This series of articles covers the anti-disinformation campaigns in three Central and Eastern European countries, where ECAS aimed to build the capacity of civil society organisations (CSOs) to address disinformation narratives or build resilience against these. Because of the region-specific challenges, which are both a precondition for and a result of declining rule of law and democratic values, the new ECAS branch in CEE is tasked with tailoring more than 30 years of expertise and building new knowledge to address these challenges. The article below presents the outcomes of this initiative in Hungary. You can find the articles covering the campaign in Bulgaria and the one in Slovenia at the respective links or at the bottom of this page.
In Hungary, ECAS approached its member organisation, Civil College Foundation (CCF), to spearhead the campaign. CCF is training neighborhood and minority groups on community organizing and advocacy work. They are committed to empowering communities to be able to participate in building a democratic and equal society, and are a leading organization in civil society development in Hungary. CCF is involved in the activities of several working structures in order to represent the case of citizen and community participation in the decision-making processes both on the national and international level. The consortium was formed through and was rooted in the distinguished community and network of civil society organizations called Civilizáció Hálózat (Civilization Network).
Because of the composition of the coalition and concurrent events, it was decided to challenge the deep segregation and bias of the education system in Hungary – a result on the government’s deliberate policies and targeted propaganda. The system is indeed biased against children of Roma parentage and background as well as against children with learning difficulties and/or disabilities. The parallel systems of church- and state-sponsored schools are the hotbed of segregation, and the traditional churches deliberately work on segregation in a lot of cases.
The objectives of the campaign were two: 1) awareness-raising and amongst the Roma people in rural and urban areas focusing on the parents and children as well as on parents of children with special needs since they are also facing segregation throughout the whole educational system and 2) narrative change on the related issues of segregation and disinformation among all students and the broader public.
Empowerment of affected parents to fight against disinformation and segregation and awareness-raising among young adults to organize against disinformation and segregation is indeed crucial to combat the in many cases state/or state-close sponsored propaganda and disinformation regarding the issues noted above. As part of the narrative change, 15-20 central themes of governmental disinformation were identified around which the campaign was organised – a narrative change is needed to show that to Roma parents education is important; schools are not equipped to handle segregation; school-policemen are a punitive tool which deepens segregation; and that it is the deliberate policy of the government to pressure Roma to segregate themselves; EU funds are mismanaged and worsen segregation; that children with special needs are not provided with proper assistance. Furthermore, a base understanding of the phenomenon of disinformation is needed. The assumption regarding the deep disinformation and the importance of the issue was confirmed when the ongoing teacher and student protest and strikes met with an immense amount of governmental propaganda and disinformation that managed to divide the society along divergent narratives. This proved the point that action is needed and education and awareness raising required the field of education, segregation and disinformation in order to produce narrative change.
The coalition implementing the campaign developed a diverse approach to the topic of disinformation against and segregation of minorities (especially Roma) in the education system, the goal of which was
to induce a narrative change in the wider population on the topic and generate a critical mass of support for measures to be taken on this issue. All actions were strategically placed to harness the momentum and popularity of the currently ongoing teachers’ strikes, who are demanding a reform in the education system. As the platform with the widest reach in Hungary, the coalition decided to set up a dedicated Facebook page to serve as a repository for the media products and articles that were to be produced under the campaign, specifically with regard to the segregation of Roma minorities in education. Apart from this, a webpage of the initiative was set up as a hub with information about the campaign focused on disinformation as a whole, the fake narratives against the teachers’ protest demands and hosting an interactive game for students to learn about disinformation. The third tool used was printed materials to reach people inaccessible through online tools with the articles produced on the various topics.
As the Roma community is not only the victim, but can be also targets of such narratives, a series of workshops in small groups were organised for Roma parents and students in afternoon study centres where they were made aware of the link between disinformation and segregation and were equipped with the knowledge to recognize and counteract disinformation, acting as “messengers” for inclusion in their schools. 5 workshops were initially planned, but due to their success and popularity, a total of 7 were carried out both in large cities as well as rural areas where segregation is most prevalent.
For the general public, a multi-layered media campaign was launched. Firstly, two articles were produced by the anti-disinformation professionals from Political Capital and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee on the phenomenon in general. The first one covered how to recognize and counteract it as individuals, while the second one addressed the domestic history of disinformation and the legal aspects of fighting such coordinated attacks aimed at organisations. Further, four targeted articles were written on specific narratives of government disinformation narratives against the ongoing teacher protests. Apart from hosting them on the campaign website, these were posted on the website, social networks accounts of the media partner (Lakmusz) and including them in printed editions of a newspaper, giving them a much wider reach. The collective reach of the 6 articles was impressive – digitally, they reached more than 50,000 users and the newspaper was printed in 70,000 copies.
As a final tool directed mostly towards youngsters and school students, an interactive online game was developed. The online game walks the player through an imagined scenario when a student is approached by a shady character online with the aim of earning some side money. The player then has to create through different exercises various “fake news” or “disinformation” pieces, articles, headlines or comments, each case showing different types of fake news and disinformation that one can collude with online. Afterwards the player may take a test to prove the gained knowledge regarding the topic and can receive further information on disinformation. This way, the students and youngsters may deepen their knowledge and receive useful information as well as gain new skills on the topic of online communication safety and disinformation in a playful way.
In conclusion, the campaign was successful in reaching all its intended target groups through different messages, diverse communication channels and strategic partnerships. It was successful in regenerating public interest in the topic of segregation in the school education system5, to the extent that the demand to stop it was included in the list of demands of the ongoing teacher and student strikes. The coalition
With regard to sustainability, although the produced articles and videos will inevitably lose relevancy in the coming months, the interactive game will be popularised among students and youngsters as a tool to develop basic competences to recognise and counteract disinformation.