Fake News, Real Money

In Hungary, fake news pays off

In 2016, Craig Silverman, media editor for a major US news site, picked up on a bizarre trend. Of the year’s most eye-catching, wide-reaching fake news stories—“Hillary Clinton sold weapons to Isis”; “Donald Trump slaps mayor of Mexico City”—most could be traced back to a single spot. It wasn’t Moscow. It wasn’t Beijing. Instead, it was the tiny Macedonian town of Veles: a place soon immortalised as the “world’s fake news capital.” 

While many fake news mongers around the world were, no doubt, also cashing in on the frenzy leading up to the 2016 US election, in Veles, a group of wily teens had whittled it down to an art form. In an area where the average medical doctor was taking €471 home at the end of the month, local high schoolers were raking in hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of euros per day. 

This was, of course, far from the first recorded case of fake news making a splash. In 44 BCE, there was Octavian and Mark Antony’s war of words; after WWI, Hitler’s spurious eugenic theories; during the Cold War, McCarthyism and the Red Scare. But in 2016, disinformation had finally gone digital and, in so doing, birthed a $78 billion industry. A morally corrupt one, mind you—and one that cannot easily be regulated, no matter how much tinkering Facebook and Google claim to be doing with their policies.

In Hungary, today, the threat of misinformation takes a very different form. Much like in neighbouring Slovenia and Poland, anti-Roma, anti-LGBT, anti-refugee, anti-Brussels, and anti-vaccine movements are all egged on by various right-wing and government-allied news outlets. Yet Hungary is unique in that the government introduced a five-year jail penalty for spreading “false information” on the coronavirus response in 2020—a chilling development, given that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán regularly blasts independent media outlets as “opponents of the government,” “enemies,” and “Soros mercenaries.” 

The government’s definition of “false information” isn’t what you’d expect. Instead, it includes nearly any sort of reportage or accountability on Hungary’s public health response. In May, for example, opposition politician János Csóka-Szűcs noted on social media that 1,170 hospital beds were being cleared in his hometown, Gyula, to make way for coronavirus patients. It was a claim that could be cross-verified against government statistics—it nonetheless landed him in an interrogation cell for four hours. 

All told, 147 Hungarians like Csóka-Szűcs have been detained and questioned under the fake news law. Among them are politicians, citizens, and reputable journalists. Thankfully, none have yet been charged. Those writers trafficking in fake news have, meanwhile, mostly chosen to steer clear of the subject—all the while, stealing real scoops, diverting valuable web traffic, and cutting into the already paper-thin margins of real news outlets.

Dr. Ágnes Urbán, an economist with Corvinus University’s media watchdog, Mérték Media Monitor, tells me this dual pressure could well serve the coup de grâce to independent journalism in Hungary. “In a crisis situation, it’s important to fight against fake news, but government sites deliberately blend classic fake news and conspiracy theories with critical stories about the independent media to discredit their work,” she says. 

Recent years have been anything but kind to Hungary’s maverick media groups. Orbán, who became prime minister in 2010, has spent his time in office steadily chipping away at press freedoms, attacking the credibility of independent news outlets, and boxing them out of state-held information.  

Nearly 80 percent of Hungarian media, meanwhile, has been slowly bought up by oligarchs and kleptocrats loyal to Orbán’s Fidesz party, then folded within the mammoth Central European Press and Media Foundation (KESMA). A “foundation” in name only, KESMA’s three-man board is made up of a pro-government lobbyist, a former Fidesz candidate, and Orbán’s personal lawyer; it’s a team well-versed in party policy, but not editorial integrity. 

Not that Orbán has ever tried to sugarcoat his media strategy. It’s part of a push, he says, towards an “illiberal democracy”; one which champions social cohesion over individual rights, in the ilk of “China, Russia, Turkey, and Singapore.” 

