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Major harnessing of trolls shows threat to Hungarian democracy is real

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Major harnessing of trolls shows threat to Hungarian democracy is real

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

Hundreds of coordinated fake profiles are engaged in pro-government influence operations on Facebook ahead of municipal and European Parliament elections in Hungary in 2024, Péter Krekó, Csaba Molnár and Ráchel Surányi write.

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Next year, Hungarians will head to the polls to elect local officials and representatives to the European Parliament on the same day. 

These elections will likely come against a backdrop of continuing high division between the European Commission and Hungary, over the latter’s persistent disregard for EU values, and the pro-Kremlin and pro-Beijing manoeuvring of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

Orbán is likely to enter 2024 in a strong position. In April 2022, he cemented his power by securing a landslide victory over a united political opposition. 

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His ruling Fidesz party, ahead of the European Parliament elections, has set its sights on chipping away at the Hungarian opposition’s gains from the last municipal elections, in which it won control over the capital of Budapest and several other major cities. 

The gamed decision to hold the two elections on the same day, and to frame much of the debate around so-called “foreign interference” from Brussels and Washington makes life difficult for Budapest’s mayor, Gergely Karácsony, and other leading opposition candidates. 

They will also contend with the most unbalanced media landscape in the EU, which not only makes it difficult for them to reach the voters but is so loaded in favour of Fidesz’ messaging that smear campaigns against opposition politicians are now commonplace. 

A spike in Kremlin-style troll activity

Since regaining office in 2010, exerting greater and greater control over the Hungarian media space has been a key ambition of Orbán and his Fidesz party. 

Over the past thirteen years, they have built up unprecedented control over the media, to the point that Hungary is now an informational autocracy.

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With this traditional media space largely captured, the Hungarian government is now turning its attention to social media, especially Facebook, as part of its efforts to control public messaging. 

New research from our Budapest-based think tank Political Capital has found a growing, Russian playbook-like proliferation of troll activity on Facebook, which, to date, has infiltrated over 450 public groups nationwide — but with a particular, and seemingly coordinated, emphasis on Budapest. 

The city’s mayor Karácsony and other opposition figures are the principal targets of troll and misinformation activity within these groups — which often takes the form of sharing pro-government news articles that baselessly smear Karácsony’s administration and amplify Fidesz counter-messaging. 

Given the expanding use of “fake profiles”, and their scale in activity, it is not unreasonable to argue that we are approaching a point where they would threaten the integrity of the 2024 elections.

By tracking and monitoring the characteristics of these users, Political Capital has been able to determine that almost all of the profiles in question are fake.

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Obvious red flags aplenty

For one, this is evidenced by their profile and cover images, which herald almost invariably from the pages of existing foreign individuals, mainly from the Russian social media platform VKontakte and, in some cases, other sites, such as Russian, Bulgarian, and Ukrainian dating websites. 

While some of the profiles bear Hungarian names, there is often a clumsiness to the profile creation, with many of the Facebook URLs containing other names, which may reveal the account’s true origin. 

Furthermore, in an obvious red flag to their authenticity, they do not post anything on their page except for completely impersonal and re-shared content with mixed messages (such as commercial, animal-related, etc.).

The activity of these profiles is also heavily targeted. On Facebook, there is often an explicit focus on amplifying government narratives in community groups and spreading disinformation and defamatory content discrediting opposition parties and politicians, such as Karácsony and others. 

This almost mirror-like behaviour across profiles suggests some central coordination. It is also revealing that, after their activation or “rebranding” in many cases, they join Facebook groups at a scale, including non-political local community groups and groups with public affairs content with pro-government, anti-government and even pro-opposition leaning. 

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They are often found clustered in the same national political groups, which indicates some level of strategic deployment.

Only Meta can judge these

In some cases, this network even deploys safety mechanisms. Political Capital’s research found that large numbers of these profiles publish with various intensities in the groups they have joined, while some serve as “sleeper profiles” that have not yet been “activated” as publishers. 

Upon publication of this data haul in September, researchers found that the URLs of some profiles changed overnight to match their assumed identity on Facebook — thereby, unintentionally, confirming that they are indeed fake profiles, which are being centrally coordinated. 

