Hungary Magazine

Meet Lakmusz, the fact-checking squad debunking fake news in Hungary

The European Lab forum is heading to Budapest this weekend for a one-day event dedicated to European youth and the future of activism. Taking place on Saturday, February 5, at Auróra, with Kafkadesk as its official media partner, the innovative forum will bring together climate activists, journalists, and other civil society actors for a series of debates and workshops.

We caught up with Hungarian journalist Blanka Zöldi, editor-in-chief of the new fact-checking website Lakmusz, who will be taking part in a panel on “The shape of the media for future generations”.

Hi Blanka, thanks for taking the time to chat with us despite your busy fact-checking schedule. Can you start by telling us a bit more about your new website, Lakmusz?

We launched the new fact-checking website Lakmusz this January with the aim of debunking disinformation and misinformation circulating in Hungary, let it be from politicians, or influencers, or just things that spread on the internet and have a big effect on people’s lives. We focus on Hungarian news, but of course, disinformation and misinformation spread globally and don’t respect borders. In a lot of cases, fake news from another country is picked up by communities in Hungary. For example, news spread by Russian state media, such as Russia Today, is often picked up without any kind of criticism by the media here in Hungary.

Can you give us an example of a fake news you recently debunked?

Just today, actually, we debunked one whole documentary which had a couple of false claims about Hungary. As you know, the famous Fox news presenter Tucker Carlson came to Hungary last summer and a couple of days ago he published a documentary in which he portrays Viktor Orbán as the savior of Europe opposed to George Soros. In this 25-minute documentary there are a lot of unfounded claims and factual mistakes which can be easily debunked.

We identified “10 lies from the Tucker Carlson documentary”, like his claim that there are only 9 million Hungarians living in the world, or that the EU punished Viktor Orbán because he wanted to defend his country from migrants. These lies are spread by a lot of people in Hungary and especially by the Hungarian government itself. Without fact-checking bodies like us, such documentaries would have gone without any filter to the Hungarian public.

The European Lab forum is heading to Budapest this weekend for a one-day event dedicated to European youth and the future of activism.

Young people are increasingly bypassing traditional communication channels and are turning instead towards new types of media for information… taking into consideration the proliferation of misinformation on these platforms, do you think it is a “good” thing?

We really must be careful when putting any kind of opinion onto things, like is it “good” or is it “bad… Because when you look at the media landscape, it has been changing constantly. Is it a good thing that we are no longer reading the newspaper every morning with our coffee? I don’t know. But I think change is just a very natural process. As we have seen in the past years and decades, the appearance of the internet and social media has changed the media landscape immensely. When you ask younger people about what kind of media they consume, you hear that they read their news on Facebook, and they don’t even know what publication publishes the piece of news that they’re reading.

But I really think that this is a natural process and that we need to have some faith in the new generations. Our role as media is to understand these new platforms where the younger generations consume the news. I think it’s a back and forth process where the different generations have to adapt to each other in order to better understand each other.

You must adapt to change, or risk being left out. This is key. But while change is indeed a natural process that we can’t do much about, do you believe that there still something that can be done in order to curb certain trends, like better regulation?

Media regulation by big companies and governments is always a very sensitive equilibrium between freedom of speech and the fight for good information. But I really do think that big tech companies should do more than what they are doing right now, and not exclusively concentrate on financial gains. For example, when we talk about fake news, we know for a fact that Facebook creates revenue from clicks, and fake news, hate speech, and disinformation spread faster and creates more emotion in people than regular news. In terms of business, it’s better for Facebook. Tech companies are taking some steps in the right direction. For example, Facebook and YouTube now work with fact-checkers to help them flag misinformation. But of course, we also need to make sure that freedom of speech is not endangered by such measures.

Over the course of 10 years and 26 forums, from Seoul to Madrid, European Lab has brought together nearly 1,500 speakers.

You’re against banning anyone from social media, for example?

Personally, I am totally against it, yes. I’d much rather help people understand each other by giving everyone the possibility of having the right information, and by educating the audience. This is what we try to do with Lakmusz. But we’re only in our first month so we’ll see if we’ll have the energy to sustain this kind of approach. But I do think the key is to offer the possibility of having the right information instead of strictly banning people and excluding them from conversations. At the same time, obviously, there are a couple of instances where banning would be tolerable. When people are inciting hatred for example…

You mentioned it a few times, but do you think education can play a role as well?

I have absolutely no doubt that education is the first and most important aspect, yes. Going back to the very basics, it’s not even that people need to learn how to read news, but how to read anything. How to understand text, how to think critically, how to not believe anything without any kind of doubt, learning about the importance of facts. I think this is a lot more critical in education than for example learning all kind of lexical knowledge and historical dates. It’s about learning to communicate with each other, in general.

Hungary is gearing up towards a very crucial election. Considering what we said about their effect on the younger generations, do you think non-traditional media will play a key role in the coming months?

Definitely. Not even just about the governing party, but also about the opposition are realizing more and more that they’re losing touch with young voters who are becoming very disillusioned and losing their faith in politics. Many young people don’t follow the news and are just not interested at all in public life in general. Political parties are trying to get some new ways of reaching young voters. For example, we see that the governing party is pouring insane amounts of money into so-called influencers online, targeting a type of audience the government wouldn’t be able to reach through their traditional communication channels. This is an issue. And I think the big question now is whether or not the younger generation will be persuaded by any of the parties to vote. We’ll have to wait and see…

Completely free of charge, European Lab Budapest is open to all upon registration.

Cover photo credit: Tamas Botos / 444.hu

Coordinated by Ábel Bede, Kafkadesk's Budapest office is made up of a growing team of freelance journalists, editors and fact-checkers passionate about Hungarian affairs and dedicated to bringing you all the latest news, events and insights from Hungary.