These are the methods how Russian disinformation is smuggled into state-sponsored Hungarian news media
Hungarian news sites spreading Russian disinformation narratives rarely produce original content. They mostly use articles from “Western” media outlets to create fake news — but with one or two clever techniques, they can completely change the message of the original article. In recent months, we have set out to map by what method these disinformation contents are made in Hungary.
A shocking news content appeared on one of the most widely read Hungarian portals in late July: Russia is preparing for a huge military exercise in Latin America – reported Index mainstream news website. The same news was soon published by several other leading news outlets.
On the morning of 23 July, a reader scrolling through Facebook on the way to work might have had every reason to cringe since given the tense international climate surrounding the Ukraine-Russia war, a massive military exercise near the United States would carry extreme risks. The never-ending line of tanks illustrating the article could only add to the reader’s concerns.
However, the content published on the news site has virtually no connection with reality. The event, described by the news as a “huge military exercise”, is in fact a military Jeux sans frontières, which Russia has been using for years to show that it still has friends. The ‘International Army Games’ in Venezuela – for which, according to the Index, ‘Russia, China, and Iran are deploying their armies overseas’ – was in reality open to teams of 11 soldiers.
The Russian Ministry of Defence’s website also specifies the composition of the team: a team leader, a referee, a team coach, four main and one reserve sniper, a doctor, a psychologist, and an interpreter. It is easy to guess that the picture of Chinese and Russian flags flying over endless rows of tanks illustrating the article has also little to do with the real event. The picture was taken in Russia – during an exercise 4 years ago.
The fake news about a Russian military exercise in Venezuela first appeared on a bunch of pro-Kremlin “news sites”. While at first glance, these websites look like an average news site, they don’t meet the requirement of a media outlet defined by Hungarian law. The question is how this easily verifiable ‘news’ could have made its way from these not-very-credible propaganda mouthpieces to the pages of one of the most well-read newspapers in Hungary.
The Hungarian disinformation ecosystem
The Hungarian-language sources of the Kremlin’s fake news are typically websites about which practically nothing is known. Usually, they do not provide any information about their funding background, nor about the identity of their editors or owners. These sites appear to be the “fake news providers” directly representing Russian interests.
The two biggest Hungarian disinformation websites are oroszhirek.hu and vadhajtasok.hu. These sites regularly publish verbatim material from Russian news providers (RT, Sputnik News) that have been banned in the EU for spreading disinformation. Their activity is complemented by several sloppily assembled websites (such as maivilag.com or hirextra.info).
These fake news sites operate almost exclusively on Facebook. They probably maintain websites just to give the appearance of being real news when they share their content in various Facebook groups. There is a strong interaction between the different fake news sites. A “news” typically appears in at least two or three different mouthpieces, often with the same text.
However, the disinformation ecosystem not only shares and spreads the fake news fabricated by these sloppily assembled, pro-Kremlin websites within itself, but sometimes it is also republished by some Hungarian pro-government media outlets (Origo, Magyar Nemzet, HírTV, Mandiner, Pesti Srácok) and even by public broadcasting channels (hirado.hu).
In recent months, we have set out to map the logic behind the content-making of this complex disinformation system. After sifting through hundreds of disinformation content pieces, we have come to the conclusion that the “news” appearing on disinformation sites are largely built from the news material that any media outlet use.
Disinformation sites regularly publish articles from leading independent Hungarian newspapers, or translate contents from the “Western press”. The vanity lies in the small changes, which sometimes appear to be nothing more than editorial inattention or innocent clickbait – however are capable of completely changing the message of the news and thus planting in the minds of readers the seeds of a worldview that is dear to Moscow.
The disinformation “news sites” are masters at exploiting the qualitative shortcomings of Hungarian journalistic practice. They often give the impression that they only make simple mistakes. However, the systematic use of some “mistakes” clearly indicates the existence of an established practice. Below we will illustrate the most common junk-news editing practices through a few striking examples.
How to transform 81 person into “millions of Ukrainians”
Often, a simple generalization is enough for junk-news portals to portray an event in a much more drastic light than it actually happened. This technique works like a good horror film: the fewer details revealed, the more room for the imagination. The technique is most often used to exaggerate the number of certain groups (demonstrators, deserting soldiers, disaffected population).
