When A Foreign Government Spreads Anti-Immigrant Propaganda On Facebook

The very disturbing fact that the Orbán government is paying to spread an anti-immigrant video advert in Italy and Europe went almost unnoticed

At a first glance, it looks like a random online advertising. Yet, paying more attention to the source, something may appear really weird. Indeed, since early December, an alarmist anti-migration video produced by the mysterious Magyarország kormánya appeared on our Facebook feeds. However, the Hungarian government — yes, it’s them — has targeted not everybody as a potential xenophobe. As the Espresso revealed, only Italians over 28 are likely to have seen this video on their smartphones, being the target of this strange sponsored advert.

The 34-seconds video openly attacks migrants in English, making loud noises about an invasion with manipulated statements. This strategy is not new to the Hungarian leader. Nevertheless, what is appalling is its international breadth. The European elections are approaching and President Orbán needs to find new allies in his fight against migrants. So, the aim is clear: the migration issue must be portrayed as a threat not only for Hungarians, but for the whole of Europe. And he is playing this dirty game for two main reasons.

Orbán and his electoral strategy

First, he feels on his shoulders the weight of the recent sanctions approved by the EU against his country. Despite it seems unlikely they will become entirely effective, last September MEPs voted in favor of the application of the sanctions as specified in Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty. This provision introduces the possibility of suspending certain rights to a Member State in the event of non-compliance with the founding values of the European Union. If President Orbán was able to pitch migration as a common European threat, a smaller number of countries would vote for the actual activation of those sanctions.

Second, President Orbán cannot overly play the blame game with Brussels, as many other populist leaders do. In fact, Hungary heavily relies on European funds and Orbán cannot afford to see his citizens completely losing faith in the European institutions. He is well aware of the economic benefits deriving from the process of the European integration, yet, he also needs popular support to keep going all the way. On the other hand, it is extremely hard to support the Union after last September’s vote. Many citizens and voters felt abandoned by the EU and Orbán needs to legitimize his position in face of this situation. Therefore, his only chance would be to achieve a parliamentary majority composed of the main European populist and xenophobic parties opposing migration.

A disturbing foreign interference

In the short clip released via Facebook, a narrative voice talking on a catastrophic background music explains that, since 2015, 1.8 million immigrants have entered Europe and “many more millions would like to come”. Then, a series of photos of various crimes appears with the following comment: “Hundreds of people have lost their lives in vile attacks since the beginning of the migration crisis”. The video overtly depicts migrants as criminals because of the cultural differences portrayed in opposing terms to those of a civilized and pacific society. Thus, the message it wants to spread is “those who are fleeing war and poverty are bringing war and poverty”.

Orban campaign
A fragment of the video

Many viewers were probably shocked when they saw this video, however, only Espresso fully reported this news and no other Italian journal paid too much attention to this event. What is more worrying is the fact that the Hungarian government, by sponsoring the video for random Italian and European citizens through its Facebook page, sees them as the perfect audience for its xenophobic propaganda.

Some recent cases have shown to what extent social networks can play important and influential roles in determining election outcomes, from Brexit to the 2016 American presidential ballot. We should learn from the past and never forget how powerful this kind of instruments can be. The number of people potentially reachable through Facebook is much broader than those who may see a billboard. Hence, this meddling might turn the next European elections into something extremely warring.