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Both Hungary’s pro-government and opposition politicians reported in the past few days that their posts on Facebook mysteriously reached far fewer people than ever before. In response, the social media giant announced that the reduction in views was caused by technical issues. However, since February, Facebook has been experimenting in the U.S. with reducing the amount of political content featured in users’ news feeds. The new regulations could soon reach Hungary as well, and may trigger a social and political debate regarding social media’s role in politics with serious ramifications. 

In reaction to the events on January 6, 2021, when the United States Capitol was stormed by pro-Trump supporters hoping to overturn the former president’s defeat, Facebook decided to limit political content on users’ feeds, believeing that the social media site played a role in the formation of the riot.

The novel regulations will first be tested in countries such as the US, Brazil, Canada, and Indonesia and moreover, the company added that it will stop recommending civil and political groups to users worldwide.

According to Facebook’s product management director, Aastha Gupta, it is vital to highlight that Facebook is not removing political content altogether. “Our goal is to preserve the ability for people to find and interact with political content on Facebook, while respecting each person’s appetite for it at the top of their News Feed.”

Even though the analysis of the social media company showed that political content makes up six percent of what users see, Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, argued that according to user feedback, political content should not dominate the news feed.

In light of the new regulations, several Hungarian politicians have noted that their Facebook posts do not reach the number of people as before. They speculated that Facebook has reached Hungary as well in testing its limits on political content, and this may be behind the decrease.

If this is indeed the case, it is worth knowing that reducing access will not affect healthcare organizations or official government sites. In contrast, it might influence both opposition and pro-government politicians. This is explained by the fact that the state communicates things of public interest, and in principle uses its channels that can be classified as public property to convey non-partisan political messages.

Opposition reactions to the mysterious limitations

Mayor of Budapest, Gergely Karácsony, reacted to the anomaly in a Facebook post in which he contended that:

So far, my average post has reached 150-250,000 Hungarian Facebookers. Since yesterday, that number has dropped to a fraction of a few tens of thousands.”

Karácsony further criticized the social media company of interfering in the fate of countries and elections by such regulations. He encouraged users to manually control the pages which appear in their news feed in their settings if they still want to continue following political posts from the mayor.

András Fekete-Győr, prime minister candidate and leader of liberal opposition party Momentum Movement, also had similar opinions as the Budapest mayor. He contended that in a country where other forms of media are restricted to the opposition, a presence on Facebook is indispensable, as it is the last platform where news can spread freely.

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Pro-government reactions 

The Orbán government’s state secretary for international communications, Zoltán Kovács, said he could not decide whether it was Facebook’s attempt to silence right-wing voices, or only a technical issue. Whichever it was, he believes Facebook’s responsibility in limiting people’s access to information is enormous in the current pandemic situation.

Csaba Dömötör, Parliamentary Secretary of State and MP for ruling Party Fidesz, also commented on the suspected regulations, although he added that Facebook has not yet reported on what grounds they limited access to posts.

Reducing access is particularly disadvantageous in the current period when authentic information about the epidemic and vaccinations for Hungarians is more important than anything else on online interfaces.”

Judit Varga, Justice Minister, also highlighted the importance of social media in the authentic communication about vaccinations and epidemic information. She further added that such an influence on political communication would be a new and systematic form of “cancel culture.” She heavily opposed the regulations on social media as they would seriously contradict the freedom of opinion. She also drew an analogy between social media regulations and a socialist cultural policy during which certain content was banned.

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Facebook did not deliberately limit political content  

It has been recently reported, that in reaction to politicians’ comments, Facebook’s limitations were not intentional and were caused by a technical issue. This issue resulted in the phenomenon that several politicians experienced, namely that their posts weren’t reaching as many people as before. A Facebook spokesman answered questions on Friday night saying the error caused a similar phenomenon in several other countries, but has already been corrected.

However, in spite of the fact that Hungary is yet to be regulated by Facebook’s new policies, a wider social and political debate may start in regard to social media’s presence in politics. On the one hand, the social media platform provides politicians an extraordinary place to present policies and engage with the public. It is also fundamentally contradictory of freedom of opinion to regulate users’ feeds and posts. Many criticize big tech companies in interfering in the fundamental democratic value of freedom of opinion. On the other hand however, providing false information on Facebook can seriously disrupt democratic political arrangements and may lead to political polarization. The regulation of posts can therefore be indispensable if we want to keep fake news from spreading and if we want to stop radicals from influencing the public.

In the featured photo: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Photo by MTI/EPA/Alberto Estévez