Monthly disinformation roundup – fake posters and disappearing national flags in Budapest

February and March has been quite interesting months as far as disinformation and fake news go: we could read several fake stories regarding  the pandemic, but the higher education reforms also appeared in the most popular narratives. This is our monthly disinformation review.

Fake news about the pandemic

Many countries experience the third wave of the COVID-19 and thus the increasing number of daily new cases. Because of all this, it was no surprise that disinformation narratives were also dealing with the pandemic in Hungary, especially because of the fact that the virus appeared in our country exactly one year ago.

A manipulated photo appeared in the middle of February on Facebook, which was connected to the outdoor advertising campaign of Budapest promoting the importance of vaccination. Someone thought it was a good idea to edit one of the posters in district 7 and change its meaning by omitting a few letters. (The original text said that we need the vaccine so we can hug each other again, but the manipulated version has a totally different meaning, saying that we need the vaccine so we can kill each other again.)

Source: Facebook

The manipulated photo spread quickly through social media, some considered it as evidence for the incompetence of the municipality led by Gergely Karácsony, and the opposition parties in general. The circulation of the post provides a perfect example of how easy it is to spread disinformation through the Internet, as most cases, the manipulation of photos cannot be noticed by ordinary people.

Another example was about the efficiency of the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine: news has emerged that casts doubt on the effectiveness of the vaccine in the case of obese or overweight people, as the size of the needle is much smaller (only 15 mm) than what would be needed to effectively reach the muscle (25 to 35 millimeters) during the vaccination. However, doctors stated that these concerns are completely unfounded, as medical professionals are skilled enough to be able to ensure that a vaccine with small needles can be also effective.

False information about the coronavirus is also spreading rapidly on fake news sites: one well-known example is the popularity of Hihetetlen Magazin which regularly publishes conspiracy theories and fake news regarding the pandemic, but other completely unfounded narratives concerning science or politics also frequently appear on the site. For example, this time they concluded from the seemingly harmless story that the production of a vaccine against the coronavirus could start in Hungary in 2022 , stating that:

„then they KNOW that whatever we do, this virus will still shape our lives in some form even then ”.

The post published by the magazine strongly suggests that politicians know much more about the epidemic than what they are willing to share with the people, and it also suggests that much of the information presented to the public are manipulated.

Focusing on higher education

The ongoing, yet in many cases controversial higher education reforms also appeared in several disinformation narratives. The government’s reorganisation scheme would basicly put the operation of the university into the hands of a state-founded foundation and in spite of the fact that most universities voted in favour of this change, professors and students strongly oppose it.

Because of all this, it is understandable that the government and pro-government media outlets try to convince the general public that most of the students are in favour of the new measures.

Source: Facebook

The University of Theatre and Film Arts (SZFE) where the new management recently published the statistics about the number of students who decided to leave the university(4) or change their status to passive (86), stating that there hasn’t been an increase in these numbers. But the former associate professor of the university mentioned that these numbers are far from usual: two years ago, there were an average of 5 such students who decided to change their status to passive.

Flags or no flags, that is the question

 The national holiday of 15 March also had some interesting moments concerning disinformation. Fe days after he holiday, Zsolt Láng, the leader of the Fidesz fraction in the capital published a letter addressed to the chief mayor from the opposition, Gergely Karácsony, on the Fidesz Facebook page of Budapest, in which he ask the mayor how is it possible that the national flags did not appear on the public spaces, bridges and main roads in Budapest during the national holiday. He also added that this is not only an important national symbol, displacing the flags is also a legal duty of the capital.

„Not to mention that in many left-wing districts the national flag did not appear on the town hall either” – stated Láng. 

Gergely Karácsony also responded to the accusations by attaching two photos taken by MTI (Hungarian news agency) and another site called Wonderful Budapest – which clearly show not only the flags on the Chain Bridge, but also the fact that on the evening of March 14, lights in the color of the Hungarian flag also illuminated the bridge.

Next day, Fidesz Budapest changed their statement by mentioning only roads and other public spaces regarding the missing flags – however in their original post bridges were clearly included in the list as well. In addition, one of BKK’s photos, as well as the photos taken by the already mentioned Marvelous Budapest on March 15, show the presence of the national flags in several public spaces, such as roads as well.

Zita Szopkó

Cover photo: Facebook / Fidesz Budapest and Gergely Karácsony

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