A few months ago, the Hungarian disinformation sites found the institution of e-petitions on the Ukrainian President’s website. These petitions can be initiated and signed by any Ukrainian citizen via the Internet. If more than 25,000 signatures are collected, the President is obliged to consider the petitions. This was a goldmine for them, as the sometimes absurd petitions have provided the perfect opportunity to portray Ukrainians as crazy, childish or pathetic.
The fake news sites made misleading claims that did not reveal the exact number of signatures on the petitions. That way they could give the impression that a large majority of Ukrainians would nominate Boris Johnson as their prime minister (as the text of the article states, at the time of writing, 81 people from Ukraine, a country of 40 million, had signed the petition), would appoint Zelensky as Hetman (1,618 people have signed it to date), or would conceal the fact of the petition and claim that the legalization of pornographic content was Zelensky’s idea.
A picture is worth a hundred words
As the above graph shows, most readers access stories on disinformation portals via Facebook. For the smaller, more isolated portals (in the figure: elemi.hu, maivilág.com, and itthonrolhaza.hu) this is even more true.
These fake news sites are effective in spreading Russian disinformation if they can get their content into the newsfeeds of as many users as possible. Since the percentage of people who click on the news is much lower than the ones only reading the title, sometimes it is enough to simply modify the title to disinform. The comments on one of the “news” that appeared on the disinformation site maivilag.com are an excellent illustration of how this simple technique.
The content quotes the former CEO of the Ukrainian state-owned gas company Naftogaz, Yuriy Vitrenko saying that Ukraine would need $10 billion to import enough gas. The title of the story, however, fails to mention that the statement comes from him, instead it illustrates the article entitled “Message from Ukraine: we won’t have enough gas, we need $10 billion” with a picture of Zelensky. Even though the text of the ‘news’ clearly indicates that the statement was not made by the Ukrainian president, most commentators believe that the statement came from him.
According to Lóránt Győri, an analyst at Political Capital specializing in research on Russian influence in Central Europe, the title still has an impact even if the reader clicks on the “article” since a well-worded title can completely reinterpret an otherwise neutral text.
“It’s like pricing: if a product costs 1999 HUF instead of 2000, we have a number in our minds that starts with one.”
– explained the analyst to Átlátszó.
From an an opinion piece to a state stance
For example, if an article states that “the United States warns of Ukraine’s dramatic defeat”, most readers are likely to automatically believe that Ukraine is in such a bad way that US officials no longer believe there is any hope of victory.
With this assumption in mind, the reader may not realize that the statement did not come from US officials. The content quotes an opinion piece, written by a single person who has nothing to do with the US government. Moreover, his statement was taken completely out of context and was never made in that form (but the readers will only notice if they click on the link in the article).
The ‘dramatic defeat’ expression appears only once in the opinion piece on the chances of the – then only planned, but later spectacularly successful – Ukrainian offensive: the writer states that “a failed counter-offensive would be a dramatic defeat for Ukrainian prospects”.
Biased claims presented as verified facts
The “media outlets” spreading Russian disinformation have developed a very simple and extremely quick technique to inject strategically manufactured propagandistic claims into the Hungarian public: they present claims of questionable credibility by Russian propagandists as a proven fact.
A short broadcast on Hír TV illustrates well the method. In the TV segment, the commentator claimed that the West wants to replace Zelensky as head of Ukraine. “It seems that Volodymyr Zelensky’s prestige on the international stage is deteriorating, and it is therefore increasingly likely that the West will soon replace the current Ukrainian leader” – narrates the commentator. The statement that the Fidesz-affiliated channel frames as a proven fact originate from Illia Kyva, a former Ukrainian MP whom the Hír TV refers to as “a former Ukrainian MP accused of treason”.
The reason why Kyva was charged with treason by the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office is not mentioned in the news report. Yet the charges were precisely that of involvement in Russian war propaganda. Nor does the news report reveal that Kyva, who was stripped of his mandate after the outbreak of the war and sentenced to up to 15 years’ imprisonment in absentia, is currently in Russia and his statements are regularly quoted by Russian state news services.
The propagandist quoted by Hír TV portrays the Ukrainian president as a puppet of the West. It is in line with Russian disinformation narratives that tend to portray the Ukrainian president in this way.
