“At stake in the election is whether we can protect workplaces or whether we allow the opposition to return and once again destroy the country,” reads the message appearing on Fidesz’s Facebook page.
“Every true Hungarian should support prime minister Viktor Orbán’s clever and wise policies and our government, because it is as clear as day that we Hungarians would lose if we didn’t have a prime minister like Viktor Orbán . . . ” reads the sycophantic lead comment.
Fidesz operates a national network of social-media activists who receive daily objectives directly from the party headquarters, an anonymous Fidesz activist told 444.hu. According to this “social-media soldier”, the Fidesz party headquarters requires members of the network to follow every command word for word and issues warnings to activists who do not share and post as often as they are supposed to. Surprisingly, members of the network execute the party headquarters’ directives on a voluntary basis.
The mother of all activist networks
In May 2017, the staffs of all Fidesz MPs and candidates each had to submit the name of a so-called “virtual colleague” (VM) to the party headquarters. In June, all designated VMs were summoned to headquarters where they were greeted by none other than Fidesz vice-president and long-time campaign manager Gábor Kubatov. During the one-day training, VMs were taught how to use Facebook fan-pages and, more importantly, Fidesz’s self-developed “CAP” closed online network.
Based on the account of the anonymous Fidesz activist, CAP is an internal task-sharing and messaging system through which the party headquarters can reach all candidates, political associates and VMs. VMs were tasked with managing the Facebook pages of Fidesz candidates and assigning tasks received from the headquarters to activists.
Every day the headquarters sends out between one and five directives. VMs are notified both by CAP and SMS when a new task is submitted by HQ. Tasks can range from simple things such as sharing something originally posted on Fidesz’s official Facebook page to “occupying” the comment section of a post by an opposition candidate.
Once a VM receives a directive from the headquarters, they pass it to local activists, pro-Fidesz NGOs, and other satellite civil organizations. VMs were reportedly instructed to create secret Facebook groups where they can hand out instructions to local activists. As of January 2018, these groups supposedly contain at least 60 members each as per the HQ requirements. According to 444.hu’s informant, the control of the party headquarters is so strong that the person who oversees CAP is a member of each of these groups with a fake account so that they can personally monitor group activity.
In addition to the tasks received through the CAP system, VMs receive three excel files every day that contain the “recommended messages” of the day.
Headquarters keeps a thorough count of the online army’s performance. At the end of each month, VMs have to list the Facebook activity of their candidate, the number of followers, the numbers of posts, their rate of reach and the same statistics about the opponents’ Facebook pages to HQ in an excel document.
Graduates, pensioners, opportunists
According to 444.hu’s informant, VMs fall into three distinctive categories:
- “Recruit student government member students or graduates, mostly girls, who consider this [job] the opportunity of their lives. Most of the time they are accurate and precise, however, one shouldn’t expect original ideas from them. They nervously make notes, when the lecturer allows questions, they are eager to ask.”
- “Elderly ladies typically from the countryside, who have occupied some sort of personal assistant position since at least ‘98. Although they have toiled through all the elections up until now, they don’t really understand what are they doing here.”
- “Cunning suited-costumed young careerists who crave to become a member of NER [System of National Cooperation, Fidesz’s own nomenclature for the current political system]. They are the ones who belong to the retinue of one of the politicians, they are the bustling ones who see this as the key to their personal advancement. They get the picture about social media, they know their thing, but their provincialism is annoying.”
The activists under their command are typically elderly Fidesz sympathizers who execute the orders with a deep conviction. According to 444.hu’s source, one can rarely see young people among the activists, and those few who are indeed young “are either dependent on the system and don’t want to lose their jobs or young politicians . . . They are foxy, because they feel that by sharing much bullshit, they discredit themselves, so they share [these contents] in pseudo groups, or they hide them […] Like this, the numbers are okay, and in the event of an examination they can pull this and say that they completed the task.”
In the footsteps of the Trump campaign?
Although according to 444.hu’s informant, one of the central campaign teams often boasts that they studied Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign for three months and seeks to copy the Trump campaign’s strategy, the central leadership is far from being professional. Posts are often sent down the wire with an emotional motivation. Whenever somebody tries to challenge the party headquarters’ decision on a professional basis, they are simply told that the leadership “knows better.”
“So the social media part is not professional because they are jerks. But, and this is a huge but, the system itself kicks ass. […] [Kubatov] is a genius and uses the old list cleverly. Needless to say, the household utility cut (signature pages), the quota referendum (signature pages), all the stuff where the street activists registered email addresses and telephone numbers are now in heavy rotation.”
A baseball cap for the veterans
Despite Fidesz’s seemingly unlimited financial resources, activists including VMs are not paid for their duties. “Covering the costs of their trip to Budapest posed a problem for many countryside VMs. This is typical of Fidesz. They keep on making promises since 2010, like ‘there’s a campaign now, help us, once we win, there’ll be a fee.’ That’s another thing. There’s a constant campaign.”
For 15 years, Fidesz could rely on the effective help of the so-called “civil circles”, groups of conservative and pro-Fidesz intelligentsia that were set up after Fidesz lost the 2002 election. Municipal council members had an average of 10-15 activists at their disposal. During a campaign, these networks could mobilize up to 50 activists locally who then contributed to the campaign of the MP candidates as well.
However, according to 444.hu’s source, enthusiasm decreased recently, and people are confronted more and more often at public places about the blatantly pro-Fidesz propaganda content they share on Facebook. As a result, more and more Fidesz sympathizers have decided not to campaign for their party anymore. “Representatives who are used to commanding 50 activists in peak time are now puzzled as they can hardly gather 10 people.”
These activists were not paid either, not even in 2010 when Fidesz won with a historic landslide. In 2014, the party headquarters expressed its gratitude to the activists who contributed to the campaign by distributing baseball caps signed by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. However, this was a reward for the lucky few as only 10 caps were sent to each town.