Mérték Media Ombudsman: How did the online media present Soros’ response to the government’s claims about the “Soros Plan”?

The government held a so-called national consultation to find out what the Hungarian public thinks about the “Soros Plan.” In a statement released on 20 November 2017, George Soros denied the claims in the government’s consultation questionnaire. The sixth analysis of the Mérték Media Ombudsman reviewed the coverage of this issue by nine Hungarian online media outlets.

With the support of the Google Digital News, Mérték Media Monitor strives to promote the emergence of an online media environment that fosters critical thinking and a desire for objectivity on the part of both media consumers and journalists. One aspect of this project is the creation of a media ombudsman-type platform that publishes critical analyses on the online media’s coverage of certain events, on the reports and editorial contents concerning the given event. Each of the individual instalments in the series will take a detailed look at the way in which the online media present a current issue. The goal is not to evaluate the performance of a particular media outlet or journalist, but to provide the most comprehensive analysis possible of issues that were widely covered in the media.

The government held a so-called national consultation to find out what the Hungarian public thinks about the “Soros Plan.” The consultation sheet contained six claims, each of which George Soros rebutted in a statement released on 20 November 2017.

The following analysis, written by the journalist Eszter Katus, covers the period between 20 November 2014 and 24 November, and it is based on the review of articles published on 24.hu, 444.hu, 888.hu, alfahir.hu, hvg.hu, index.hu, mno.hu, origo.hu and zoom.hu.

A total of 65 articles were published on the issue on the aforementioned nine websites during the period investigated. The most often used expressions in the articles of the media outlets that are critical of the government were: “Orbán’s mafia state”, the “government is lying”, “hate-mongering”, “misrepresentation”, “fear”, “misleading”, “deliberately misconstruing”, “conspiracy theory” and “counter campaign”.  The most often used expressions in the pro-government media were: “Soros is wailing”, “lying”, “spreading falsehoods”, “frontal attack”, “migrant”, “migrant coddling”, “lameness” and “clown company”.

Articles on both sides claim that someone is lying, misleading, misconstruing or denying/rebutting. While for the news sites that are critical of the government (as well as for Soros), it’s the government, the pro-government media perceive that Soros and the opposition are engaged in such activities. There is no middle ground, debate or consensus between the two sides.

The positions of Fidesz and the government were aired far more prominently in the online media than those of George Soros. It was not only the pro-government media that focused on them, but the critical news sites also reported Fidesz’s claims that Soros is lying and controlling Brussels, that he attacks Hungary, even while the pro-government portal 888 and Origo did not devote any space to Soros’ opinion concerning these claims. In the 19 articles they published on the subject, there were only a few sentences about Soros’ statement (without a link), which they immediately sought to rebut in extensive articles on the subject. The media that are critical of the government devoted some 20-47% of their coverage to presenting the government’s viewpoint, while on 888 this ratio was 70%.

The critical media were also in a difficult position because while the pro-government media had a sheer inexhaustible reservoir of potential speakers it could ask to comment (anyone in Fidesz and the government was glad to talk to them about this topic), the other side was far more limited in this respect. Although George Soros published a statement and sent a video message, he was not available for an interview. The president of the Open Society Foundations was more or less the only competent person in this context, and his statements to a newspaper on the issue were immediately reported by all independent media, they did not all interview him separately. The critical portals reported about Fidesz’s position based on MTI’s materials, pro-government and opposition newspapers never referenced reporting by the respective other side. The only element connecting their reporting was MTI. On account of the nature of the topic, the media could not consult experts, either. Moreover, even though in previously analysed cases they had frequently been able to rely on social media, in this case that also was not an option. The portal 888 was the only one that availed itself of this possibility, citing several commenters who posted criticisms of Soros on Twitter. The aforementioned media outlet was also the only one that used memes mocking Soros to illustrate its articles. Incidentally, an interesting titbit was that both the pro-government and the critical press used an image from the film adaptation of Orwell’s 1984 as illustration, in which Big Brother is watching on a giant screen. But while the critical media used it to illustrate a report about an article in the German daily Die Welt about the government (which argued that the government’s imaginary enemy-creation reminds them of the propaganda methods in the 1930s), the former replaced Big Brother in the picture with a photo of Soros.

Referring to Soros’ statement as a lie and casting his planned counter-campaign as an “attack on Hungary” was characteristic of all pro-government media. Their entire communication was based on this narrative, and every article stressed this theme (four of the seven articles published on Origo during this period include the terms attack/frontal attack in the headline), attempting to drive the point home and to amplify it. Soros (with the help of Brussels) is attacking us, they suggested, he wants to destroy us, but the government will protect the Hungarian people and the country.

Furthermore, already on 22 November Origo laid the groundwork for a new theme claiming that Soros wants to interfere with the elections by using his NGOs. This topos came up increasingly in the articles of the pro-government media, and a week or two later it culminated in the decision by two Fidesz-led municipal governments to “ban” (in a public resolution, because legally they had no grounds to do so officially) from their cities the local civil organisations that had been asked to distribute aid provided by Soros.

It is probably no exaggeration to say that the government and Fidesz successfully dominated the coverage of the entire Hungarian online press on this issue. Zoom and Alfahír were the only outlets that to some extent managed to resist this trend. Apart from presenting George Soros’s six-point rebuttal, all news sites focused on Fidesz’s views on the issue, though they differed in terms of their respective assessments. As a result, the government’s position was extensively covered for the readers of both, pro-government and critical media, even as the former did not encounter Soros’ opinion on the subject if they only followed the pro-government media. It seems very likely that Alfahír will be proven right and that until the election Soros’ – never launched – counter campaign, his alleged “attack on Hungary,” will be the dominant theme in public discourse, supplanting a discussion of substantial issues. After all, though they may do so unwittingly, ultimately the critical media also assist such a development.

The full analysis is available on Mérték’s website (in Hungarian).