Hungarian government paid for regional online advertisement push in support of political allies

Hungarian government paid for regional online advertisement push in support of political allies
Viktor Orban's regime regularly uses state funding for its own political propaganda at home. / bne IntelliNews
By Albin Sybera March 5, 2024

Hungary's radical rightwing government has been spending heavily on supporting political allies in elections across Europe. In the second half of 2023, Viktor Orban's government ran a regional online campaign against the dangers of illegal migration featuring 8.4mn-9.7mn advertisements.

Seven EU countries were targeted, with Slovakia and Poland bearing the greatest share of the ads at around the time of the national elections in the two countries. Germany and Italy were also targeted during their local elections.

Ironically Hungary's semi-authoritarian government has been harassing opposition parties for allegedly receiving campaign contributions from abroad.

“In terms of views relative to population, the campaign was most intense in Slovakia, where between 1.6mn and 1.8mn video ads online could theoretically have reached between 29-33% of the population,” an analysis by Hungarian independent outlet Direkt36 highlighted.

Slovakia held a snap election on September 30, which was won by the populist leftist Smer party of Robert Fico, who quickly formed a coalition with centre-right Hlas and far-right SNS, and proceeded with swift staff replacement at public institutions and  sweeping legislative changes in the country’s judiciary and criminal code.  

Fico’s Smer ran an aggressive campaign adopting pro-Kremlin talking points on the war in Ukraine and also capitalised on anti-refugee rhetoric heightened by the increased flow of refugees fleeing conflict zones in the Middle East through Hungary and into Slovakia.

Although Fico’s cabinet took a tough stance on refugees crossing the Hungarian-Slovak border, it later relaxed most of its security measures. Fico has since then pursued an alliance with Hungary's strongman Viktor Orban and joined his outlier position on the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine, demanding peace talks with Russia and criticising the EU and the West for allegedly stoking up the war.  

The Direkt36 analysis highlights that Hungary’s advertisement campaign featured the headline “Hungary protects the EU from illegal migration” and footage showing “the border fence being dismantled and the authorities protecting it being attacked from the other side of the fence”.

The bulk of the Hungarian government’s advertisement campaign ran between September 28 and October 11 and from October 10 to 24. The Polish national elections were held on October 15. Ads were run as non-political ads, which was possible because the government was not advertising a political party in Hungary or running it during domestic election campaigns, Direkt 36 noted.

“There is no public information on the target audience or on the amount spent on advertising”, Direkt 36’s analysis reads, as Google, owner of the YouTube online video streaming platforms releases only limited data on advertisements.

The precise number of times the Hungarian government ads appeared is also not publicly available. “Google is remarkably lenient in its classification of what constitutes political advertising,” an expert in online political advertising campaigns was quoted as saying by Direkt 36.

“The combined number of impression of the two ads [streamed during and after the campaign blackout in Slovakia] is roughly one third of the population of Slovakia,” Direkt 36 wrote.  

In Poland, Hungarian government advertisements between the end of September and mid-October  “made a total of between 1.5mn and 2 […]mn impressions […], a number that is the equivalent of 4% or 5% of the Polish population”.