Disinformation sites often use the method of framing not credible allegations as fact in connection with war events. The simplest form of the technique is simply not to indicate in the title who made the allegation.
An ethical newspaper will only omit the source of an allegation in the headline if it can be proven. This practice is exploited by Russian disinformation sites when they “forget” to indicate the source of an allegation by Russian state actors, creating the illusion that it is not a claim but a proven fact.
There are numerous examples of statements by senior officials being used by Moscow as a tool for strategic disinformation. András Rácz, security expert states outright in a podcast made by Lakmusz that an integral part of Russian disinformation is the practice of “occasionally a senior politician lying into the camera.”
In recent times, leading Russian politicians have spread lies about US-run bio labs in Ukraine, the Western weapons sent to Ukraine appearing on the black market, and Ukraine’s genocide in the Donbass. Framing of the allegations by Russian state actors as proven facts is therefore clearly an amplification of Russian propaganda claims.
Concerning the HIMARS missile systems, whose destruction by Russia has not yet been proven by any credible independent source, the fake news sites have published content with the following titles:
- Magyar Nemzet: Six Himars rocket systems were destroyed by the Russians
- Orosz Hírek: Two American HIMARS missile launchers were destroyed in Donbass
- Vadhajtások: The weak Russians destroyed two HIMARS and 53 Ukrainian soldiers in Kharkiv
- Liner: The Russians took two American HIMARS missile systems to pieces in Ukraine (video)
- Nemzeti Internetfigyelő: More M777 howitzers and HIMARS systems were destroyed by the Russian Federation
In many cases, the body of the text somewhat clarifies the picture, as it usually states that the claim comes from the Russian Ministry of Defence, but the headline gives the illusion of “proven fact”, which the articles are in no hurry to dispel by presenting the other side’s position.
Masters of tailoring
Disinformation sites will often take an article, change the title to a statement that is completely different from the original message, and then simply cut out from the body of the article any statements that are blatantly contradictory to the new title.
A quite elaborate application of the method can be seen in an article by hirado.hu published in July. The “analysis” written by public television staff (the author is not indicated) reports that weapons sent to Ukraine by Western countries have started to appear on the dark web and could even fall into the hands of criminal groups.
This statement was made at a time when the effectiveness of HIMARS systems was becoming increasingly apparent. the Russian top management started to spread this accusation at the same time. Before the “analysis” appeared the Russian top management stated this accusation several times. This shows that the dissemination of the message expressed in the “analysis” on hirado.hu was of paramount importance to the Kremlin.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Soygu, for example, announced just one day before the publication of the hirado.hu “analysis” that some of the weapons sent to Ukraine had already landed in the Middle East.
Apart from the introduction, there are hardly any examples of independent wording in the text. The first half of the ‘analysis’ is a mixed version of an article published on CNN. In the CNN alalysis, an expert points out that supporting Ukraine with weapons carries the risk that, once the war is over, US weapons will fall into the wrong hands. However hirado.hu systematically cuts out passages that would make it clear that the claims were made in the future tense, thus creating the impression that some of the Western weapons have already fallen into unauthorised hands.
The next part of hirado.hu’s “analysis” quotes Europol and Interpol leaders. Although their statements refer strictly to the period after the end of the war, the “analysis” repeatedly tries to portray the statements as if it was made about the present.
Under the subheading “just a few clicks”, hirado.hu then lists the foreign weapons allegedly originating from Ukraine that have been found on the black market. The original source of the text on the dark web explains clearly and at length why the advertisements found on the black market cannot be treated as credible information, but hirado.hu quotes virtually nothing from it.
Through a mash-up of various articles and quotes, the anonymous author of hirado.hu has been able to exploit the credibility and recognition of CNN and international organisation leaders, while attributing to them claims that they never made.
Claims that were never made
On the morning of October 19, an article containing an appalling lie appeared in a pro-government news site, called Mandiner. The article claimed that a recently published UN report on war crimes during the Russian-Ukrainian war said that while the crimes committed by the Ukrainians were “supported by real evidence, such as videos” (Mandiner pretended to quote from the report), the report mostly relied on eyewitness accounts when listing the Russian ones.
The statement attributed to the UN report by the Mandiner does not cover the content of the original text at virtually any point.
