Over the last decade, there have been major changes in the way news has been spread. News is now often shared via social media, where everyone is able to comment. Moreover, everyone can write and publish news, whether the information is true or false. 

But news reports can also be used as a subtle propaganda tool and a constant brainwashing technique. Slogans such as Make America Great Again, for example, spread quickly and tend to mirror shared fears and wrong assumptions. Populist politicians might use them to create a basis of fear on which to build their policies. But in truth, this form of false information results in walls between people and radicalisation of public opinion.

Access to objective news

When I have difficulty finding objective and transparent information,  I can rely on the online news sources from abroad. I use these to reassemble the puzzle of information for myself. However, for many people this is not an option. For instance, only 36% of Italians claim to be able to understand a written complex text in English.

The right to access information is a full right defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  It plays an essential role in the social and political processes in our societies. Moreover, it promotes media freedom, empowers investigative journalism, and contributes towards a more open society. So, then why do we keep manipulating information?

Developments in media reporting

Before the Internet and social media, censorship was relatively straightforward. It was sufficient to control all means of communication and to punish those who tried to bypass the system. But now basically everyone has access to information, and the problem has become more complicated. A disaster such as Chernobyl, for example could never be hidden as it was in 1986.

We are now struggling with a lack of quality control and transparency of the information that is presented to us. For example, half of daily TV newscast in Hungary is centered on the topic migration alone. This leaves little space to other news. What is more, this increased covering and framing of migration as a threat creates the illusion of a real invasion. But neither facts nor statistics support this myth.

Likewise, instead of objective reporting, we see that reporters are using strong subjective language to express government positions. Moreover, photographs and videos are used to spread narratives that might be manipulated or false. 

Fake news

Among the newest media challenges is a growing tendency to discredit unpleasant news by defining it as fake. Ironically, genuine “fake news” is gaining influence, especially on social media channels. Social media is now considered as means of communication as such. But the reliability of news on these platforms cannot be controlled, and comments are often more predominant than the story itself.

In my opinion, the issue is more complicated. The inability to be self-critical and a sense of anonymity are combined with an urge to constantly talk about things we have no clue about.

The excess of fake news and uninformed opinions

Everyone can now give his opinion and be heard on social media, even without any expertise on the topic or having read the story at all. Just look at any news article on social media, and you will find comments born out of ignorance and misinformation. 

When looking at the causes of this trend, some blame the unrestricted freedom of opinion inherent to democracies. Others blame the damaging change social media itself brought to our society. After all social media has decreased our attention span dramatically and made it okay to put our most personal stories online. Moreover, some people will now do crazy things, just to get a like on Facebook. Finally, others claim that changes to the education system created generations that are unable of critical thinking yet eager to comment on anything.

In my opinion, the issue is more complicated. The inability to be self-critical and a sense of anonymity are combined with an urge to constantly talk about things we have no clue about. Posting information and opinions on social media is free, and spreading false information is generally without risk. Therefore, the quality of information we consume and distribute is worsening, and nobody seems to care about it.

Within the already tense social situation, the vicious cycle of news and comments provides politicians with a fertile ground of fear and frustration. This can deteriorate the social balance, characterised by rising inequalities and discrimination and the rise of national populism. We experienced this over the past decade across the EU, in particular in Hungary, Poland, Italy and the Czech Republic. In short, social media as a means of communication contributes to the development of non-factual collective beliefs and the annihilation of individual rationality. This situation is damaging national and global equilibriums.

In fact, we know that manipulation of the media is beneficial to the involved political parties and their representatives, as well as correlated lobbying groups and mass media communication channels. But what about the broader picture? What about the long-term consequences of such methods for the distribution of information? Should it not be a responsibility of journalists and politicians to respect the integrity of information, not to allow fake news, and to support the spread of transparent and objective information instead?

