Introducing: the secret weapon of online smear campaigns
March 31. 2022. – 11:43 AM
Enormous amounts of money are spent in politics on online ads. In Hungary, on Facebook alone, billions of forints have been spent on pushing the various parties’ messages. There are various ways to do this. In this article, we are introducing one which has remained hidden up until now. We have found a total of 45 Facebook pages, specifically created for smear campaigns against opposition candidates. Most of them are followed by negligibly few people which makes the large amounts of money spent on attacking their targets hard to justify. Translation by Dominic Spadacene.
“A vote for Jámbor is a vote for Gyurcsány!!!” declares a post on what is officially labelled the Facebook page of an “actor” going by the name of “Nem is Jámbor” (literally, “Not even Jámbor”; or, as a pun, “Not even Pious”). The page’s profile and cover photos contain the combined image of the ex-socialist prime minister of Hungary Ferenc Gyurcsány and András Jámbor, the opposition’s parliamentary candidate for Budapest’s 8th and 9th districts.
For those who are still unsure about the page’s purpose, its description removes any doubt:
“The purpose of the page is to introduce András Jámbor, left-wing parliamentary candidate for Józsefváros and Ferencváros and a devout communist, who is plotting to lay Józsefváros and Ferencváros at Gyurcsány’s feet.”
The Facebook page was created only on February 19, i.e. during the official campaign period for the April 3 election. In a single month, it has only posted a total of seven times, gained less than 100 followers, and elicited a mere 592 interactions – comments, shares, likes – from Facebook users. However, by March 20 it had spent close to 900,000 forints [about 2,400 euros] on paid advertising, which suggests that it is not really fishing for likes, but rather trying to get its posts out to as many people as possible. And every single one of these posts is aimed at discouraging people from voting for Jámbor.
As far as who runs the page and what the source of the money is that was spent on the Facebook ads on it, BIRN/Telex has been unable to find out officially. All that can be gleaned from Facebook’s public database is the number of Hungarian users who have administrative privileges to the page (there are three of them) and a phone number, an email address and a website through which they can be reached – supposedly.
This reporter’s attempts to contact the administrators of the “Nem is Jámbor” page based on the information provided – by phone, text or email – were all in vain. I wasn’t able to get through to anyone.
Although this particular Facebook page, which concentrates on discrediting Jámbor, stands out in many ways and is probably the most striking example of the phenomenon of such pages campaigning against opposition candidates, it is far from being the only one. By monitoring primarily political Facebook ads, BIRN/Telex has identified a total of 45 pages campaigning along similar lines during the run-up to the election.
Figure: A map of Hungary’s parliamentary constituencies that are affected by this phenomenon
Together, these pages cover 42 different parliamentary constituencies, i.e. 37 per cent of the country’s 106 constituencies. What these pages all have in common is that they invariably push pro-Fidesz narratives and that, despite a public database of Facebook ads that is designed to ensure transparency, it is impossible to know who exactly is behind them, who is maintaining them and – crucially – who is funding them.
This is adding to further worries about the free and fair nature of the April 3 election, which will pit Viktor Oban’s Fidesz against the joint six-party opposition, called United for Hungary, in what is expected to be the closest election since 2010. Fears about the conduct of the 2022 election after 12 years of Fidesz rule have already led to OSCE election monitors being dispatched to Hungary – the first time Europe’s main security and rights watchdog will have conducted such extensive oversight of an election within an EU member state.
At the last Hungarian parliamentary election in 2018, the OSCE found that, “intimidating and xenophobic rhetoric, media bias and opaque campaign financing constricted the space for genuine political debate, hindering voters’ ability to make a fully-informed choice”.
Since then, little has improved. In the last four years, the state media has almost exclusively invited pro-government politicians to appear on its programs, while press freedom in Hungary has gone down 19 places according to Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index.
What gives them away?
Taking the page “Nem is Jámbor” as an example, one might assume it is easy to spot similar pages, but that is not actually the case. Not all of these pages, for example, have been newly created. The oldest, “Otthonom Pécs” (literally, “Pécs is my home”), dates back to 2009, while most were created in 2017-18.
Furthermore, the pages’ aggregate of shared content, descriptions and titles are not always directed against a single figure of the opposition.
