Lying for Fun, Politics and Money in Hungary

September 5, 2019

Facebook appears to be the almost exclusive source of traffic for Hungarian misinformation websites, which fall on the spectrum from purely ideological sites to simple money-making machines. Their Facebook pages are stable, directing users to their ever-changing URLs.

In early June 2019, Hungarian website published a series of articles about the sinking of a sightseeing boat on the Danube that killed 28 people just days before. The portal cited the local businessman Lőrinc Mészáros as saying that Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán “had better things to do” than mourning the dead all day. A childhood friend of Orbán, Mészáros thundered: “What do all these dumb Hungarians think?” then quickly published the reply of a television program host saying that Mészáros’ remarks were an “arrogant outburst”, followed by a Hungarian celebrity defending Mészáros and another local TV personality asking him to apologize.

There is nothing wrong with people commenting and debating online. The problem with Tv2-friss’ sinking story is that all its quotes were fictitious. Even the website’s name is meant to mislead, being close to the name of a mainstream television channel in Hungary (with whom it has nothing to do with).

Tv2-friss is one of the many misinformation websites proliferating in Hungary whose sole goal appears to be making money, according to Pushing Politics, Picking Pockets, a report released today by the Center for Media, Data & Society (CMDS).

The report summarizes the key findings of five months or so of research into the business of Hungarian misinformation websites. Approximately 100 misinformation websites were reviewed to gain insights into their business model, the type of revenue they generate and the means through which they generate it.

The most striking finding of this review of Hungarian misinformation websites is that several of the websites towards the “business” end of the spectrum appear to be controlled by the same persons or companies, and that persons and companies in this business control several misinformation websites rather than running only one,

Judit Szakács, the report’s author wrote.

One of the groups identified as operating a number of websites can be linked to a network of political organizations that have been accused of fraud in the 2014 and 2018 general elections in Hungary.

The research identified three categories of misinformation websites in Hungary:

  • Websites that apparently do not to aim to generate income (some of the conspiracy theory websites fall under this category);
  • Websites whose goal is other than generating income but that also run advertisements (several conspiracy theory/pseudoscientific websites as well as the majority of the politically biased/hyper-partisan websites belong here);
  • Websites whose sole goal appears to be making money (the content matters only insofar as it draws in the audience, thus publishing “articles” that are often not only misleading but completely made up).

Szakács also found that Facebook is the main source of traffic for misinformation websites in Hungary, many of which are often abandoned and then brought back to life under a different domain name. “Yet,

while the websites appear to be dead, their content often lives on, either on a different domain or under a different name,”

Szakács wrote. “With the ever-changing URLs, it is clear that visitors do not find these websites via bookmarked links.

According to the research, recycling stories between misinformation websites and mainstream media happens both ways. Media investigations as well as studies have repeatedly concluded that outlets under the Hungarian government’s control regularly publish baseless hoaxes. However, Szakács also found that not only extreme-right misinformation websites exist in Hungary; there is a host of hyper-partisan leftist, anti-government bogus sites that operate in the country as well.

“Pushing Politics, Picking Pockets” was published as part of The Business of Misinformation, a CMDS project aimed at keeping track of the individuals and companies that own misinformation websites and their links to institutions, parties and other individuals. The project canvasses websites that systematically and methodically create and target false information to persuade audiences to adopt ideas and ways of thinking embraced by their original promoters or their sponsors, be those political, social, economic, health-related or else. 

The project is now run in Bosnia & Herzegovina, Serbia, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, with plans to expand to other European countries and Asia in the following year.