That justification hasn’t won him any friends with Reporters Without Borders (RSF): when Orbán took office, Hungary ranked 23rd in the world for press freedom. Today, it sits at 92nd place—below countries like Niger, Papua-New Guinea, and El Salvador. RSF’s Hungary office, in fact, pulled no punches this year. On the back of the new law which criminalises the spread of “false information” on the government’s coronavirus response, they labelled Orbán a “press freedom predator.”

One healthcare journalist based in the Hungarian city of Debrecen, speaking to me on condition of anonymity, holds that the new law makes it nearly impossible to do her job. 

“The government’s coronavirus task force does not answer questions from us because of the new law, we can’t gain access to hospitals, the ambulance service hardly ever responds to queries, and health care workers are simply forbidden from speaking freely to journalists,” she says. 

“Even if I manage to get my hands on statistics, say vaccine uptake rate, the next day I might see a piece on the HírTV [a government-backed channel, ed.] site calling it fake news. They haven’t charged anyone, though they’ve detained plenty. Still, it’s scary.”

The irony of Budapest using fake news as a pretext to box out bona fide reporting, though, hasn’t been lost on her and her peers.  

“That’s funny for them to say, when our whole purpose of existence is to correct their content. Fake news—government and private—is what we are here to fight.”

HírTV doesn’t just stray from the facts in its commentary. In the past, it showed a doctored image depicting European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker kissing a man. What’s more, the story sold well. That particular weeknight episode was seen by an audience of 156,000—triple the show’s average Friday night ratings. 

The most popular Fidesz-allied digital outlet, Origo, is no better, despite reaching a third of Hungarians weekly. It has shared visual, graphic, and video content edited to follow the government’s views on migration. One video, showing two dark-skinned men assaulting a white woman in a Budapest church, later turned out to be footage of a Nebraska service station robbery, tampered “to contain shouts praising to Allah.” 

For all this not-so-noble work, HírTV and Origo are rewarded handsomely. The state itself is the largest buyer of media advertising space in Hungary, making up over half of the €104.7 million market. Unsurprisingly, that money goes solely into the pockets of pro-government publishers. The largest slices go towards state broadcaster Magyar Televízió (32 per cent), Origo (24 per cent), and HírTV (19 per cent), along with other KESMA outlets, depending on their willingness to bend on editorial integrity. This funding is crucial. Without it, Mérték Media Monitor economist Dr. Urbán believes “the majority of KESMA organisations would not be financially sustainable.” 

In terms of private advertising money, the situation is almost as grim. Advertising is often seen as a way of currying favour with Orbán and his cronies. 

“Many commercial advertisers publish ads in pro-government media that isn’t watched or read by anyone,” says Attila Batorfy, a media analyst with the investigative outfit Átlátszó. “We call that lobbying money; things like reach or visitor numbers make no difference.”

In other words, Index, 444, and RTL Klub are effectively frozen out of what media marketers call “direct ad sales”—those negotiated and inked by people, rather than Google algorithms, which are by far the more lucrative advertising contracts. Banner space in a household name like Origo or 888 can run for tens or twenties of thousands of euros weekly. 

So instead, Hungary’s independent news outlets are left with few options—none of them glamourous. They can sign up to automated ad networks like AdSense, through which they can expect to make between €15 and €20 per thousand clicks. A slim margin, once you take off office space costs, libel insurance, staff wages, and a million other things that keep a newsroom running. Many journalists, even respected ones, have figured out that writing clickbait pays well.

Hungary’s polarised society further incentivises disinformation and clickbaiting. Elhallgatott hírek (“Suppressed news”), for example, ironically recycles stories from KESMA outlets to thousands of readers, on a website stuffed with automated ads. But the largest of the right-wing fake news networks, like Dzsihadfigyelo (“Jihad Watch”) or Napimigrans.info (“Daily Migrants), pour tailored content into grassroots, anti-immigrant Facebook groups made up of thousands—meaning, at Daily Migrant’s own estimation, a good story turns over €300-400. 