There are indeed a few pages that target an opposition parliamentary candidate in their very title. For example, one honed in on Bernadett Szél under the name “Ellenszél” (a pun based on the candidate’s name meaning “headwind”); another was called “Hiller István igazi arca” (literally, “The real face of István Hiller”). However, this tactic was uncommon among most of the pages we encountered.
More often, the page name refers to the area or perhaps a local landmark, such as “Vasi Srácok”, (“The Guys from Vas”), “Kaposvári Fricska” (“The Kaposvár Flick”), “A Tűztorony hangja” (“The Voice of the Fire Tower”, named after a landmark in Sopron), or “Tétény vezér” (referring to one of the Seven Chieftains of the Magyars and the 22nd district of Budapest).
Often, the name isn’t even directly related to any particular constituency, like “Csak Szólok” (literally, “I’m just saying”) or “A szomszédja már tudja – Ön is tudja meg” (literally, “Your neighbour already knows – You should know too”).
There are pages that are more concerned with generally bashing the opposition in their posts and often reshare content created by pro-government-influencers aligned with the pro-government organisations Megafon Center or Aktuális Media, but there are also examples where, on the face of it, everything posted appears to simply be local pro-Fidesz news.
However, what ties the less obvious examples of attack pages to our first blatant example is that most, if not all the Facebook ads on these pages over the last few months strive to discredit the opposition candidate of a particular constituency.
Thus, the already well-documented campaign tactics on Facebook using a jumble of pro-Fidesz narrative and local attacks is now combining with another, lesser-known phenomenon of targeting individual candidates on Facebook pages, especially using paid ads.
It is important to note that while opposition-supporting groups also advertised heavily during the election campaign period, spending an average of half a million forints a month on their Facebook pages targeting the provinces, neither the pages themselves nor their ads were aimed directly at discrediting the government candidate of the area.
What’s the point?
Politicians and pundits have been saying for years that the battleground of the 2022 election campaign will be Facebook.
The number of Facebook users in Hungary totalled 7.29 million as of February 2022, making Facebook the most widely used social media platform in the country. Alarmed by the power of Big Tech, government media allies attempted to create an alternative platform to deliver their messaging, but Hundub, the self-developed, conservative “safe space” that was supposed to replace the so-called censoring Facebook, went out of business after just six months of operation and its owner was subject to enforcement proceedings by the tax authorities.
As research shows, several factors persuaded Fidesz’s communication advisors in 2021 to turn back to Hungary's most popular social media platform to implement a centralisation strategy similar to the one the party carried out in the traditional news media segment upon coming to power in 2010.
Although campaign spending in Hungary is capped by law, in practice this has no impact on platforms that are not officially linked to any parties or politicians. Consequently, the political sphere has almost completely outsourced online campaigning to a grey area, regardless of which side we are talking about. But if larger, well-established websites are already pumping out party political propaganda, what is the point of producing pro-Fidesz content specifically for smaller groups of followers, mostly ranging from a few hundred to several thousand?
If the focus of these projects was to build up a following, it could be argued that it is easier to engage locals directly rather than, say, for a broader propaganda page to target a nationwide audience. Some of the pages that are active in the smear campaigns also seem to be trying to exploit or build a kind of local identity in a way that is resolutely directed against the opposition alliance United for Hungary. However, this turned out to be rare among the pages that we came across, just as it is rare for defamatory pages to focus explicitly on addressing local issues. If the usual tactics of alarmism about the danger of the left or the drumming of pro-Fidesz messages were involved, they were simply adapted to the character, name or work of the opposition politician in question.
However, experts say there is a clear advantage in putting a local focus on paid advertising on these Facebook pages. Since the crosshairs of Facebook ads can be skilfully adjusted based on the geographic location of users, even with small amounts of money these pages can effectively engage potential – and, thus, impressionable – voters of particular opposition politicians.
How much was spent in the last month?
The total spending of around 11 million forints (almost 30,000 euros) on these defamatory sites between February 17 and March 18 pales in comparison to the 1.2 billion forints (more than 3.2 million euros) that was spent to win over Hungarian voters on Facebook during the first month of the official campaign period. But considering how much easier it is to target a particular constituency with campaign messages, it is certainly surprising that, of the pages identified by BIRN/Telex as campaigning against an opposition candidate, 26 had a monthly expenditure of over 100,000 forints (more than 250 euros) and seven had a monthly expenditure of over 500,000 forints (more than 1,300 euros). These amounts would be sufficient for advertising targeted at the entire population of Hungary, not just at single constituency areas. During this period the page “V-Akták” spent the most on Facebook at 1.6 million forints (almost 4,300 euros), but “Öreg Huszár” also spent over 1 million forints (almost 2,700 euros).
