Migrants, Moral Panic, and Intolerance in Hungarian Politics


An officially sanctioned form of intolerance is on the rise in Hungary — let’s call it “migrant spotting.” In defense of public safety, Hungarians are now voluntarily reporting to local authorities on individuals in their communities whom they suspect to be “illegal aliens.” Though ethnic intolerance is not new to Hungary, this particular form of public denunciation is the latest iteration of a carefully orchestrated, long-term, government-sponsored disinformation campaign to persuade the Hungarian electorate that migration “increases terrorism and crime,” “destroys national culture,” and threatens social order. This campaign, with its toxic mix of half-truths, outright lies and appeals to latent biases, ultimately enabled Prime Minister Viktor Orban to consolidate his power and propelled Fidesz, his ruling party, to a sweeping electoral victory in April 2018.

There is nothing new in the tactical use of disinformation to achieve strategic goals by generating public anxiety about particular groups or issues, especially when they appear to deviate from accepted norms. However, today, as facts are increasingly hard to nail down, these deliberately misleading narratives have become extremely potent, especially when they play on existing fears or prejudices. Understanding the structure and typology of panic-mongering narratives is essential to disarming them. People interested in truth, rule of law, refugees, and minority rights anywhere should better understand how the Hungarian government transformed migrants into enemies of the state in order to justify its increasing stranglehold on power and the consequent erosion of democratic institutions.

Closing Media, Closing Minds

Like most disinformation narratives, the Hungarian government’s anti-outsider messaging campaign benefited from the growing absence of reliable information and accountability in the national media space. In 2010, Freedom House described Hungary’s press status as “free,” rating it a respectable 23/100. By 2017, however, Hungary had regressed significantly, dropping to a ranking of 44 out of 100, and was labelled only “partially free.” Why did Hungary’s media freedom decline so dramatically?

The answer is easy: Orban.

Re-elected as prime minister in 2010 after eight years out of office, Orban took steps to consolidate his hard-won return to power, beginning with the systematic deconstruction of Hungary’s independent media. Pro-Fidesz oligarchs, many with strong business ties to the state were given free rein to acquire and then shutter influential independent media outlets, especially those critical of the government. Orban’s allies also recently completed their acquisition of nearly all regional daily newspapers with a total of  at least one million regular readers Additionally, they have squeezed out foreign media investment in Hungarian media companies. Today, there are only about six remaining independent national media outlets. Meanwhile, the government and Orban’s oligarchs control all of Hungary’s television channels, with the exception of one national and two regional cable stations. With a 72 percent share in media consumption, Hungary’s television channels serve as the primary source of news and information countrywide.

The Instrumentalization of ‘Moral Panic’

The government’s dominance of Hungary’s information outlets enabled the proliferation of xenophobic narratives in the name of national security and the preservation of cultural identity. In this enclosed media space, Orban and his supporters slowly spun out an obsessive narrative about the migrant threat and the resultant need for a vigorous “defence of Hungary and its borders.” Stanley Cohen’s classic study of the manipulation of public discourse to serve a political agenda by generating “moral panic” offers a useful analytical model for this deliberate process.

Cohen defines moral panic as “a condition, episode, person or group of persons” that “emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests” and is “presented in a stylized or stereotypical fashion by the mass media.” Narratives of moral panic thrive in complex media environments, in which an overabundance of unfiltered information and the presence of carefully curated information bubbles enable the exploitation of latent fears and biases. Anything from a perceived deviance in culture or norms to the presence of ethnic or religious outsiders may be used to generate moral panic and subsequent calls for corrective action. Those who identify the sources of moral panic are usually those who then promote remedies that serve their best interests.

The first phase of moral panic, according to Cohen, begins with the perception of imminent danger to social or political “tranquillity.” In 2015, the rapidly intensifying refugee crisis represented just such a threat to the Hungarian government. In May 2015, in response to the massive influx of people fleeing conflict in the Middle East and North Africa, the European Union called for mandatory migration quotas. Hungary, among other Central and Eastern European member states, rejected this proposal.  By June 2015, the government had launched a nationwide anti-refugee outreach campaign, and, in July 2015 began the construction of a razor wire fence along its border with Serbia. Nevertheless, by September 2015, a whopping 411,515 “irregular migrants” had entered Hungary. Most had no intention of remaining there, and the Hungarian government facilitated their access to other E.U. member states.

However, in an apparent response to pressure from other E.U. countries to reduce the number of arrivals from Hungary, the Hungarian government temporarily suspended onward travel. Unfortunately, in sealing off Budapest’s principal railway station to refugees and migrants, authorities inadvertently transformed it into a “ghetto-like” makeshift refugee camp in which hundreds of refugees were trapped in a squalid limbo. Two weeks later, Hungary closed its border with Serbia. When angry refugees attempted to breach the fence, the Hungarian government declared a national state of emergency and announced that all “illegal” entrants would be jailed, justifying these measures as a “legitimate response to an invasion.”

