CMDS’ Research Featured in HVG
Hvg.hu, one of the most trusted and read media outlets in Hungary published an investigative article on the connections between fake parties and fake news sites in Hungary. The story is based on the findings of the Hungarian report of our Business of Misinformation project. This English translation is published with the outlet’s permission. You may read the original article (published on December 19, 2019) in Hungarian here.
HVG Identifies Mária Seres and Partners Behind Fake Parties and Fake Websites
Authors: Babett Oroszi - Viktória Serdült
Translation: Gwen Jones
We have identified several organizations and companies behind a number of clickbait websites that can be tied to Mária Seres and partners, who became infamous during the fake political parties scandal. These organizations are present as domain users (among other things) on several websites, but do not necessarily generate the content. Facebook pages based on these websites’ materials can reach hundreds of thousands of readers, something that is particularly useful in political campaigns.
“The lake in Transylvania that can predict the weather”
“The antibiotic side-effects that doctors almost never talk about”
These two headlines are to be found on the nyugdijasok.hu website. We also located very similar clickbait articles on egyazegyben.com, elmenyorszag.com, bulvar.info, szinesvilag.com, fokusz.online, zoldujsag.hu, motivalunk.hu, and agyarfurt.com, as well as on the Facebook pages of these sites.
Although these sites appear to be independent from one another, in truth, they can be linked to organizations and companies tied to Mária Seres and partners, who became infamous during the fake political parties affair.
Mária Seres’s activities came to light in a recent film by Márton Gulyás, in which it is claimed that nearly half of all the fake parties that ran in the 2018 parliamentary elections were created and controlled by a group in Nyíregyháza, which can be linked to Mária Seres. These six parties and their organizers received over HUF 2 billion in state support between 2014 and the 2018 elections, before disappearing completely.
A recent study by CEU’s Center for Media, Data and Society (CMDS) on fake news sites in the region found that disinformation websites often form a network and are owned by an individual or a company. For example, an infamous fake news network, run by a teacher from Orosháza, was deleted last year by Facebook - says CMDS researcher Judit Szakács in the report on Hungary. The Center’s project, “The Business of Misinformation,” has mapped the institutions and people behind various disinformation sites in several countries, including Hungary.
It didn’t take long for hvg.hu to outline a similar network. The difference is that most of the websites on our list are not classic fake news sites, but rather contain sensationalist content, popular wisdom, and nonsense.
However, the term ‘fake sites’ still applies to them, and not only because the majority of articles lack any scientific rigor or professional journalism. The vast majority of sites have no mastheads, no information on “editorial staff,” while articles do not have named authors, and often no sources either. In addition, sites appear to be unedited, and new content is frequently not posted on the homepage.
Points of connection
One connection between these websites is Kontroll Média Kft. The company was established in 2000 by Ottó Stekler (Mária Seres’s husband), and one Antal Seres, who is registered at the same address in Nyíregyháza as Mária Seres.
Stekler left the company in 2005, but did not go far. At present, one of the company owners is Mrs. Antal Seres, the managing director of one of the “Allies of Mária Seres” party candidates at the 2014 elections. But beyond this, not much is known about the company: it employs three people, had revenues of HUF 22 million last year, and profits of HUF 1.2 million. Its website is down, and its reports only reveal that its main activity is “performing publishing tasks for occasional publications.”
But a couple of so-called publications do exist: we found Kontroll Media as the domain user at 17 websites.
“Domain user” is a legal term and, in practice, the domain user is the “owner” of the domain. This means that the domain belongs to Kontroll Media, although it is unclear whether the content on the site is produced by the company or not. However, the domain user has the right to terminate the site at any time.
Clickbait sites linked to Kontroll Media include nyugdijasok.hu, kerteszkedek.hu, zoldujsag.hu, and biopraktika.hu. Here is what the network looks like (we have marked all sites that are no longer online or on Facebook in red):
Kontroll Media is also the domain user of medialine.hu, the corporate website for an online marketing company. Mária Seres features in one of the main pictures on the homepage. The company sells various packages, one of which, for example, promises clients three posts on Facebook per week for a monthly fee of HUF 9,900 plus VAT. How active this enterprise actually is remains unclear: we called the given contact number but learned nothing from the person who picked up the phone, who didn’t even want to give their name. Instead, they said that the phone number had previously belonged to Media Line, and that we should send an email via the website instead. We did so, and requested an estimate, but have still not received an answer after several days.
What is certain is that a similar venture, Media Line Group Kft., was registered to Ottó Stekler, and which he sold in 2015. The company’s income was negligible, totaling HUF 3.5 million last year. We also sent an email to this company’s contact, but it was returned as undeliverable.
György Gődény also enters the picture
We uncovered further sites based on the Kontroll Media domains. For instances, on the masthead of nyugdijasok.hu, a certain Media Alternative is listed as the site host, and a short search revealed that Media Alternative also serves as the operator of the clickbait site egyazegyben.com (whose owner proved otherwise unidentifiable).
In any case, the company “Media Alternative” does not actually exist, or at least we could not find out anything about it. There is, however, an organization called Media Alternative Network, which was renamed from the Allies of Mária Seres. Again, not much information can be found about the organization, only that its tax number has been deleted.
We also found Media Alternative listed on György Gődény’s website as data controller. In 2018, Gődény was the chairman of Common Denominator - which was also a suspect in the fake political parties affair – and one of the organizations that could have cheated in the 2018 elections, according to an earlier Átlátszó article. This article claims that 18 such parties were named in letters received by Átlátszó. The readers did not support these parties with their signatures, still, their names and personal details did appear on the candidates’ recommendation sheets.