One extreme example of manipulation of public opinion through the press is found in Hungary under the Orbán government. Here propaganda is present on TV, radio, newspapers and billboards. In 2017, 40.5 million Euros was spent on anti-Soros propaganda. George Soros is Hungary’s “number 1 enemy of the nation”. He is also known as an openly pro-refugee Jewish millionaire and founder of the Central European University (CEU) and Open Society Foundation, promoting human rights in 60 countries. This year, the following sentence was literally featured on national TV: “Soros’ NGO has the explicit purpose of gathering followers to support his biggest aim: having power over the world through his western globalisation philosophy”. Although this phrase is vague and unfounded, it seems to work; most Hungarians really believe in the so-called “Soros plan” and related “blacklist”.

In fact, the “Soros mercenaries blacklist” was first published in a pro-government magazine in early April 2018. It included the names of 200 Orbán critics. Among them are academics, civil rights activists and journalists (including those that reported on Orbán-related corruption scandals). Clearly, the list has the purpose to intimidate. This entire witch-hunt is even more paradoxical when we consider that Orbán himself benefited from a Soros-founded scholarship in the past.

What is also striking is that Orbán’s message changed radically over the past 20 years. While his political background is anti-communist, liberal and progressive, he is known today as the main illiberal and conservative Eastern-European populist representative. His propaganda style owes much to the Communist communication. Why does nobody notice or even cares about this at all, in a post-Communist country?

A recent study found an increase in the use of words related to fear, distress and war in Hungarian mass media since 2014. The main media topic, migration, is perceived and presented as a literal invasion of Muslims bringing violence and crime to Hungary. It is presented as if this invasion takes place in complicity with Soros, Brussels and Merkel, who “invited them to come to Europe”. According to this propaganda, even migration research centres should not exist, as they “provide no concrete action”. Moreover, as they state it, “it is not possible to make an alien population settle in Hungary because we must defend our national identity, sovereignty and culture”.

Not a single word is spoken about the humanitarian corridors taking place from the Horn of Africa towards Europe. Investments in social welfare and families are sometimes explicitly presented as in contrast with “spending for migrants”. It is difficult to understand why a country with a history of domination and emigration now needs to turn to migration as a scapegoat for its problems. “Hungarians first.” “America first.” “Italians first.” Can you see a pattern here?

So what now?

“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought”

George Orwell

As said before, propaganda dramatically affects the way people think and live. It is a tool to create a society without individual thinking, where people have the illusion of having control over their choices. “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought”, George Orwell wrote in “Politics and the English language” (1946). Even if it sounds like some mainstream quote from a faraway past, this still applies today. In the long run, manipulation of public information is not beneficial for anyone. It can alter social relations within countries, and jeopardise current geo-political stabilities on an international level. Eventually, it could even lead to new wars.

Open communication is a crucial for a society. Citizens want openness on all levels, from international government down to their local farmer. Transparency and trust are closely interlinked. Businesses are slowly acknowledging the benefits of openness and good ethics for consumer satisfaction. Likewise, governments that offer more transparency and accountability deliver more inclusive prosperity. If governments and media were more transparent and objective, it would prepare a foundation for a long-term, more inclusive and media manipulation-free future. As it benefits no one, what can we do to end and prevent public opinion manipulation? Why does nobody react?

The simple answer to a better society might be to be honest and transparent, but this is not in the interests of politicians in the first place. Therefore, as in many other issues, the answer might be education. We should inform ourselves on topics before spreading inaccurate information. If we all do our part as active citizens, a lot can be achieved. Instead of spreading fake news and fear, we should talk about problems in a transparent way and try to find a way to solve them.

Better information sources could contribute to creating more inclusive policies and increasing everyone’s well-being in society. After all, our grandparents already understood it back in 1948 with the writing of the International Declaration of Human Rights. We do not need another war to understand that the world is about peace and brotherhood, prosperity and progress as a society, not as individuals. Transparent, correct and inclusive communication is among our main tools for understanding and perpetuating this.