Johns Hopkins SAIS Alperovitch Institute

Martin Wendiggensen

BLACK MAGIC – Influence Operations In The Open And At-Scale In Hungary

Influence operations are often thought of as clandestine meddling in other countries’ affairs. But what if it’s were insidious than that? What if, right in front of our eyes, a NATO ally and EU Member Staate had developed a system to consistently peddle Russian talking points at a large scale within its own borders and beyond? This is what our research uncovered in the case of Hungary.

Hungary’s media ecosystem is controlled by the state. Years of corrupt dealings brought hundreds of news outlets – print, radio, television, and internet – under the control of oligarchs loyal to the state. And the state is very friendly to Russia. In time, the vast majority of these outlets were gifted, free of charge, to a holding controlled by the prime minister’s close confidants.

To prove the existence of an at-scale and continuous influence operation, we collected all coverage of Ukraine from major news outlets and analyzed our dataset with Semi-Supervised Machine Learning. The picture that emerged was stark: an ensemble of striking narratives aligned with Russian interests in denigrating Ukraine and the West. Moreover, these narratives were present well before the start of the war in 2020.

Matching our findings with an archive of Russian media, we were able to how show the narratives aligned topically, tonally, and in bias. Crucially, we should show a clear temporal lag. In other words, vast sections of Hungarian actively pick up Russian narratives and amplify them. The effects of this reach beyond Hungary’s own borders, as hundreds of thousands of ethnic Hungarians live in the “near abroad” (neighboring countries) and in the diaspora, thereby giving the controllers of Hungarian media outsized political influence abroad. This dark alignment of narratives runs deeper than words, leading our investigation to the staged firebombing of a Hungarian cultural center in Ukraine, and an obscure Cold War-era “spy bank” that is actively circumventing sanctions on Russia.

Martin Wendiggensen is a PhD candidate at the Alperovitch Institute, focusing on Great Power Competition in Cyberspace, especially state-sponsored disinformation and influence campaigns. He received a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science with a focus on quantitative methods and Natural Language Processing from the University of Mannheim and studied in China, Israel, and Italy. After working as policy advisor to a member of the German National Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, Martin received a Master’s degree in International Relations from Johns Hopkins SAIS. He has conducted research at NATO as well as the University of Mannheim, and applied his knowledge in Artificial Intelligence at his own small startup, which won contracts to monitor electoral environments. Currently, he leads two SAIS research grants and will co-teach an introductory class on Cybersecurity in the fall semester.