Hungary says to target tech giants over alleged manipulation of social media platforms

Facebook and its Instagram platform are the dominant social media brands in Hungary, with Twitter commanding less activity. — Reuters pic
Facebook and its Instagram platform are the dominant social media brands in Hungary, with Twitter commanding less activity. — Reuters pic

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BUDAPEST, Jan 26 — Hungary’s nationalist government said today it would place restrictions on social media giants to prevent “deliberate, ideological” misuse of digital platforms by liberal critics ahead of elections in 2022.

Justice Minister Judit Varga drew parallels with the shutdown of ex-US President Donald Trump’s main social media accounts by Twitter and Facebook after his supporters stormed the US Capitol on Jan. 6, saying tech giants were also trying to limit the “free speech” of Hungarian state leaders.

With Joe Biden’s election as US president, “the American tech gurus have also come unleashed, and (ex-president) Barack Obama himself has signalled that muzzling Trump was not the end of it, as there are more Trumps in the world, such as (Hungarian Prime Minister) Viktor Orban,” she told pro-government broadcaster Pesti TV.

“Liberals are acting tough and they will employ all means against the Orban government in 2022,” she said, alluding to the coming election campaign that is expected to be closely fought.

Varga used a Facebook post today to announce plans for legislation to codify restrictions on social media but did not spell out what steps the government had in mind.

A Facebook spokesman was not immediately available for comment.

Orban has been accused by opposition liberal and centrist parties and media freedom advocates of gradually muzzling critical media during a decade in power, turning the public broadcaster into an obedient mouthpiece as his allies buy up much of the private media and shut or tame critical outlets.

But social media remain out of Orban’s reach, and critical voices have mounted there as he faces a tough parliamentary election in 2022 amid the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, an economic slump and an opposition that has united against him.

Recent polls have shown Orban’s Fidesz party falling behind an opposition alliance in a neck-and-neck race.

Varga said the planned curbs on social media were necessitated by recent incidents of tech giants banning pages without warning, limiting the reach of posts made by government officials, or rejecting advertising orders.

“Deliberate, ideological or business-motivated digital damaging can no longer happen without consequences in Hungary,” she said, adding: “Today, everyone can be arbitrarily switched off...bakers, hairdressers, pensioners, teachers, SMEs (small and medium-sized business), and state leaders.”

Varga had earlier this month raised the possibility of Hungarian sanctions against tech giants over what she called a “systematic abuse of free speech”.

In an earlier emailed reply to Reuters questions, the justice ministry said Facebook had limited traffic to one of Varga’s posts in December, calling it “unjust” and adding that social media giants did this routinely.

Facebook and its Instagram platform are the dominant social media brands in Hungary, with Twitter commanding less activity.

The Orban government’s official Twitter account was briefly disabled in September, prompting government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs to complain about “tech giants silencing those who hold different opinions”.

Twitter declined to comment on that incident to Reuters. It told local media that the suspension had been an error. — Reuters

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