Closed borders, invasions, desperate refugees, violent clashes, “ghettos” for particular ethnic groups in the heart of the capital city — these unsettling conditions surely evoked Hungary’s historical experience of mass persecution and brutal occupation. To reassure a nervous public, the government engaged in a series of visual and rhetorical narratives to communicate its ability to maintain order. For example, the  Hungarian language billboard campaign aimed at “illegal” migrants featured statements such as, “If you come to Hungary, you need to respect our laws” or, “If you come to Hungary, you cannot take away Hungarian jobs.” Since few, if any, refugees could speak Hungarian, these billboards were clearly aimed at Hungarian citizens, reinforcing the message that the government was prepared to take an aggressive stance in defence of its citizens.

The Hungarian government also made the deliberate narrative choice to emphasize the refugees’ cultural and religious “otherness,” the degree to which they were not like Hungarians or even Europeans. At this point the term “refugee” largely disappeared from official discourse, to be replaced by “migrant.” This allowed Orban to pursue the claim the refugees were not in fact fleeing conflict but instead had made a deliberate choice to migrate northward for economic or even criminal purposes. Repurposing the refugee crisis as a “mass migration” permitted him to portray Hungary as Christian Europe’s first line of defence against a Muslim influx:

Those arriving have been raised in another religion, and represent a radically different culture. Most of them are not Christians, but Muslims … Is it not worrying in itself that European Christianity is now barely able to keep Europe Christian? There is no alternative,    and we have no option but to defend our borders.

In Orban’s narrative the presence of the migrants in Hungary represented nothing less than a clash of civilizations between Christianity and Islam that would require equally outsized (and undemocratic) measures to contain.

The second or “impact” phase of Cohen’s moral panic model builds on the consequences of the precipitating event to develop a sustained narrative in the service of a political agenda. With the November 2015 completion of the security fence along the Hungarian-Serbian border, along with Turkey’s E.U.-sanctioned role as gatekeeper, the number of migrants passing through Hungary decreased significantly. To keep public attention focused on the migrant threat — and to justify its increasingly authoritarian behaviour — the Hungarian government required a new, more potent target.

It chose to look outside Hungary, beginning with the Hungarian-American billionaire and philanthropist George Soros.* First, the Hungarian government claimed that under the guise of democratization efforts, Soros planned to relocate one million illegal immigrants to Europe with the “intention of bringing down borders between member states, creating “social and economic chaos” and debasing “traditional Christian values.” Orban also engaged in a broad attack on what he described as the European Union’s threat to Hungary’s sovereignty: “We need a European Union that does not … in such stealthy fashion deprive member states of more and more spheres of authority, as has occurred over the past years.”

The third or “inventory” stage of moral panic, according to Cohen, elaborates the initial threat through a catalogue of its consequences. Having elevated the presence of migrants on Hungarian soil to the level of an existential threat, the Hungarian government exposed the public to a disturbing vision of what ethnic tolerance and religious inclusivity might mean to national security and prosperity. Then, it introduced a set of increasingly authoritarian measures to curb the migrant threat. In late 2015, for example, the government proposed an amendment to the 2007 law on national asylum to address “the crisis situation caused by mass migration.” A popular referendum on the E.U.’s refugee relocation proposal, resulted in a June 2018 amendment to the constitution that limits the number of “non-Hungarians” who may settle in Hungary. The accompanying outreach campaign flooded Hungary’s traditional and social media with statements about the migrant threat such as: “Did you know that Brussels wants to forcibly resettle numbers of illegal migrants the size of a city into Hungary?”

In June 2017, the Hungarian National Assembly adopted the  Law on the Transparency of Organisations Receiving Foreign Funds. Modelled on Russia’s punitive Foreign Agent legislation, this law subjects all internationally funded NGOs to enhanced government scrutiny regardless of their scope of activity. Finally, in June 2018, the Hungarian government passed the “Stop Soros” bill, which specifically targeted NGOs assisting refugees in Hungary. A slick advertising campaign accompanied the bill, warning Hungarians once again that Soros planned to move “millions” from “Africa and the Middle East” to their country.

The non-stop series of political consultations and referenda on the immigrant question coincided with a set of government sponsored anti-immigrant media campaigns based on disinformation, misinformation and conspiracy theories. In the process of generating moral panic, the Hungarian government perfected a circular form of argumentation in which exaggerated half truths and outright lies were used to justify punitive responses to the anti-immigrant threat. State and pro-Fidesz private media served as the principle platforms for the projection of this falsified narrative. And finally, legislation codified it.