Only Facebook’s owner, Meta, can reveal the origin and location of these profiles en masse and act to have them removed.

We have called for this and pointed out that, if they are left unchecked, they could develop roots in community groups, and scale their reach to other Facebook users — and, importantly, potential voters.

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This harnessing of trolls and manipulation of social media is a sad indication of the direction of travel for Hungary and its democracy under Orbán. 

This is just a test phase

Over the past decade, the prime minister and his party have established an amount of control over the media landscape in Hungary that seriously threatens its freedom. 

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In 2021, Reporters Without Borders charged Orbán with being a “press freedom predator”, and, before the 2022 elections, investigative reporters found that a Hungarian fund financed pro-government social media personalities to the tune of several million euros to spread the government’s messages. 

It was subsequently revealed by a global coalition of journalists that the Hungarian government used Pegasus spyware to surveil journalists, media owners and politicians.

It is clear: as the municipal and European Parliament elections draw closer, the amount of fake news and smear campaigns pushed through traditional mediums by pro-government sources will intensify. 

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But so will the activity of fake profiles on Facebook and other social media platforms.

What we are witnessing in Hungary is a test phase and scaling of something that belongs to a Kremlin-inspired playbook. The threat to the 2024 elections and the very future of the public space in our country is real.

Péter Krekó serves as Executive Director, Csaba Molnár is Head of Research and Data Analyst, and Ráchel Surányi is Analyst at the Political Capital Institute in Budapest.

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World

Millennials Will Become the ‘Richest Generation in History,’ a New Report Says

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Millennials Will Become the ‘Richest Generation in History,’ a New Report Says

It looks like millennials will be able to buy houses after all. 

Those born between 1980 and 1994 are set to become part of the richest generation in history, according to the latest Wealth Report by U.K. real estate agency Knight Frank. The group can expect a “seismic” windfall over the next two decades, as $90 trillion of assets move between generations in the U.S. alone.

“When the silent generation (born from 1925 to 1945), the baby boomers (1946 to 1964), and the oldest cohort of Generation X (1965 to 1979), die, £2.5 trillion (roughly $3.1 million) in wealth tied up in their homes will be freed up,” the report reads.

In addition to property, the shares, bonds, and assets previous generations have accumulated will go to millennials. This transfer of equity will make the generation wealthier than all their predecessors.

However, many millennials have been affected by the economic headwinds created by the 2007 financial crisis, the pandemic, Brexit, and the invasion of Ukraine. Some are riddled with economic anxiety and need to work multiple jobs to pay bills. As such, any influx of cash would likely be spent on buying homes, paying off student loans, creating a pension pot, and building credit. It is also worth pointing out that inheritance is largely determined by a family’s financial status, e.g. those with rich parents stand to gain the most.

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The massive transfer of wealth could have an equally massive impact on society. Liam Bailey, global head of research at Knight Frank, believes younger generations will actively seek out greener homes, eco-friendly goods, and sustainable investments. Given their track record, he could be right. Millennials and Gen Z are leading the charge in climate change activism, the Pew Research Center reports. Both are talking more about environmental issues than older adults, taking to social media to mobilize and enact change.

It appears the financial shift is already underway, too. Knight Frank’s research found that 75 percent of millennials expect their wealth to increase in 2024, compared to 53 percent in the baby boomer generation, 56 percent in gen X, and 69 percent in the younger gen Z.

The future is looking slightly brighter—for millennials, at least.

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Drug addict used bizarre object in attempted post office robbery: police

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Drug addict used bizarre object in attempted post office robbery: police

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A drug addict tried to steal money through a security screen using a large spoon, British police reported. 

CCTV footage from the Hyson Green Post Office in Nottingham on Feb. 10 showed Jelanie Scott, 36, who leaned on crutches, in the corner of the room trying to get under the protective screen. 

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The staff quickly noticed him as he used a spoon and reached through the small gap at the bottom of the security screen on the counter. The panic alarm triggered, and smoke filled the post office as Scott fled.

“There was overwhelming evidence in this case, and I am pleased Scott has been held to account for his actions,” Sgt. Mark Southgate of the City Central neighborhood police team in Nottinghamshire said.

