Péter Krekó, political analyst at Political Capital, a Hungarian think tank, has been the target of a frenzied attack by media allied to Viktor Orbán’s government. He told us about the sound a smear campaign makes on one’s phone and the best way to sanely live through a character assassination.
by Márton Sarkadi Nagy, Atlatszo
So how did you go from a regular political analyst to the main character in a mediatized witch-hunt?
At the end of December I gave a statement to Politico, which they used in an article titled „In Hungary, politicization of vaccine hangs over immunization efforts”. The last sentence of the piece was quoting me: „If you undermine the willingness of people to vaccinate themselves, [Orbán] can suffer the political consequences.”
In Hungary, both the government and the opposition are supportive of vaccination. In terms of other vaccines, such as the one for measles, Hungary can boast admirable vaccination rates. This could be something for every Hungarian to get behind.
We at Political Capital believe that vaccination is the most important tool against coronavirus, and the greatest task for the coming year will be to ensure that the necessary number of people receive immunity.
We’ve also been saying from the outset that priority should be given to those vaccines that have received the necessary authorization and are trusted by the public. Otherwise people simply won’t go and get themselves vaccinated.
In a recent survey by Hungary’s Central Bureau of Statistics, only 15 percent of respondents said they would surely get the jab.
Right. Whereas, according to experts, some forty to sixty percent of the population have to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity. But if people don’t want to, they won’t go, since vaccination isn’t compulsory.
And it doesn’t help things that the Hungarian government has been talking about the Chinese and Russian vaccines for two months now, even though these haven’t been greenlighted by the medical authorities so far. Neither are they popular with the public.
On 29th December, the political daily Magyar Nemzet published an article. This was a particulary braindead piece of hardcore, fringe, conspiracy theory journalism, below even the regular quality of logic you can find on Russia Today or Sputnik.
This piece argued that by way of my statement, I was advising the opposition to undermine public trust in vaccination. Basically, they were saying that I was advising the opposition to barter the lives of Hungarian people for political power.
No. We’re not advising any political parties.
The quoted line from my statement for Politico was referencing the government peddling Russian and Chinese vaccines. I believe it was deliberately mistranslated by Magyar Nemzet. Both me and Politico made it clear that I didn’t say what they were reporting.
But that didn’t bother them much. On the 30th, commentator Zsolt Bayer wrote an opinion piece, which was saying that I was a lowly scoundrel and what else. I don’t really want to quote from it. Then came the madness.
You need to know that when these articles are published, they flash through the various publicatons of Fidesz-friendly media conglomerates in an instant. So you’re receiving media alerts like machine gun fire of literally identical articles getting published everywhere. Altogether there were some 200 articles of this kind.
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, in his New Year’s address in the public radio, referenced the quotes attributed to me twice as „evil”. I find it grotesque, to say the least, that the PM is singling out me, a regular political analyst, in the midst of an actual public health crisis.
Then Zsolt Bayer started a petition against me, and they started repeating their lies again and again.
You’re an analyst. Would you care to analyse the logic in the background of the smear campaign against you?
I really can’t, since as a matter of public policy, I find it utterly senseless. Why spend so much energy on the character assassination of someone who isn’t runninng for office, instead of trying to convince Fidesz sympathisers to get vaccinated?
What I mean is that coordinated media attacks are now a regular staple of the Hungarian public life, but their targets so far were people who have power or aspire to it: politicians, oligarchs and the like.
You’re right that this event has antecedents. But actual people who had been victims of a character assassination before, such as billionaire György Soros or banker Zoltán Spéder, are influential and wealthy people, or politicians such as Péter Juhász, who said very uncomfortable things about corruption.
This is a brutal disinformation campaign against a non-politician. I wonder what the two general practitioners, who were also asked by Politico for their piece, are thinking now, looking at the backlash against me. The intended effect is obvious: shrinking the space available for voices independent of the government.
These tactics do not only pertain to Hungary, nor are they new here. But the level of these brutal, primitive lies constitute a further step down. I think these attacks will only intensify in 2021.
On a personal level, what’s it like to live through this?
For me, this is a surreal experience. You wake up, read the papers, and see the news painting a diabolical figure of yourself. What’s being attributed to me is the diametrical opposite of my opinion. But I learnt that it helps a lot if others write about you as well: if no-one is reporting reality, you start to have doubts about everything, even yourself. It’s like a grim episode of Black Mirror.
The regular tone in Hungarian public life nowadays is brutal. You can learn to manage it; you can even get used to it. I’ve received threats before, but I’ve never made them public. But this is different. This is hate mongering on an industrial scale, targeting me personally. While the smear campaign on the supposed „Krekó-strategy” was ongoing, I’ve received lots and lots hate mail in the form of emails, as well as messages and comments on social media. Some of it was about killing me and my family. Threats to a politician or a banker stop at his bodyguards, but I do not have bodyguards.
I don’t believe I am going to be a victim of any actual violence, but I think this has gone too far now. This is dangerous. If the state-funded disinformation machine continues fanning the flames of violence, at some point we will be witnessing its effect. It would be good if we didn’t wait until that.
Dr. Péter Krekó is a political psychologist. He is the director of Political Capital and Associate Professor at ELTE University in Budapest. He is affiliated with two policy institutes in Washington DC, as a Reagan-Fascell Fellows at the National Endowment for Democracy and a Senior Fellow at the Central for European Policy Analysis. The main focus of his interest is the political psychology and institutional background of disinformation, political tribalism and authoritarian influence. He is a regular commentator in the leading international media, and published pieces, among others, in Foreign Affairs, Journal of Democracy, Newsweek, and Guardian.