Updated: Oct 30, 2022
Image Credits: The Economist
An overwhelming amount of (mis)information is generated every day for mass consumption all around the world. In elementary terms, this expansion of the informational landscape also means that it is getting increasingly hard to identify which information is credible and which is not. Thus, the rise of fake news regimes all around the world.
Through the following exposition, we aim to dissect how a piece of fake news travels in space and time. For the purpose of brevity, we will look at a single segment of news from Hungary, its origins, and dissemination. We also simultaneously relate it to the context of the country’s broader popular discourse, followed by theoretical connections in which we use frameworks on how emotions are tools for political ends, the idea of mediamacro, and political style. Finally, we look at how it dovetails with the populist discourse and the consequent implications thereof by looking at the normalisation and legalisation of this Nonsense.
“Christianity, Crosses, and Refugees”: Contextualizing Fake News in Hungary
A post surfaced on 10th April 2019 on the Hungarian ‘news’ platform ELÉG’s Facebook page. ELÉG is a Hungarian word that translates to ‘enough’ in the English language. The post highlights the issue of the supposed oppression of Christianity in Europe. The caption of the post reads, “In some parts of Europe, nothing is sacred anymore. Cemetery crosses have just been covered up in an Italian town so that they "do not disturb" others. Shame!” The text on the image reads even more provocatively that “Europe exhausts her case: crosses were covered in an Italian cemetery so as not to "offend" people of other religions.” It goes on to also ask “Where does this lead?” in the bottom left corner of the image. The news supposedly got traction after its appearance on the mainstream Russian media channel RT News a day before ELÉG picked it up.
The significant inquiries that should follow from the aforementioned piece of media revolve around three things—authenticity and the media regime, European politics, and the issue of migration in Europe. One must begin by asking, what is the veracity of this claim? Were the crosses covered in the Italian town? How does one place this in the broader context of European political discourse?
The Center For Media, Data, and Society (CMDS), based out of Central European University, covered interrelated news stories like the one under consideration here. They analyzed ELÉG’s Facebook posts for a month in April-May in 2019.
They found out that of the 98 posts, 22% solely target immigrants. The percentage becomes even higher (30%) when the targeting is done in the context of George Soros (a Hungarian-American philanthropist who is ‘allegedly’ orchestrating a migrant crisis by pushing more migrants in the States). The CMDS further shows that, in actuality, the news around oppression of Christianity in Europe is virtually fabricated. In fact, it is a tradition to veil the crosses during Lent. Therefore, the nature of our initial inquiry transforms. In other words, the question is not about accuracy/falsehood, it is about fabrication and imagination. It is also about who fabricated this and for what purpose. This is also intricately linked to media control. The Viktor Orbán-led government since 2010 has actively launched a campaign to erode free media and press in the country.
The question regarding why the story gained a lot of traction despite it being fabricated still remains to be analyzed. The answer to the question is intricately linked to refugee perception in Europe and specifically in Hungary. Since the rise of Muslim migrants and refugee in Europe in recent times, Hungary has taken an extremely harsh stance on accepting refugee. This is linked to the broader ‘secularisation’ of Europe in terms of changing demographics with the influx of immigrants. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has made overtly anti-Islamic remarks. A complete lack of magnanimity is reflected in Orbán’s personal and political morality when he says “We don't see these people as Muslim refugees. We see them as Muslim invaders” or “If you take masses of non-registered immigrants from the Middle East into your country, you are importing terrorism, crime, anti-Semitism, and homophobia.”
In conjunction, the comments by Orbán and the simultaneous dissemination of fake news indicate three broad trends. Firstly, racial animosity towards refugees, specifically towards Muslim ones is the prevalent norm. This can be seen in Hungary’s welcoming of Ukrainian Refugees and simultaneous restricting of Syrian refugees. Secondly, government-controlled media in tandem with ‘othering’ narratives in Hungary makes the recipe for strengthening populist tendencies within Hungary (as explained in succeeding sections). Lastly, evidently there is a transnational linkage present between fake news regimes in Europe. In other words, the channels of dissemination rely on each other for amplification of a particular narrative. For instance, in the case under consideration, Hungary’s ELÉG news amplified the ‘news’ based on Russia’s RT news.
Emotions, Performance, and Media: Theoretical Anchorings behind Hungarian Fake News
As we have seen, there is a rise of fake news in Hungary and it is not haphazard in its objectives. Rather, there is a very clear motive behind it: to create a sense of fear amongst the Christian majority. The tool to create this fear has been the migrant crisis, specifically the movement of Muslims to ‘their’ country. It is being claimed that Christianity is being ‘oppressed’ because of the influx of migrants who belong to a different religion, changing the Christian character of Europe. This creates a sense of fear by division, which provides space for a leader who can protect their way of life.
As the scholar Sara Ahmed has argued, emotions are more than just feelings; they also perform political functions. In the case of Hungary, the emotions of fear and hate form the grounds upon which political action is sought to be performed. The fake news under consideration intends to show how the Muslim immigrants are highly intolerant of Christian/Western culture because of the latter’s different religious identity. In this unlikeness of the migrant, there lies a potential to hate- and more importantly, hate together. These emotions are not residing in a single entity either, rather they move. Earlier too there used to be fear of the Christian way of life being destroyed, but it was because of rising secularism. Now, these very emotions have shifted to Muslim migrants because of their perception of causing harm to honest ordinary Christians of Hungary. The idea of ‘honest’ and ‘ordinary’ is quite important to the production of a crisis by a populist leader in setting up the binary antagonistic groups against each other.