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Photo of the spoon used by Jelanie Scott, 36, to try to steal money at the Hyson Green Post Office side-by-side with CCTV screenshot of Scott. (Nottinghamshire Police )

“He told officers it was a stupid thing to do, and I hope he now reflects on his behavior and stays out of trouble,” Southgate said.

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Nottinghamshire police arrested Scott and charged him with attempted burglary. The Nottingham Magistrates’ Court on Feb. 21 then sentenced him to a six-month drug rehabilitation program and fined him fees and court costs totaling £283 (around $360). 

3 MEN CHARGED WITH TERRORISM PLOT IN UK COURT AFTER RIGHT-WING EXTREMISM PROBE

Nottingham post office

Hyson Green Post Office in Nottingham, England, where Jelanie Scott, 36, tried to steal money.

Scott appeared to have suffered some injury to his foot, hopping away with one crutch to support him as he escaped the building along with other customers when the smoke filled the room. 

Police had an easy time identifying Scott since he dropped his debit card before he managed to flee in a taxi. Police recognized him from CCTV and arrested him just a week later after locating him on a town road.

NORTHERN IRELAND JUDGE RULES THAT UK GOVERNMENT’S ‘TROUBLES’ LAW BREACHES HUMAN RIGHTS

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Nottingham police crime

Police officer on Ilkeston Road, Nottingham, on June 14, 2023. (Jacob King/PA Images via Getty Images)

Scott pleaded guilty and admitted to the crimes, saying he had suffered mental anguish and had taken drugs – cocaine and heroin – shortly before the incident. 

Shoplifting and thefts in the U.K. have increased in recent months, according to the New York Times. One shop owner told the Times that he has to deal with three or four robberies a day, saying, “It’s like the Wild West out there at the moment.” 

The article claimed that opportunistic shoplifters, marauding teenagers, drug addicts and organized gangs have largely driven the looting surge. 

Shoplifting incidents increased by 25% for the year ending June 2023, according to official crime data from the British Office for National Statistics. 

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Australian spy chief under pressure to name ex-politician who ‘sold out’

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Australian spy chief under pressure to name ex-politician who ‘sold out’

The spy chief said a team from an unidentified country had cultivated and recruited a former Australian politician.

Australia’s spy chief is facing calls to name a former politician accused of having “sold out” the country to a foreign power.

Director-general of security for the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), Mike Burgess, said in an annual speech on Wednesday evening that a spy team from an unidentified country had cultivated and recruited a former Australian politician.

“This politician sold out their country, party and former colleagues to advance the interests of the foreign regime,” Burgess said in a speech in the capital, Canberra.

In his address, Burgess said a foreign intelligence service unit, named “the A-Team”, had made Australia its “priority target” and specifically targeted those with access to “privileged information” by using social networking sites and promising financial rewards.

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Burgess added that the unidentified former politician had been recruited “several years ago” and had suggested a plot to introduce a family member of the prime minister into the spy’s orbit, but the plan did not go ahead.

He said police had not charged the person because they were no longer active.

Following the unexpected revelations, Alex Turnbull, the son of former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, said in an interview on Thursday with news.com.au that he had been approached about an infrastructure project by a group of suspected Chinese agents in around 2017 when his father was in government.

He said the group had links to a former New South Wales state Labour Party parliamentarian without naming the person.

However, current and former members of the opposition party have pushed for the name of the ex-politician to be released to avoid speculations.

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Former parliamentary treasurer, Joe Hockey, who also served as the ambassador to the United States, echoed the demands for the ex-politician to be named.

“Mr Burgess, having gone this far, must name that person rather than potentially smear everyone who has served their country,” Hockey wrote on X.

Opposition party leader, Peter Dutton, also said on radio station 2GB: “The trouble is, if he does not indicate the name then there is a cloud hanging over everybody else.”

Australia is a current member of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing group, which includes the United States, Britain, Canada and New Zealand, making it a target for operatives from countries such as China and Russia.

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In 2018, under former Prime Minister Turnbull’s leadership, foreign interference laws were introduced, of which the “key purpose” of the measures was to expose China’s activities.

A Chinese-Australian businessman was sentenced to years and nine months in jail on Thursday for attempting to win favour with a minister – the first sentence given under the interference laws, according to state broadcaster ABC.

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