Report highlights gendered disinformation online and calls for women-centred reform of ‘social media’ platforms.
Women in Hungary who speak out against the autocratic actions of the government of Viktor Orbán face vicious misogynistic attacks online, according to a new report from #ShePersisted, a global initiative based in the United States combating gendered disinformation against women in politics.
The study, A Perfect Propaganda Machine, investigates how Orbán’s far-right Fidesz party uses ‘social media’ to silence and undermine political opponents, especially women, through disinformation campaigns, online harassment and doxxing. The research involved interviews with Hungarian women political leaders, public figures and activists, as well as the monitoring of ‘social media’ in the country.
‘This “perfect propaganda machine” element was unique to Hungary,’ said the Italian gender expert Lucina Di Meco, co-founder of #ShePersisted and co-author of the report. ‘The media environment has been entirely taken over by the governing party.’
Since 2018, the Hungarian government has consolidated more than 450 media outlets under the pro-government Central European Press and Media Foundation (KESMA), which is controlled by an ex-Fidesz leader. Almost 78 per cent of Hungary’s news and public affairs media are pro-Fidesz, according to the media monitor Mertek.
Big Tech failure
Hungary is the first of five country case studies to be released in #ShePersisted’s ‘Monetising Misogyny’ series. The other countries are Brazil, India, Italy (whose report was published on the same day as Hungary’s, March 21st) and Tunisia.
Across these countries, #ShePersisted found that Big Tech companies had failed to address gendered disinformation attacks against women in politics on their ‘social media’ platforms. The initiative is calling for the reform of digital-platform standards via negotiations driven by women leaders.
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In Hungary, the most common disinformation narratives used against women in politics include portraying them as ‘untrustworthy’ or ‘foreign agents’ trying to ‘destroy conservative norms’, tied in some way to the Hungarian-American businessman and philanthropist George Soros, the report says. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, with whom Orbán often aligns himself in defending ‘traditional values’, banned Soros’ Open Society Foundation, along with other pro-democracy groups, from operating in Russia in 2015.
Women leaders and activists who stand up for human rights and champion democracy are also denigrated as ‘unqualified’, ‘stupid’ and ‘unfit for office’, the report finds. They are further accused of misappropriating public funds for personal gain or acting as ‘weak puppets’ for powerful male leaders on the left.
These gendered attacks are a way to win ‘the support of the huge part of the electorate mostly overlooked by the democratic liberals and socialists and social democrats’, the international gender expert Sonja Lokar, a former Slovenian MP, says in the report. By this, she means ‘uneducated men who are often more lost than women and feel defeated at home, especially when more flexible women are taking over the role of the family’s main providers’.
Facebook and fact-checking
Facebook is the most popular ‘social media’ platform in Hungary, with more than 5.4 million users as of 2020, according to the #ShePersisted report. Although the platform can be a democratic tool for civic engagement, the report says, it has also been frequently used to spread unregulated hate speech, attack public women figures and perpetuate disinformation, including pro-Russian propaganda. ‘There’s a very prevalent use of Facebook by the leading party to propagate disinformation, to spread election misinformation and to target political opponents,’ said the report’s co-author Sarah Hesterman.
The report cites the example of Ágnes Kunhalmi, a Socialist Party member of the Hungarian parliament and a vocal critic of Orbán’s leadership, who has been the subject of persistent ‘social media’ attacks, including recent accusations on Facebook that she lied about being hospitalised with Covid-19. ‘It’s often progressive women who are outspoken about the government and the undermining of democracy [who are targeted],’ Hesterman said.
The report highlights the fact that Facebook did not partner with an official fact-checker in Hungary until 2021, five years after it launched its third-party, fact-checking programme to tackle disinformation in the US. This lack of regulation and content moderation has enabled Hungarian politicians to post anti-Semitic, anti-migrant and anti-LGBT+ misinformation.
In 2018, a senior Hungarian politician posted a video on Facebook in which he blamed immigrants for crime levels in Austria and for pushing out ‘white Christians’. The ‘social media’ giant removed the video for violating its platform’s rules but restored it the following day, saying an exception had been made because the content was ‘newsworthy’ or ‘important to the public interest’.
Digital Services Act
The report notes that the Hungarian government has expressed concerns about new legislation aimed at regulating and improving the online world. The Digital Services Act (DSA), which aims to tackle disinformation and other aspects of online safety, is set to come into force across the European Union in 2024.
‘For governments like Orbán’s, which rely heavily on the spread of disinformation and hateful content against minority groups to cement power, the DSA could prove to be a challenge,’ the report says. ‘We see the Digital Services Act as a very promising piece of legislation, maybe the most promising that has been adopted,’ said Di Meco.
Hungarian media, both traditional and online, have spread pro-Putin propaganda, including anti-US conspiracy theories on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Both Russia and Hungary use the expression ‘gender ideology’ to tie together nationalistic, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant sentiments and fear-mongering. Orbán and Putin have aimed to establish themselves as strongmen alternatives to the liberal values represented by the EU.
‘There’s a fear of and resistance to what’s different from a hetero-normative society,’ Hesterman said. ‘Orbán’s party and their supporters want to instil fear in people by using [traditional] media and social media to spread propaganda really as a way to maintain power.’
Threats and harassment
Di Meco co-founded #ShePersisted in 2020, a year after publishing a study on the relationship between women in politics and ‘social media’ for the Wilson Center in the US. The name #ShePersisted is a nod to the US senator Elizabeth Warren and other women in politics who have been threatened with silence.
‘The study opened my eyes to how little we knew from women’s voices about the impact social media was having on them,’ Di Meco said. She had found it difficult to secure basic information, such as gender, about ‘social media’ users, despite the platforms having the data and selling this to marketing firms.
Di Meco said she had faced numerous threats and harassment on Facebook and Twitter when she worked as a political activist for Italy’s Democratic Party. She listed cases of women in politics who had had their personal information published online or been blackmailed with fake nudes. Such treatment had led many women to quit politics altogether or to leave countries such as Hungary.
This is why Di Meco is calling for a stronger gender dimension that centres women’s voices. She believes this is lacking in current digital legislation. Without it, ‘policies and regulations won’t take into account the real-life harm that [these women] are living every day,’ she said.
‘Social media’ platforms ‘want us to think that misogyny doesn’t have anything to do with them. It’s not their responsibility,’ Di Meco said. ‘This has just as much to do with misogyny as it does with the tools they created. They’re facilitating, incentivising and making money out of the spread of fake stories.’
This first appeared on openDemocracy
Based in Yerevan, Armenia, Lucy Martirosyan is openDemocracy’s Eurasia investigative reporting fellow, with a focus on Russia and post-Soviet states, having previously worked as a radio producer for the US-based The World.