Spotting Migrants

The institutionalization of efforts to discourage the presence of migrants in Hungary set the stage for the final phase of moral panic campaign, in which, Cohen tells us, deliberate responses to the precipitating events or issues emerge. The process involves the “assignment of blame” and the implementation of established “norms and procedures” designed to curb or punish so-called “deviant” behaviours using available “controls,” e.g. law enforcement. Enter migrant spotting, a grass-roots phenomenon which empowers citizens to report to local police on people who, in their view, don’t belong to their community and therefore represent a threat to public safety, whether they are strangers, have dark skin, or exhibit behaviours that deviate from the norm.

Police in Southern Hungary, for example, detained a group of Hungarian pilgrims and their pastor after a local resident identified them as “Muslim illegal immigrants.” A uniformed Hungarian bus driver in Budapest forced an Austrian man of Nigerian background off a local bus. Visitors to a Hungarian nursing home called the police to report three “suspicious” men from Sri-Lanka who, it turned out, were doing United Nations-related volunteer work with the residents. And in Csongrád, law enforcement authorities responded to a report from a resident complaining that a young Hungarian woman was seen wearing a headscarf; a full police investigation of her activities revealed she had covered her wet hair after a trip to the beauty salon.

Since 2015, independent on-line media outlets have reported a total of 21 instances of migrant spotting involving more than 250 victims. The number of incidents has increased, from two in 2015 to eight in the first five months of 2018. At least half of those “spotted” were Hungarian citizens. Not one of the individuals denounced had actually broken the law or disturbed the peace. And yet, thanks to the influence of the government’s moral panic narrative, their “otherness” criminalized them in the eyes of their accusers. Orban’s clash of civilizations between East and West, between Christian and Muslim, now plays out in communities across the country. With it comes the disruption of basic democratic principles such as due process, rule of law, freedom of religion and freedom of expression.


The “migrant spotting” phenomenon represents the final iteration of the Orban government’s narrative about disruptive “foreigners,” a narrative that has escalated into a much broader and more consequential attack on outside influencers who threaten Hungary’s intrinsic values. In a recent speech Orban claims:

Their faces are not visible, but are hidden from view; they do not fight directly, but by stealth; they are not honourable but unprincipled: they are not national, but international: they do not believe in work but speculate with money: they have no homeland, but feel that the whole world is theirs.

Hungary’s enemies include members of the “international” community such as the United Nations, Brussels, George Soros, the Western liberal elite or a nameless, faceless “world government.” They also include members of the Hungarian opposition and independent NGOs. In Orban’s narrative, all of them are attempting to enforce liberal democratic principles such as migration quotas under the guise of multiculturalism. The liberal internationalists’ ultimate goal, according to Orban, is the preservation of their “global” domination at the expense of Hungary’s identity and power, and, more importantly, his one-man rule. On the domestic front, framing migrants, refugees and asylum seekers as threats to social cohesion has enabled the Hungarian government to take harsh measures to contain them, and, more broadly, to suppress Orban’s domestic human rights critics. Ultimately, Hungary’s anti-migrant narrative, in its rejection of basic democratic principles, embodies Orban’s illiberal political vision.

Targeting ethnic minorities in the pursuit of national interests is certainly not a new phenomenon. Similar panic-mongering narratives have already emerged within the Euro-Atlantic community. However, the Hungarian government’s direct, deliberate involvement in stoking xenophobia on a national scale is not only unprecedented among European and NATO member states in the 21st century but also showcases the fragility of democratic institutions in a complex media environment that is ripe for politically motivated exploitation. In just eight years, Hungary has gone from a fairly liberal democracy to a country in which a single government narrative has the power to transform ordinary citizens into instruments of sanctioned discrimination on the basis of race, color, and creed.

Why should the United States care? Having sunk to the level of Kremlin-style disinformation and denunciation of so-called “Western” liberal values to stay in power, Hungary’s reliability as a multilateral ally is uncertain. When a member state unapologetically flouts core principles such as individual liberty, equality, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, what happens to NATO “consensus”? To E.U. solidarity? As illiberal narratives come to dominate political discourse in countries like Hungary, U.S. policymakers should hold the narrators to account or bear witness to the decline of transatlantic unity.


*Disclosure: One of us served as adjunct faculty at the Central European University originally founded by Soros and the other works for Political Capital, which has received grants from the Open Society Foundation, also founded by Soros.

Vivian S. Walker is a retired senior Foreign Service officer turned professor of national security strategy. She has taught at the National War College in Washington, D.C. and the National Defense College of the Emirates. Currently she is a Faculty Fellow at the USC Center on Public Diplomacy and a Research Fellow at the CEU Center for Media, Data and Society. She writes and lectures on public diplomacy, strategic narrative and disinformation.

Lorant Gyori is a sociologist and political analyst, with a masters in social sciences from Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, where he is currently working as a geopolitical analyst for the Political Capital think-tank on issues such as Russian soft powerdisinformation, and populism in Europe.

Image: Photo by Elekes Andor, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons