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A deep dive into George Soros and Hungary’s policy of conspiracy

George Soros and Hungary’s Policy of Conspiracy

        BUDAPEST, Hungary—“STOP SOROS!” The backlit, bright blue posters decorate nearly every tram and bus stop in Hungary’s capital city. Roughly translated, the signs warn that George Soros plans on letting millions of African and Middle-Eastern people into Hungary. They’re the latest in a series of government sponsored billboard campaigns, first issued by the ruling Fidesz party last summer.

        Soros is a Hungarian-American billionaire, international philanthropist and the focus of a conspiracy theory propagated by right-wing circles across the West. Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán has transformed conspiracy into policy, using a campaign of misinformation to secure his power, and his success in doing so should concern the rest of the world.

Billionaire, Philanthropist, Conspiracy

        George Soros is a multi-billion dollar investor, hedge fund manager, author, and philanthropist. Born a Hungarian Jew in 1930, Soros survived the Nazi occupation of his country and immigrated to England in 1947.

        Since then, through deft financial maneuvering, he has risen to become one of the most economically influential figures in the world. The extent of his influence has been more widely known since he made $1 billion by shorting the British pound in 1992. The Open Society Foundations (OSF), Soros’ philanthropic organization, ranks second largest behind the Gates Foundation.

        Together, the OSF have given away $14 billion over the past thirty years, and operate in 100 countries. Soros funded scholarships for black South Africans in 1979. In 1984, Soros established a foundation to promote the growth of liberalism in Hungary as the Communist era came to a close.

        After the fall of the Berlin wall, Soros financed travel grants for students and worked to support watchdog organizations that promoted good governance and a preservation of human rights in Eastern Europe. In 1991, he founded the Central European University in Budapest.

        In America, Soros is one of the largest funders of the Democratic Party. He spent $27 million in an effort to prevent the re-election of George W. Bush, angering conservatives.

        George Soros is an easy target for paranoia and suspicion. He’s a wealthy Jewish globalist, capitalist and progressive. A common anti-Semitic myth is that of the “Humanitarian Jew” whose philanthropy is just a disguised plan for global domination. His antagonists rarely invoke his Jewish identity outright, but they don’t need to. Describing him as “cosmopolitan,” a term invoked by Stalin as part of a year-long campaign to purge the Soviet Union of dissident voices, but which largely targeted Jews, is enough.

        Suspicions about Soros’ supposed agenda came first from American leftists opposed to globalization, but soon found a home on the opposite end of the spectrum. Right-wing pundits have held up Soros as the perfect example of a radical, leftist infiltrator seeking to undermine Western American values.

        Glenn Beck referred to Soros as the “Puppet Master” of a “One World Government,” recently hypothesizing that he orchestrated the Women’s March on Washington. Soros has been accused of funding Black Lives Matter and Antifa movements in order to undermine American society.

        Congressman Paul Gosar of Arizona accused Soros of orchestrating the events at Charlottesville last August. Rush Limbaugh claimed Soros was behind Colin Kaepernick’s NFL protest. Roy Moore alleged that Soros was paying women to falsely accuse him of sexual assault. Breitbart referred to the OSF as the “Death Star.”

        On a global scale, Soros’ demonization has coincided with the rise of “illiberal democracies,” governments that are democratically elected but largely ignore the constitutional limits of their own power.

        These countries have strategically used the Soros conspiracy to delegitimize dissent and justify stringent nationalism. Uprisings and grassroots efforts against the rule of law are painted not as expressions of popular opinion, but rather the work of a shadowy, globalist puppet-master seeking to destabilize democracy.

        Such a narrative encourages suspicion, engenders confusion and validates authoritarian action. Nowhere has the Soros conspiracy been more heavily mobilized than in Hungary, the country of his birth.

Orbán’s Conspiracy Policy

        Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is head of the ruling Fidesz party in Hungary. Elected in 2010, Orbán and Fidesz party have been consistent in their opposition to refugee immigration and their disdain for the European Union.

In 2016, Hungary granted protection to just 550 immigrants, one of the lowest rates on the continent, and refused to accept a single person from the 1,294 quota allocated by the European Commission in 2015.

Soros, meanwhile, has made a series of statements over the past few years in favor of refugee resettlement in the US, Canada and Europe. In an article in the journal Foreign Policy, Soros suggested Europe take 300,000 immigrants from Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey per year. Like the Hungarian government, he stresses that countries’ participation in such a program would need to be voluntary, not compulsory.

        Regardless, Orbán has since worked hard to demonize Soros in the public eye. The aim has largely been to paint Soros as the engineer of a master plan to abolish immigration quotas to flood and overwhelm Hungarian culture with Middle Eastern and African migrants.

        Orbán is up for re-election in April, and has made the so-called Soros plan a central pillar of his campaign.

        The Hungarian government spent 5.7bn forints ($21 million) on its first anti-Soros poster campaign last year. Posters displayed a grinning Soros with the text, “Don’t let Soros have the last laugh.” Many were soon covered in anti-Semitic graffiti.

        The Fidesz government came under fire for a “national consultation survey” that many human rights groups and E.U. officials accused of being “hatemongering” propaganda. The seven-question survey asked Hungarians whether or not they agreed with different parts of the Soros plan. The statements made about the supposed plan are leading, if not outright negative.

        Human Rights Watch, partly funded by the OSF, argued that the survey put forward a “distorted half-truth” about Soros and the E.U.’s policy objectives. The survey’s fifth question claims that Soros wants immigrants to receive lighter sentences than Hungarians for committing the same crimes. The Human Rights watch said the claim was “incendiary and false.”

