Budapest, Hungary – The Visegrád 24 Twitter account has quickly grown in recognition, however their motivation and funding are removed from clear. While capitalising on Western assist for Ukraine, the homeowners are constructing a model to “Make Europe Great Again”, exporting a extra profitable Polish mannequin initially examined by Viktor Orbán.
The Hungarian makes an attempt failed, however the plan stayed alive in Poland: in simply two years, Visegrád 24 has grown into one of many largest Central Eastern European data operations in English – regardless of its whole anonymity, opaque funding construction, having no web site, lack of unique content material and with doubtful hyperlinks to the Polish authorities.
Visegrád 24 beneficial properties notoriety
From a Hungarian perspective, it’s now not shocking to discover a information web site has ties to the federal government, not to mention one which spreads intolerant narratives with taxpayers’ cash, like within the case of state media. However, this observe has not been extensively adopted by Viktor Orbán’s worldwide allies – and that is precisely why, from a democratic standpoint, the Polish makes an attempt to take action at a global stage appear daunting at a time when there may be an ongoing battle within the area.
On October 31, 2022, the Polish chancellery allotted 1.4 million PLN (roughly 300 thousand EUR) from the funds reserve for a leisure and well being NGO referred to as Action-Life Foundation to implement a public job titled Visegrád 24, a choice signed off by Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki with out additional clarification.
The identify may ring a bell, as for the previous two years, social media profiles underneath the identical identify have gathered lots of of hundreds of followers by aggregating information from the Central Eastern European area, these days centered totally on the battle in Ukraine.
However, a sports activities NGO receiving state funds for a information web site is barely one of many many doubtful chapters in Visegrád 24’s story.
The web page claims to mixture and curate information, politics, present affairs, historical past and tradition from Central and Eastern Europe. It first appeared on Twitter in January 2020, gaining 324,000 followers thus far, in addition to an viewers of 153,000 on TikTok and seven,000 on each Facebook and Instagram.
However, in contrast to different regional websites like Visegrad Insight, which produces unique, English-language analytical content material, Visegrád 24 creates just about no unique materials; it depends solely on re-sharing and re-posting data, and its web site, Visegrád24.org serves solely as a donation web page for the unnamed authors.
Origin of misinformation
It is very attention-grabbing to see how they’ve earned a reputation for themselves. Posting pretend information in the beginning of the battle, equivalent to Leonardo DiCaprio donating 10 million USD to Ukraine or PornHub blocking entry to its web page from Russia, however Visegrád 24 was reportedly the primary worldwide social media feed to publish a video of Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin dancing together with her buddies at a home social gathering in August 2022.
With her nation ready for its accession to NATO, releasing such footage was logically considered within the curiosity of somebody whose agenda would profit from a scandal round Marin herself – thus the efforts to seek out the individuals behind Visegrád 24, which has been arrange from Poland utilizing a Polish cellphone quantity, rejuvenated.
The first question about Visegrád 24’s operators got here just a few months after its basis in 2020, when, answering the query of Slovenian political scientist Mario Plesej, the web page’s runners described themselves as a gaggle of buddies within the Visegrad Group and the Three Seas Initiative, with a lot of them working within the information business, universally representing a conservative worldview.
It took till the autumn of 2022 for Polish information websites TrueStory and OKO Press to trace down the individuals operating Visegrád 24. One of them is believed to be Polish journalist Adam Starzyński, who used to work at an English-language web site run by the Polish right-wing TV channel, TV Republika, and who was additionally recognized for modifying the ultra-conservative Twitter web page @Based mostlyPoland, which had a following of 150,000 earlier than being banned from social media.
Starzyński is a key determine in what OKO Press refers to because the MEGA (Make Europe Great Again) motion, an off-the-cuff group akin to the Donald Trump-led Make America Great Again marketing campaign, in search of to affect audiences with xenophobic and anti-establishment narratives.
Accordingly, Based mostlyPoland was recognized for its anti-refugee content material, in addition to sharing reward for right-wing political leaders starting from the Polish authorities to Jair Bolsonaro, Matteo Salvini and Viktor Orbán. Nowadays, Starzyński posts on social media underneath the identify Adam Starski, sharing not solely related content material as earlier than but additionally supplies produced by Visegrád 24, which appear to assist two issues: Ukraine and the European far-right.
Following Visegrád 24’s posting the video of Sanna Marin, one other man behind the web page revealed himself. His identify is Stefan Tompson: a British PR specialist, who has been working in Poland since 2014 and operating a YouTube channel about Polish historical past in English since 2020. Despite additionally being linked to MEGA, Tompson’s work was supported financially by the Polish National Film Fund – and a few of his movies had been posted by Visegrád 24 itself too.
In an interview with Rzeczpospolita in September 2022, Tompson admitted that he personally created Videgrad24’s pages, which he runs with buddies who additionally work within the social media business. He denied the allegation that the aforementioned video of Sanna Marin first appeared on Visegrád 24; nonetheless, he added that he believes many assist Finland’s accession to NATO purely as a result of “Sanna Marin is a wonderful girl,” and he labelled her partying amidst geopolitical stress as “questionable”.
Tompson additionally claimed that liberal views overshadow conservative views on social media. Despite denouncing Viktor Orbán’s pro-Russian stance on the battle, he did emphasise – harking back to Orbán’s beliefs – that the West has an id disaster, and that spreading this viewpoint on no account coincides with Russian pursuits.
He finally stated that Visegrád 24 has been working with no funding in any respect, however they are going to quickly start searching for buyers to allow them to operate as a full-fledged information organisation.
The plan might have succeeded; nonetheless, in the mean time it may not be honest to name the Polish state’s 1.4 million PLN price of assist for a undertaking titled “Visegrád 24” an funding. Yet, the hyperlinks appear to be there.
The Action-Life Foundation, the organisation set to announce the funds allotted to Visegrád 24, was arrange by a 33-year-old environmental engineer, Jakub Nowak in 2016. Since then, the NGO has gained quite a few state tenders for sports activities occasions in addition to historic and patriotic actions, price 1.9 million PLN (400,000 EUR) altogether.
The Polish information outlet Wirtualna Polska (WP) approached each the chancellery and the NGO concerning the allocation of funds for Visegrád 24. While the previous didn’t present the main points of the settlement, nor the names of those that signed it because it has not been concluded, they did admit that the muse’s job can be to arrange an English-language portal devoted to tradition, historical past and politics within the CEE and 3SI area, in addition to combating Russian disinformation — precisely what the Visegrád 24 social media accounts declare to do.
On the opposite hand, an unknown consultant of Action-Life advised WP that the NGO has been knowledgeable by the chancellery in November that the monetary assist plans have been withdrawn and refused to clarify whether or not these funds would have been used for turning Visegrád 24.org, which now solely operates from donations, into Visegrád 24’s personal information web site. And regardless of studying their message, Stefan Tompson didn’t reply to WP’s request to make clear whether or not the federal government has turn into a donor to his undertaking.
But ties between Visegrád 24 and the Polish authorities don’t finish right here, albeit allocating public cash for a leisure NGO to arrange a information web site would increase sufficient questions within the first place. Not solely are Visegrád 24’s TikTok and Instagram channels plagued by quotes by Polish authorities figures in a optimistic context, however as OKO Press found, the web page was cherished by right-wing politicians earlier than it rose to prominence.
For instance, MEP Patryk Jaki from Solidarna Polska (a conservative right-wing social gathering which cut up from PiS in 2012) was one of many first to complain when Visegrád 24’s operations had been first blocked on Facebook, however Deputy Foreign Minister Szymon Szynkowski vel Sęk additionally praised Visegrád 24’s values. When requested about this, Stefan Tompson stated he did begin telling his circles in Warsaw in regards to the web page he was operating and admitted sharing divisive remarks by politicians in addition to tagging them in posts to realize extra attain. Apparently, it labored.
The larger concern
While Visegrád 24’s story alone might threaten the liberty of the press in Poland, the truth that it’s a global outlet with a shady background in occasions of battle makes it way more problematic.
Factual posts in regards to the scenario in Ukraine may mislead overseas audiences into believing that Visegrád 24 is a dependable supply of data, whereas the overwhelming quantity of posts on the battle presently simply overshadow its clear and admitted ideological nature.