The underrepresentation of pages that do not spend on paid advertising on our list does not necessarily imply there are few such pages campaigning against an opposition candidate without advertising. Rather, the ones included are just those we happened to stumble across.
Yuri L. Gullible
So, if there is a definite benefit to putting a local focus on paid advertising on these Facebook pages and the cost of running the pages is remarkably low, then the next question is, who is behind all this?
Since Facebook, like other tech giants, has come under fire in the past for providing a platform for disinformation and political manipulation, in the spring of 2019 the US tech giant decided to make public who is spending on political and public interest ads, how much they are spending, and what kind of exposure they are getting in return.
Anyone can browse this data on Facebook’s Ad Library page, but as we saw in case of the page named “Nem is Jámbor”, this does not necessarily result in full transparency.
Although some of the information provided to register an ad account is generally made public – phone number, email address, website and, in some cases, even physical address – if it isn’t actually associated with any person or group, then critics say it is about as useful as Facebook blindly accepting – and proudly declaring – that the contributor of a given political ad was “Átvert Elek” (a pun resembling a Hungarian name that translates as “I fooled you”).
This is not a gross exaggeration. The ads on the page campaigning against opposition candidate Gergely Arató, which goes by the name X.ᴛʀᴀ, were paid for by “Team Gyurcsány” – the name of the former premier who is a party leader in the opposition alliance – and the contact information contains the address “email@example.com”.
Of the 45 pages identified as being defamatory in nature, 35 of them included telephone contact information. After going through the entire list, calling each number, it turned out that:
- two of the pages provided the numbers of public payphones: “Kaposvár Fricska” was registered to the number of a payphone in Csombárd, while “Kommegmondó” had the number of a payphone at a gas station in Komárom;
- eight of the numbers were no longer in use or at least didn’t ring when called, 12 of them were turned off, and of the 13 numbers that did ring through, four of them never picked up;
- of the nine phone numbers that were active, two of them were owned by individuals who claimed to have no knowledge of the Facebook pages and no idea how anyone could have verified this contact information (either by call or text) when registering a Facebook ad account for a given page;
- in total, BIRN/Telex was only able to find four phone numbers that were at least able to confirm their existence and that the contact information was indeed associated with the given page.
Dead-end phone numbers
Thus, only seven of the 45 defamatory pages listed a phone number through which this reporter managed to speak to someone who might be associated with the Facebook page in question. Upon learning the nature of our inquiries, five of them hung up almost immediately and proceeded to ignore all subsequent calls and texts:
- The number listed for the page “BalonKabat” was answered by a man who did not introduce himself. He claimed not to be affiliated with the page, but, somewhat suspiciously, hung up right after being told that, according to Facebook, someone had officially verified his number at some point.
- Our call to the number for the page “Fehérvár Hangja” was also answered by a man who introduced himself, but as soon as he heard mention of the Facebook page he hung up even before this reporter was able to finish the question. The number then became unavailable.
- We also managed to reach Gergő Bozóky – a familiar figure who back in 2020 ran for representative in a special election for the local government of Balatonszepezd. His campaign was notable for posters in Fidesz’s orange colour, the support of pro-government figures, and his team not being considered locals. Despite having given an interview to this reporter two years ago, this time he hung up and made the number unavailable when he realised the call was related to the Facebook page “BALfake – Soha többé Baloldal” (literally, “FAKEleft – Never Again Left”, or as a pun, “Twit – Never Again Left”).
- Our call to the number listed for “Palotai Poloska” was picked up by a woman who was not surprised to hear the purpose of our inquiry. She went so far as to confirm that the number was correct, but didn’t want to answer any questions. When asked whether it would be possible to talk to any of the other six administrators of the page, she hung up.
- Calling the number associated with the “Csak Szólok” page, a man answered who knew which page was being referred to. He said he was working at the moment and promised to call back later. He then hung up quickly. Despite contacting him again via text and email, he never replied.
Perhaps the two cases where we made the most progress were those that led to local radio personalities. We managed to get in contact with someone via the number provided under the page that was campaigning against Sopron city’s Koloman Brenner, “Tűztorony Hangja”. The man introduced himself and gave me the phone number of a local public figure with the same name as a presenter on Radio 1. The man promised this person would be able to answer any questions about the page. From there, the story continued along the same lines as those mentioned above: the new contact didn’t pick up and the old one became unavailable.
