In February of this year, Hungary’s Minister of Agriculture, Sándor Fazekas, announced the new Soros plan. The billionaire’s new plan was to make Hungarians abandon their traditional cuisine and eat insects instead. Minister Fazekas categorically rejected the plan. In his words, “Hungarian people do not ever eat insects, ever”.
No, I am not kidding. This has really happened.
Of course, while Hungary has been the continent’s pioneer in all sorts of things (like offensive-minded football in the 1950s and undermining democracy today), it is hardly the only country where smear campaigns are used to gain political capital. In Romania, Klaus Iohannis, who promised to stand against the institutional corruption that permeates the country, was accused of selling children to organ traffickers when running for the presidency.
In Poland, Donald Tusk lost his presidential campaign partly because of his opponents claiming that his grandfather volunteered to serve in the German Army during World War Two.
In Bulgaria, members of the opposition were accused of paying people to show up at anti-government protests.
Outlandish political claims just seem to work. First, because the “recipients” of the smear will need to spend part of their resources to clean themselves. Second, because their supporters will discuss how outlandish these claims are - instead of concentrating on the really troubling actions of those who are throwing the smear. And third because some people may even buy them.
Some years ago, university professor Spee Kosloff and his colleagues ran a series of interesting studies. They found out that when they emphasize how former American politician John McCain was old and in this regard different to the research subjects, people were more open to endorsing the smear that he was senile. When the research subjects were reminded of the fact that they’re not African-Americans, they were more open to endorsing the false claim that Obama is Muslim. Political slandering, if done properly, works especially well on the “undecided” part of the electorate.
What's behind the smokescreen?
Now what can you do when authoritarians throw smears in the public discussion every second day? How should you react to that? First and foremost, when you see them concentrating their efforts on producing sh*t, assume that they want something. They do not throw smears for fun. That would be wasting resources. If it happens during the campaign, it is not hard to figure out what it is that they want. More votes. Winning the election. If, however, it happens during their term, you may want to look for proposed legislative changes authoritarians do not want you to talk about.
If you found them, please do talk about them. Do not waste your energy on trying to show why the smear is not true. Refuting a lie works only in the short term, but in the long term, it only helps people recall the lie. In other words, when you say that it is not true that George Soros wants Hungarians to eat insects, you may sound convincing for many. However, months later they will only be able to recall that you had a conversation about Soros’s insects.
Instead of fighting over lies, explain to your family, relatives and colleagues how are they given a bone to chew on. And do share with your friends on social media what is behind the smokescreen.