In this sense, what we’re seeing right here is the tender manipulation of worldwide opinion – just like how Russian and different japanese propaganda function within the West.
The Hungarian recipe
Still, it might be flawed to match Visegrád 24 to the Hungarian propaganda machine working inside its borders. What is much less recognized, nonetheless, is that Viktor Orbán’s authorities has additionally made efforts to arrange operations like Visegrád 24 – and failed in a spectacular trend.
With an identical identify, an English-language information company referred to as V4NA (Visegrad 4 News Agency) was arrange by one in all Orbán’s well-known advisors, Árpád Habony in 2019. The firm was registered in London, and the paperwork was accomplished by Kristóf Szalay-Bobrovniczky, who now serves because the Defense Minister of Hungary.
In the start, V4NA offered newsroom supplies for Hungarian pro-government retailers, which had been nearly completely centred round xenophobic themes concentrating on refugees. While each the Czech and the Slovak governments protested using Visegrad in its identify, the service continued to function, charging 400 to 2,000 euros monthly for content material distribution.
Nowadays, its bilingual supplies are free to entry and now not even resemble a information company – it’s clear-cut anti-refugee, anti-LGBTIQ+ and anti-West propaganda. And following an investigation by Átlátszó, it seems they now not function from London however from the headquarters of the most important pro-government media conglomerate in Hungary.
Another instance of the Hungarian authorities’s ventures into the overseas information market got here in 2014. It was an completely English-language information web site about Hungarian affairs that was launched by a basis referred to as Friends of Hungary and chaired by a well-acclaimed scientist with shut ties to the federal government, Szilveszter Vizi.
The basis, whose occasions are even attended by Viktor Orbán himself, claims its goal is “to offer value-based, but non-partisan, data to the group of Hungary’s buddies and most people on occasions and successes regarding Hungary and Hungarians residing world wide.”
While V4NA has a transparent agenda, Hungary Today is more durable to see for the bare eye. The web site doesn’t lie or induce hate instantly however echoes the federal government’s self-proclaimed victories (i.e., family-orientedness, welfare, stability, and so forth.). It solely publishes non-conservative views in its Opinion part, doesn’t report on the Hungarian opposition and civil society and refuses to contextualise information which, from a really balanced standpoint, is perhaps dangerous to the federal government.
For occasion, on the finish of final 12 months, they wrote about Hungarian financial development with out mentioning that Hungary has the very best inflation price within the European Union, and it praised the success of the Hungarian movie business in 2022, forgetting to say that productions with a political agenda acquired huge sums of cash but flopped miserably in any respect overseas awards.
And it’s simply the cherry on prime that the one different English-language “information web site” from Hungary is the one referred to as About Hungary: a weblog which follows each step the federal government takes, however the person should scroll to the very backside and open the Impressum to seek out that what seems to be a information supply is definitely run by the Cabinet Office of, you guessed it, Viktor Orbán.
The Hungarian instance demonstrates a extra simplistic strategy to capturing the media. Visegrád 24 tries to function in a gray space and softly co-opt readers amongst the plethora of in any other case largely credible data; as compared, the pro-Orbán retailers goal for direct affect with little regard to actuality.
While the Hungarian authorities’s ventures into the overseas media sphere haven’t gone properly, the top-down seize of the press has been the cornerstone of Viktor Orbán’s hybrid electoral autocracy.
Nevertheless, all proof factors in direction of the Polish mannequin being extra profitable on a global stage.
This article has been ready within the framework of a cooperation programme between main press titles in Central Europe led by Visegrad Insight on the Res Publica Foundation. It has been republished by Kafkadesk with permission.
By Iván László Nagy
Ivan Laszlo Nagy is a 23-year-old Budapest-based political journalist, writing for a number one impartial Hungarian information web site, hvg.hu. As a UK graduate, his tutorial analysis in regards to the communication strategies of populist regimes remodeled into important reporting about international democracy, with a particular concentrate on quasi-authoritarian political flows within the West and in Hungary.
His work as a reporter, analyst and commentator revolves round understanding the dynamics of societies oppressed by fashionable semi-dictators and understanding methods for significant civic motion inside them, with particular emphasis on mobilising younger individuals for democratic motion.