The phone number for “Vasi Srácok” got us through to a presenter for Hit Radio, who didn’t understand what we were talking about at first. Later, he called back and related a story about how, as a private contractor, he had helped someone launch a website and navigate Facebook’s advertising platform. As to who that individual was, however, the man wouldn’t say for reasons of client confidentiality. He claimed the page’s contact number was set to his private number in early February and never updated. He continued by explaining that he “didn’t deal with content or with ad launches” and his clients “didn’t provide much in the way of contact information anyway – perhaps an email address.” He asked me what the issue was that involved the Facebook page – a page he himself happens to personally consider “funny and humorous”. He promised that if he managed to get in touch with his client, he would pass along our contact details. This also ended up being a dead end.
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Doing Fidesz’s bidding
There are several reasons to surmise it is not the actual opposition politicians that the defamatory pages are intended to discredit, but rather the six-party opposition coalition, United for Hungary, as a whole. In other words, these pages are not motivated by personal dislike of the candidate and are clearly designed rather to work in Fidesz’s favour.
The most notable example of this is the page “Voksoló”, which was originally gunning for Mihály Gér. After he withdrew, it switched immediately to targeting the new opposition candidate, Rebeka Szabó.
Then there is the page “Öreg Huszár”, which simultaneously speaks out against Márta V. Naszályi, the opposition mayor of Budapest’s 1st district, and Antal Csárdi, the opposition parliamentary candidate. And the page “Cívis Polgár”, which divides its ire between the opposition candidates of two constituencies in Debrecen.
Two outstanding questions remain: who has the time, money and energy to maintain a few unpopular pages that campaign against the opposition by focusing on specific constituencies? And is there any connection between the various pages that follow a similar logic?
What is certain is that, although these pages are clearly designed to bolster Fidesz’s election campaign, they are not officially a part of Fidesz and have no clear link to the governing party. Yet at the same time, it is also apparent that:
- Several defamatory pages are deeply integrated into the propaganda machine orbiting the government by resharing the content (and sometimes even repurposing it against local opposition candidates) of Megafon Centre’s pro-government influencer army (Megafon is an outfit that spends a lot on Facebook for ads of the pro-government influencers that it promotes. It remains unclear where the financing originates, though Megafon has previously denied having received public money.)
- We revealed a link between the contact information of two apparently different pages: the phone number for “Nem is Jámbor” (mentioned in the introduction) is identical to the one for “Tétény Vezér”, a page launched in 2017, which is currently campaigning against Endre Tóth (candidate of the opposition in the 22nd district of Budapest).
- We also found an example of a page currently being used as a defamatory platform that was originally created in the name of a Fidesz politician: “Salgótarjáni Aktuális”, which is currently targeting the opposition candidate Beatrix Godó, existed in 2015 under the name “Tibor Simon for Mayor”, a Fidesz candidate.
With respect to the page “Salgótarjáni Aktuális”, BIRN/Telex managed to contact Tibor Simon, who has since retired from party politics and now works as a government official. He informed BIRN/Telex that the page’s predecessor was created by his campaign staff when he was running in the special mayoral election for Salgótarján in 2015. As far as he knew, the page was deleted following the election, and he has had nothing to do with it since February 2016. According to Facebook’s public data, the page’s name was changed to “Polgári Salgótarjánért” (literally, “For a Civil Salgótarján”) in March 2016 and then to its current name in February 2021.
Ultimately, perhaps the most puzzling outstanding question centres on what the people and groups who run and fund these pages are so worried about. Why do they make themselves so inaccessible to the public? Why do they hide behind bogus Facebook pages, paid ad managers and untraceable phone numbers that become inactive or belong to public payphones?
Data was collected from Facebook’s public advertising database, the Facebook Ad Library. We reached out to all Facebook pages in this article that had placed paid ads. In the event the pages publicly displayed an active phone number, we contacted them both by calling and text. We also sent them our questions via email if the pages included such an address. For pages that only had the name of an individual as the advertiser and no contact details, we reached out to them via message on Facebook. However, at the time of writing this article, we had yet to receive any response to our written inquiries.
This article is part of a cooperation between Telex and Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, and was made possible by Reporting Democracy Project’s “Digital Rights” scholarship programme.