-based Megafon.hu media agency that, in the words of the woman, "will transform you into a professional Facebook warrior."

Some 500 Hungarians have already registered for a free, four-day workshop, according to Megafon.hu. About 200 applicants have been interviewed, and 90 should have received course materials, the organization says.

But the pandemic has complicated the coaching drive. "This place is deserted," Megafon founder Istvan Kovacs told viewers in another video, against a backdrop of rows of empty chairs. "Because of the lockdown measures."

Viktor Orban | Protests
Criticism of Orban has long reached other countries - a protester is demonstrating in Warsaw, PolandImage: Czarek Sokolowski/AP/dpa/picture alliance

Social media battleground

Kovacs insists Megafon is a privately funded non-profit organization that receives no public money to run its social media workshops and is independent from parties and political organizations.

But the founder Kovacs has close ties to Hungary's ruling Fidesz party, having risen through the ranks of its youth wing. He says "Facebook will determine" the outcome of next year's parliamentary election, insisting "we need to outdo the left" on the platform.

Kovacs is also a member of the team behind the Budapest-based Center for Fundamental Rights, a foundation that "plays a key role in  Fidesz' communication," according to media expert Gabor Polyak.

Polyak, founder of media watchdog Mertek, says the Budapest-based Center for Fundamental Rights is taxpayer-funded and has previously devised "militant campaigns." Indeed, Kovacs is fond of controversial slogans, such as when he declared it was time to stop the "left-wing liberal tsunami of public opinion." Like former US President Donald Trump, Kovacs regards himself as part of a "worldwide conservative revolution." He says he learned from the US how to use social media to this end.

Jozsef Szajer
The Szajer scandal has damaged Fidesz' poll numbers in HungaryImage: Jean-Francois Badias/dpa/picture alliance

Targeting Hungary's young

Kovacs says pro-Fidesz social media influencers can reach all those young Hungarians who rely on their smartphones to catch up on current events. Median, a Hungarian pollster, has found that a mere 22% of those under 30 support Orban's ruling Fidesz party. Orban's core electorate is comprised of "the elderly, villagers and those with little education," says Andras Biro-Nagy, who heads the Budespest Policy Solutions research institute.

Support for Fidesz dropped in recent months, in part due to a sex scandal involving Fidesz MEP Jozsef Szajer. The lawmaker broke coronavirus lockdown rules by attending a Brussels gay sex party. When police caught Szajer, who had tried escaping via a gutter, they found drugs in his rucksack.

"Jozsef Szajer's actions do not match the values of our political community," Orban later commented on the affair. Szajer, who has a family, is no longer a Fidesz party member. The sex party affair flies in the face of the party's "conservative family policy," which Fidesz voters care a lot about, according to Biro-Nagy.  

Recent surveys suggest that, for the first time since Orban's landslide victory in 2010, Hungarian opposition parties could together win a parliamentary majority. The state of Hungary's ailing healthcare sector, which has become especially apparent during the pandemic, and pandemic-related economic woes, are "Fidesz' weaknesses," says Biro-Nagy.

Hungary: Culture and education under attack

Fidesz goes online

Some 500 newspapers, radio and television stations are run by a government-affiliated foundation, affording Fidesz considerable media clout. "But this is a centralized machine," says Gabor Polyak. This top-down approach, in his view, is unsuited to the social media world and does not appeal to the young.

That's why he is certain Megafon.hu is "doomed to fail." You cannot stomp a digital Fidesz cosmos out of the ground, he says. Yet he also warns that aggressively promoting pro-Fidesz views online will "further divide society."

Since the onset of the pandemic, members of the Fidesz government have ditched press conferences in favor of Facebook video statements. After Facebook and Twitter banned Trump from their platforms, Fidesz Justice Minister Judit Varga lashed out against Facebook, accusing it of having "secretly and for political reasons" partially blocked access to her profile page.

She berated the US tech giant for "excluding public dignitaries" from the "online sphere," subsequently threatening to impose tighter restrictions on such companies. After claiming "tech giants can decide elections," Varga accused social media platforms of "reducing the visibility of conservative, right-wing views."