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Hundreds of coordinated fake profiles are engaged in pro-government influence operations on Facebook ahead of municipal and European Parliament elections in Hungary in 2024, Péter Krekó, Csaba Molnár and Ráchel Surányi write.
Next year, Hungarians will head to the polls to elect local officials and representatives to the European Parliament on the same day.
These elections will likely come against a backdrop of continuing high division between the European Commission and Hungary, over the latter’s persistent disregard for EU values, and the pro-Kremlin and pro-Beijing manoeuvring of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
Orbán is likely to enter 2024 in a strong position. In April 2022, he cemented his power by securing a landslide victory over a united political opposition.
His ruling Fidesz party, ahead of the European Parliament elections, has set its sights on chipping away at the Hungarian opposition’s gains from the last municipal elections, in which it won control over the capital of Budapest and several other major cities.
The gamed decision to hold the two elections on the same day, and to frame much of the debate around so-called “foreign interference” from Brussels and Washington makes life difficult for Budapest’s mayor, Gergely Karácsony, and other leading opposition candidates.
They will also contend with the most unbalanced media landscape in the EU, which not only makes it difficult for them to reach the voters but is so loaded in favour of Fidesz’ messaging that smear campaigns against opposition politicians are now commonplace.
A spike in Kremlin-style troll activity
Since regaining office in 2010, exerting greater and greater control over the Hungarian media space has been a key ambition of Orbán and his Fidesz party.
Over the past thirteen years, they have built up unprecedented control over the media, to the point that Hungary is now an informational autocracy.
With this traditional media space largely captured, the Hungarian government is now turning its attention to social media, especially Facebook, as part of its efforts to control public messaging.
New research from our Budapest-based think tank Political Capital has found a growing, Russian playbook-like proliferation of troll activity on Facebook, which, to date, has infiltrated over 450 public groups nationwide — but with a particular, and seemingly coordinated, emphasis on Budapest.
The city’s mayor Karácsony and other opposition figures are the principal targets of troll and misinformation activity within these groups — which often takes the form of sharing pro-government news articles that baselessly smear Karácsony’s administration and amplify Fidesz counter-messaging.
Given the expanding use of “fake profiles”, and their scale in activity, it is not unreasonable to argue that we are approaching a point where they would threaten the integrity of the 2024 elections.
By tracking and monitoring the characteristics of these users, Political Capital has been able to determine that almost all of the profiles in question are fake.
Obvious red flags aplenty
For one, this is evidenced by their profile and cover images, which herald almost invariably from the pages of existing foreign individuals, mainly from the Russian social media platform VKontakte and, in some cases, other sites, such as Russian, Bulgarian, and Ukrainian dating websites.
While some of the profiles bear Hungarian names, there is often a clumsiness to the profile creation, with many of the Facebook URLs containing other names, which may reveal the account’s true origin.
Furthermore, in an obvious red flag to their authenticity, they do not post anything on their page except for completely impersonal and re-shared content with mixed messages (such as commercial, animal-related, etc.).
The activity of these profiles is also heavily targeted. On Facebook, there is often an explicit focus on amplifying government narratives in community groups and spreading disinformation and defamatory content discrediting opposition parties and politicians, such as Karácsony and others.
This almost mirror-like behaviour across profiles suggests some central coordination. It is also revealing that, after their activation or “rebranding” in many cases, they join Facebook groups at a scale, including non-political local community groups and groups with public affairs content with pro-government, anti-government and even pro-opposition leaning.
They are often found clustered in the same national political groups, which indicates some level of strategic deployment.
Only Meta can judge these
In some cases, this network even deploys safety mechanisms. Political Capital’s research found that large numbers of these profiles publish with various intensities in the groups they have joined, while some serve as “sleeper profiles” that have not yet been “activated” as publishers.
Upon publication of this data haul in September, researchers found that the URLs of some profiles changed overnight to match their assumed identity on Facebook — thereby, unintentionally, confirming that they are indeed fake profiles, which are being centrally coordinated.
Only Facebook’s owner, Meta, can reveal the origin and location of these profiles en masse and act to have them removed.
We have called for this and pointed out that, if they are left unchecked, they could develop roots in community groups, and scale their reach to other Facebook users — and, importantly, potential voters.
This harnessing of trolls and manipulation of social media is a sad indication of the direction of travel for Hungary and its democracy under Orbán.
This is just a test phase
Over the past decade, the prime minister and his party have established an amount of control over the media landscape in Hungary that seriously threatens its freedom.
In 2021, Reporters Without Borders charged Orbán with being a “press freedom predator”, and, before the 2022 elections, investigative reporters found that a Hungarian fund financed pro-government social media personalities to the tune of several million euros to spread the government’s messages.
It was subsequently revealed by a global coalition of journalists that the Hungarian government used Pegasus spyware to surveil journalists, media owners and politicians.
It is clear: as the municipal and European Parliament elections draw closer, the amount of fake news and smear campaigns pushed through traditional mediums by pro-government sources will intensify.
But so will the activity of fake profiles on Facebook and other social media platforms.
What we are witnessing in Hungary is a test phase and scaling of something that belongs to a Kremlin-inspired playbook. The threat to the 2024 elections and the very future of the public space in our country is real.
Péter Krekó serves as Executive Director, Csaba Molnár is Head of Research and Data Analyst, and Ráchel Surányi is Analyst at the Political Capital Institute in Budapest.
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