That said, newly-minted digital outlet Telex’s finance manager István Szabó insists it’s actually the left-leaning private clickbait sites that are doing the most damage to his site’s bottom line. Fake news publishers like Fuggetlennemzet.hu (“Independent nation”); Balramagyar.hu (“Hungarians go left”); and Hirhugo.hu (“News Hugó”) do almost no shoe-leather reporting of their own, instead pinching articles from Index, Telex, 444, and HVG—or, in some cases, fabricating stories where none exist. One infamous Hirhugo.hu piece, “reporting” on Orbán having a white wine spritzer at lunch, ran with the headline “Boozy Orbán back in action: the prime minister picked up the bottle again”. Szabó says that, with each outrageous headline these sites post, rigorous investigations into Orbán’s taxes, business holdings, and conflicts of interest seem all the more tedious by comparison.

These sites “circle like vultures,” says Szabó, and even the most straight-shooting story can get the clickbait treatment. When RTL Klub ran a story with the sober strapline—“Boy fell, died a day later”—they stressed the fact the hospital that had released him the day before was not under investigation. Yet when eight different fake news sites like Eztnezdmeg.com, Szupertanacsokhu.hu, and Hitel.news7.hu picked it up, they changed that key fact for controversy, with one captioning it: “The cause is more than shocking. We’re asking every parent who is outraged by our story to please share this.” Run through parenting groups on Facebook, the bogus story (complete with wrong name, wrong town, and a picture stripped from Google Search) garnered eight times the clicks of the RTL original. 

It’s hard to get a gauge on how profitable these fake news sites are—some advertise banner space for as low as €1.50 a week, while leftist clickbait site Pestibulvar.hu asks anywhere from €3,000 to €5,900. That might seem high—but it’s just shy of Index’s €7,000 weekly fees to make the switch worth it, especially if sensationalism and social media are driving more like-minded readers there. 

One of Pestibulvar’s three “writers,” speaking to me on condition of anonymity, revealed the site turns over “around €20,700 a month, give or take.” While he didn’t share his income, one would imagine, with nearly no overheads, it could easily be a quarter of that. The award-winning independent newspaper Magyar Hang, by comparison, generates €44,000 in revenue monthly—which means their 30 staff writers, on average, take home just €700 a month.

If Hungary’s independent editors and journalists depend on AdSense alone, it makes sense that, over time, they too risk getting dragged into the clickbait game. So, instead, they must think outside the box. For RTL Klub, its slim revenues (€18 million) are propped up by its hugely profitable pan-European parent company; left-leaning Alfahír, N1TV, Zsúrpubi, and Azonnali networks, meantime, depend on funding from opposition parties. Yet those media who strive for real independence, like digital outlet Telex, are increasingly turning to crowdfunding. Founded late last year, the operation’s €419,000 in revenue (advertising and subscriptions) is dwarfed by €2.33 million worth of donations.

Community funding and donations may keep the lights on. But they can just as easily be seen to threaten the independence of those media outlets. Whilst no one batted an eyelid when Telex received €200,000 from Czech media mogul Zdeněk Bakala’s Economia group—a donation given in “spirit of solidarity,” according to the latter—there’s reason to think this sort of corporate crowdfunding could prove problematic down the line. 

In any case, Dr. Urbán isn’t optimistic for the future. “These could be the last days of independent media in Hungary,” she says. 

“It’s a global phenomenon that advertising revenues are falling sharply and everywhere, clickbait, copycat, and fake news sources are eating into real news margins. But, in Hungary, these economic difficulties are coupled with harsh political pressure. This is a really dangerous situation—and it brings new meaning to the term fake news.”

147 Hungarians like Csóka-Szűcs have been detained and questioned under the fake news law.

In an area where the average medical doctor was taking €471 home at the end of the month, local high schoolers were raking in hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of euros per day.

These could be the last days of independent media in Hungary.

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