Therefore, the task of dealing with the migrant crisis was to be given to an extraordinary leader- Viktor Orbán. As we have seen, he not just links but explicitly makes no distinction between Muslim asylum seekers and invaders and terrorists, creating a sense of emergency and crisis. As noted by Benjamin Moffitt and Simon Tormey, this disregard for the appropriate ways of acting and being politically incorrect is a common feature in populism, as well as its tendency to speak in very simplistic and direct terms. In fact, given that this way of speaking isn’t an aberration for him, it’s reasonable to say he’s not ashamed of it, but rather proud of this political bullshit. Identifying Muslim immigrants as terrorists allows him to make an appeal to the people to act decisively and immediately against those who will transgress and violate their national body. For Orbán to use this crisis in politics, it is required of him to regularly hype up the idea of the violation of the national body, elevating the crisis and in doing so heightening emotions. The more this idea circulates, as Sara Ahmed argues, the more value it acquires, increasing his chances politically as the leader who can protect you from crisis. This has been relatively easier for him to do as both the mainstream media and especially social media has provided him an unmediated platform to voice his views, leading to a mediatisation of the political discourse in the country. Orbán’s use of religion for populist ends, using simplistic and divisive rhetoric, aided by the use of social media and mainstream media to spread disinformation, promises his audience to preserve their past.
Tying Loose Ends: Implications for Populism
"The world should understand that in fact today’s persecutions of Christians foreshadow global processes." This is a sentence from one of Viktor Orbán's speeches on persecution of Christanity, where he uses the word 'fact' 9 times in a very short speech. Orbán uses the word "fact" in his speech to show that he is speaking facts, whereas he is just voicing his opinions. This illustrates that the way Orbán presents himself and the language he uses is very repetitive, associating himself with ‘facts’ and attempting to sound credible in an effort to influence people. As we have seen in the fake news regarding the covering up of the crosses which was reported in mainstream media and social media, there is a clear attempt to create a narrative. Constantly manufacturing fake news and the entailing of ill-thought out opinions by leaders in positions of power creates a hegemonic public discourse. The repetition of these claims normalizes the kind of bullshit in public discourse as highlighted by Jonathan Hopkin and Ben Rosamund.
Along with faking his credibility, he misinterprets the Bible, has amended the laws to promote christanity and also 'forces' a choice on his people. Christianity as mentioned in the Bible, promotes love and kindness towards each other, especially neighbors. However, Orbán does not believe in this idea at all. Some of the “laws criminalize the homeless, Hungarian media dehumanizes the immigrants and his supporters also called the Pope “fool,” for siding with the immigrants.” Calling the Pope a “fool” depicts how the 'othering' is not limited to immigrants but all those who go against him and his version of Christianity. Moreover, the preamble of the Fundamental Law, which is the country's constitution, when amended in 2011, states, "We recognize the role of Christianity in preserving the nation," which shows how Christianity is an integral part of the law making, or rather Christianity defines the laws. Additionally, the amended law does welcome other religions but it refers to all religious infrastructures as "church" even if they are of other religions like Hinduism. This shows how much influence Orbán has had on the law making and also makes it easier for him to be a hypocrite as, if somebody questions him about the degrading secularism in the country he can always point to the existence of other religious structures, while simultaneously holding Christianity on the top. For the normalization of bullshit to prevail, Orbán uses this kind of rhetorical entrapment as a way to influence his people and to create the idea of the ‘other’ by using religion and immigration as two antagonistic poles.
Furthermore, the words Christians and Christianity are repeatedly highlighted in his speeches, concentrating only on their religious identity and preventing people from thinking about themselves in any other way. Similarly, by constantly saying that Christians are under threat due to the immigrants, Orbán promotes the concept of "honest men under threat", where "honest men'' are Christians who are portrayed as victims and Orbán is the only leader who can help them, a tactic which has been underscored by Katja Freistein and Frank Gadinger. By doing so bullshit becomes common sense, and makes it extremely difficult to counter it. Moreover, by using this rhetorical trap Orbán facilitates bullshit which has helped him create a legal regime, where Christianity is just a tool used to manipulate the people.
Along with entrapping people with choices, Orbán has accredited his bullshit through legalization. He has shaped his laws and foreing policy around the idea of Christanity. He has initiated programs that help Christians around the world. What this does in turn is that it will force the upcoming leaders of Hungary to also follow these policies and maintain the same kind of relationship with people. Moreover, he also refers to Hungary as a “Chrisitian Democracy”, which theocratises the country’s identity. The country’s identity markers are not development or healthy political discourse but explicit religious affiliation as a Christian nation, which may or may not be the identity of many people in Hungary. This tells us that these populist actions not only influence the citizens of the country but also the entire world and their perception of that country. Moreover, by doing so, Orbán has given rise to a legal regime which restricts people and leaders to deviate from the legal norm-making that Orbán is constructing. This legislation has serious consequences for democracy. In other words, he is setting a strong precedent for accrediting lies, bullshit, and fake news, adding more impetus to the populist discourse in the country.
2019 Report on International Religious Freedom: Hungary. U.S. Department of State, December 1, 2020. https://www.state.gov/reports/2019-report-on-international-religious-freedom/hungary/#:~:text=The%20Fundamental%20Law%20(constitution)%20provides,violating%20the%20dignity%20of%20any.
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BY VIBHU JAGGI, NACHIKET MIDHA, SHARON PATOLE
Authors are students of Ashoka University