- Not once does the UN document make any reference to any difference between the way Russian and Ukrainian war crimes were investigated.
- The statement marked as a verbatim quote (“supported by real evidence, such as videos”) was not made in the UN document referred to.
- Nor is there any mention in the report of the claim that the Commission of Inquiry relied mostly on eyewitness accounts to map Russian war crimes. On the contrary, the Commission of Inquiry states that, in addition to interviewing a total of 191 people, it “inspected sites of destruction, graves, places of detention and torture, as well as weapon remnants, and consulted a large number of documents and reports.”
Most parts of the text originates from a disinformation site called “Russian News” (the site is one of the core Russian disinformation spreaders in Hungary and frequently publishes translations from the banned Russian media outlets). It is a mystery why the pro-government portal relies on the findings of the spectacularly pro-Russian pseudo-news factory and does not quote directly from the UN report, which is easily accessible on the internet.
The Mandiner’s article focuses almost exclusively on the Ukrainian war crimes reported by the UN. It is highly misleading. The UN report lists 9 pages of war crimes that it has been able to prove based on the accounts of victims and witnesses and on other evidence – the war crimes committed by the Ukrainians account for only two paragraphs.
Nearly 10% of the articles we examined contained similar elements. Pro-Kremlin disinformation sites distorted reports on Ukrainian war events, Trump’s speeches and the content of prominent foreign newspapers. Mandiner, for example, on one occasion made a completely out-of-the-blue claim that the French newspaper Les Echos said that “Hungary is getting closer to Russia, while Europe is freezing”. No such statement was made by the French paper that wrote about Orban’s rapprochement with Russia.
Zelensky rages, demands, and panics
Russian disinformation content uses specific emotive worlds to present news or speeches in a much more dramatic, dark, desperate or frivolous and pathetic light than it would be justified.
For example, in the case of a video produced by the Russian energy giant Gazprom, there is no justifiable reason for the media outlet that published the video to state that Europe is the “laughing stock” of the world. It is also not clear why the news site called Origo described Zelensky’s “demand” (the Hungarian therm is more pejorative) a resolution adopted by the Ukrainian Parliament asking EU Member States to support Ukraine’s EU candidate status.
The method operates in the shadow of the often click-bate, exaggerated practices of the media. However, the systematic use of exaggerated expressions, which is strongly oriented towards a worldview that is dear to Moscow, indicates a conscious practice. The four most frequently used expressions in the articles we have examined are: panic, laugh, demand and rage.
Other often-used buzzwords are “clown” and “Nazi”. These terms, which mostly serve to describe the Ukrainian leadership, are regularly used by the Russian top leadership in their speeches. The clown symbol is frequently used in Facebook or Telegram posts and serves to discredit the statements of top European officials.
How to spot disinformation?
Since Russian disinformation contents are mostly made from already published stories, they can easily be spotted and disproved with a click or two. These are the most easy and useful methods to spot disinformation:
- Are they tagging the source? An ethical news site will always allow the reader to independently verify its claims. Get suspicious if you don’t see links.
- Always click on the link. Does the linked text contain what the article claims? Use Google Translate or any other easily accessible app to translate the content.
- Is there an internal contradiction in the text? Always apply critical thinking when reading an article. Does the text support the claim in the title? Is there any other claim in the text that is not supported by the rest of the passage?
- Is the text that you read copied from another site? If a news story is not working from its own text, it is very easy to identify disinformation by comparing the original content with the material published on the news site. The easiest way to check whether the material has appeared on any other Hungarian news site is to select a sentence and search for it in Google, putting it in quotation marks. Google will then only bring up the pages where the sentence appeared in exactly the same form. If you want to check if the material is a translation of foreign language content, you should search for keywords (names, locations) that will only bring up material with very similar content. If you have the original article, compare the two texts carefully. Does the title say the same thing? Have parts been cut or pasted? If so, try to identify what could be the intention behind it. In what way do the changes affect the content of the text?
- Are they quoting a credible source? If you come across strange, biased claims, it is worth doing a little research on the person from whom the claim comes. Does the article you read give you adequate information about him/her? What could be the intention behind withholding information that you think is important?
Written and translated by Boglárka Rédl
Cover graphic: Átlátszó montage