Via Gődény’s homepage we found more clickbait sites. The domain user of doktorgodeny.hu is a certain SOS Association, behind which we find eltuntkeressuk.hu, motivalunk.hu, and okostanacsok.hu. Of these sites, only motivalunk.hu is active. Although the SOS Association appears to be a charitable organization, it is not. Its full name is “Help the Fate of our Country,” and its representative is one Mária Seres.
We contacted Gődény to ask him questions about Kontroll Media, the SOS Association, and Media Alternative. His written response included the following: “I have no intention of talking to any journalists, because no matter how naïve I am, I am slowly coming to understand the principles of how the media works. In any case, I cannot provide you with any meaningful information about the companies or associations you mention.” We then asked how this could be the case, especially in light of the fact that the SOS Association was the domain user for his website, for which Media Alternative was listed as the data controller. He has not yet responded to our question.
Upon examining which IP address the Kontroll Media site pecazok.hu uses as a mail server, the network expanded even further. It turns out that civilmozgalom.hu, seresmaria.hu, civilhirlap.hu, and even civilhir.hu all use the same server. The Civil Movement is another organization set up by Mária Seres in 2009 to run in the parliamentary elections.
One more website, szoveggyartok.hu [Text Writers], aided our enquiries. It is also owned by Kontroll Media, and is operated by Media Alternative.
The website itself is in fact a job advertisement for copywriter, portal manager, and editor-in-chief positions. In order to find out exactly what tasks were required, we submitted an application and received an automatic reply letter one day later. We were congratulated on our successful application, and also informed of the next step: from a list, we had to choose one magazine to which access was promised, and after a two-week trial period, a joint decision would be made on how to proceed.
The letter said that we would need to write at least 4-5 blog articles per day for a magazine, which we could choose from the attached list.
“It won’t be enough to write the articles, you will have to share them on Facebook pages via an automated system, and also join groups engaged with the subject (but we will also recommend groups you have to join, and then activate and manage your content, where of course the administrators allow you to do so). On your own interface, you must constantly monitor the statistics, whether the articles are effective, which headlines and subjects are more successful, and plan your future work on this basis” – states the letter. Attached to the letter is a list that matches our Kontroll Media list in several places, and which also contains several clickbait websites that we had not yet identified. These include agyafurt.com, elmenyorszag.com, fokusz.online, szinesvilag.com, and bulvar.info.
Here is what the network looks like, with all the organizations involved:
We replied to the Text Writers automatic letter the same day, but have not yet received a reply. It’s possible that the automatic letter was itself written some years ago, and that recruitment has since then been completed.
We searched for many of the websites listed here on Facebook, but only the Land of Experience replied. The unsigned response to our question concerning their links to Mária Seres said: “Who is she, and in what way should we have anything to do with her?”
What’s more, their reply contained information that suggests that the website(s) were rented from the operator. “We don’t have any connection to anyone else, and regarding the conditions of use for the site, as you also clearly know, have nothing to do with […]. We rent sites completely in accordance with the rules, and are not doing anything that would contravene anything or harm anyone!”
We asked who they rent the website from but received no answer. The Land of Experience also claims that they know nothing about the Text Writers site, despite the fact that they were mentioned on the list sent out by that site.
We also went after Mária Seres. We wanted to ask her why she had registered so many domains and what their purpose was. We also wanted to enquire whether they were also producing content for the clickbait sites, and if so, what the point was, and what they wanted to achieve.
We received no reply to our email from Kontroll Media, and when we called the number provided on domain.hu, we were told that we were knocking on the wrong door, that the phone number ceased to belong to the company a long time ago. When we asked the current owner of the number to identify themselves, they promptly hung up. We received a similar answer from the number provided at the SOS Association domain.hu: the number no longer belongs to the association. We searched for Mária Seres on two telephone numbers and Facebook. One number was not available, the other phoneline was not answered at all. When we did find her, we also enquired after the name of who registered the website, but were told by the company that they could not give out any information about their clients.
What is the master plan?
We then approached an online marketing professional, who did not want to be named, about the websites and their Facebook pages. He said that on the basis of the advertisements on the websites he considered it impossible that the operating companies would be generating significant revenues from them.
According to the CMDS study, revenues from so-called “money-making” websites are in any case difficult to estimate. Some sites sell their banners – according to size – for between HUF 500 and 2,000 per day, whereas on other sites, ad boxes can cost HUF 11,000-35,000 per month, depending on their precise location on the page. At the time of writing, we only found Google ads on the websites connected to Mária Seres and partners – these only generate a little extra money for the authors. Of course, in the case of these websites, a lot of time and work can be saved by publishing the same articles in multiple places.
At the same time, the aim of such websites is not merely revenue: the mere existence of hundreds of thousands of followers, who share the articles on Facebook pages, is an enormous asset.
We learned of one case in which a well-established Facebook page with 600,000 followers was simply bought by a company in order to share their own content on it.
Yet the Facebook pages of the websites presented here enjoy a considerable number of followers. “The Land of Experience” has 172,000 followers; “Egy az Egyben” has 129,000; “Pensioners” has 107,000; and the Green Paper has 64,000. These Facebook pages share multiple posts on a daily basis, and often reuse content from 2016 and 2017.
These Facebook pages can also be used to hunt for followers for certain clients. For example, if a company is promised that they can increase their number of followers by 10,000, then the given company’s Facebook page can be shared on the Pensioners’ Facebook page, or the “Egy az Egyben,” and as many followers can be picked up from there.
It is also possible to buy posts, where information can be spun and shared. Such Facebook pages can also be useful during political campaigns, especially when they reach almost every section of society, from young people to pensioners. And if someone wants to share political content with a group of followers – of a fake party or a real one – then there is no obstacle to that either.