        Truth doesn’t matter if you control the news. Since his election in 2010, Orbán has restructured Hungary’s media landscape in order to skew coverage in favor of the Fidesz party. This has affected public, legacy and online media. The pro-government bias has only become more acute since the seizure of the print market and the closing of Hungary’s largest opposition newspaper.

        Orbán has created a pro-government media conglomerate fueled by lucrative state advertising contracts rather than the market. This has allowed Fidesz to spread misinformation about Soros and its other political opponents under the guise of government-sponsored public information campaigns.

        A poster presently in circulation at public transit stops and billboards depicts Hungary’s opposition leaders arm in arm with a grinning Soros. They are photoshopped together, holding wire-cutters beside a dismantled chain-link border fence.

        Orbán has taken a far-right conspiracy theory and successfully transplanted it into the center of Hungary’s public discourse. The Soros plan is now discussed within the government as a matter of serious factual concern.

        In January, Fidesz proposed the “Stop Soros” bill. The legislation requires organizations determined to be in support of illegal immigration through use of foreign financial resources to register with and report their activity to the government. Such organizations’ foreign funding would then be taxed by 25%, and the money used to fund border protection. The bill would also make it possible to issue restraining orders against those participating in illegal immigration.

        Justice Ministry Undersecretary Pál Völner stated that Hungary’s judiciary system needed to rid itself of foreign-financed self-styled rights groups. He claimed such groups were connected to the OSF and serving foreign interests by coercing judges to consider “outside factors.” Völner stated that such organizations “are actually modern era mercenaries and many are connected to the American billionaire George Soros.”

        Minister of Agriculture Sándor Fazekas stated that the Soros plan would undermine the very traditional dietary habits of the Hungarian people. “Soros wants Hungarians to eat insects…Hungarians don’t eat reptiles and insects.”

Dividing (and Conquering) Reality

        It is true that George Soros, like the Koch Brothers and Bill Gates, wields an immense amount of financial influence on the global market, and uses his Open Society Foundations to actively support liberal policy in countries around the world. The power multi-billionaires have over the international community is an important subject that’s worthy of serious consideration.

        But what Orbán is doing in Hungary is a distinctly separate issue. The prime minister is not leading a discussion on the usage of personal wealth at a global scale, but manipulating a conspiracy theory in order to further justify the nationalist actions of his party and its continued consolidation of power.

        Fidesz is using misinformation as a weapon. This isn’t a new strategy. Government propaganda and distortion of truth have long been used to rally support for ruling institutions. What’s uniquely concerning is the newfound ease with which reality can be manipulated in the Internet age.

        Most people get their news from social media sites like Facebook or Twitter, private companies under no obligation to screen their content for false information. Social media sites were never designed to be news sources, they were designed to cater to their customers, and they do so by using algorithms to deliver content they determine each user wants to see more of.

        This has had a splintering effect on mass consciousness. People can no longer agree on the reality of facts because every circle of society has an entirely different idea of what the primary subject of discourse even is.

        Venture into a part of the Internet populated by people who don’t share your political views and you will be struck with just how alien the topics being discussed appear. There are events, ideas, and memes that are completely unfamiliar to you, yet are being spoken about as if they’re the central concern of the culture at large.

        With mass consciousness in such a splintered state, it’s much easier now than ever before for misinformation to be spread and believed. Hungary’s government controls the majority of all print and online press, and is able to flood the national discourse with their preferred narrative. If social media sites see profit in it, they will help spread the same misleading information to the Hungarian people throughout their daily life.

        The effect of Orbán’s misinformation policy on the Hungarian population is still not entirely clear. 59 percent of respondents in a survey of Hungarians across the political spectrum stated that they did not believe there was a Soros plan. However, another survey found that 4 out of 5 Fidesz voters believe that there is a George Soros party running in the upcoming election.

        What’s frightening is that it largely doesn’t matter whether or not everyone in Hungary believes that Soros is a deep state mastermind. All that’s important is that people are speaking about it enough so that it remains the center of political discourse, giving legitimacy to what was once a far-right conspiracy theory, functioning now as a tool for justifying increasingly stringent nationalist policy.

        Hungary is not alone in its usage of the Soros narrative. Right-wing governments in Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia, and Slovakia have all used the conspiracy theory to rally support from their base, and to undermine pro-democracy organizations in the region that might threaten their continued power.

        The United States is not exempt. In March 2017, a group of GOP Senators asked Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to investigate the extent to which US government funds were being given to the OSF, hypothetically allowing Soros’ organization to “impress left-leaning policies on sovereign nations, regardless of their desire for self-determination.”

        The State Department declined to investigate, but the nationalist overtones in the request, made by elected officials, are cause for serious concern.

        In November 2017, Rep. Steve King, a close congressional ally of President Trump, re-tweeted a quote from Orbán, in which the Hungarian Prime Minister argued, “a nation which expects its biological survival from immigrants won’t survive.”

        King’s tweet praised Orbán’s statement. “Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has uttered an axiom of history and of humanity. Western Civilization is the target of George Soros and the Left.”

        There is no reason that a narrative as false as the Soros plan couldn’t be employed in the United States. We’ve seen how easy it has become to corrupt and manipulate truth. Under Trump, America has joined in the global swing towards authoritarianism, and every citizen needs to be paying especially close attention to the source and inherent bias of accepted facts. If we continue to allow ourselves to be divided on the nature of reality, fighting with each other about what we should be talking about, we will be conquered by those whose only truth is power.

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