Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Xenophobia 101:You’d Never Guess The 5 Methods These Politicians Used To Control The Public Opinion…

"Let Brussels hear: Respect for the Hungarians!" - with portrait of prime minister Orbán.; activists are on the opinion that Mr. Orbán is the one who should respect his fellow citizens.
From spring 2015 until the referendum held in October, 2016 the Hungarian government was running a full-blown anti-immigration advertisement campaign. Despite the inherently political nature of the discussion of the series of these events, I will try to remain as apolitical as possibly while demonstrating the persuasion techniques utilised by the government campaign. First I will explain some background necessary to give context to the campaign, then we will look at a specific major part of the campaign (billboard advertisements), and finally I will provide some data on the success of the advertisement campaign.

Europeans versus the Union

In general, the current government of prime minister Viktor Orbán's party FIDESZ maintains an explicit anti-immigration policy, aligned with the values of European culture, Christian moral attitudes and nationalism they promote. The protection of these values at all costs is key according to them, and based on their narrative the current leadership of the European Union (to which they refer to in their communications simply as "Brussels") is failing to do so. 

The proposal made in April, 2015 by Angela Merkel for establishing a quota system for allocating non-european asylum seekers to European countries was perceived by the government as the pinnacle of this dangerous attitude of the Europen Union, and prompted them to announce a national referendum to be held in early October, 2016 with the proposed question: "Do you agree that the European Union should be able to settle non-Hungarian asylum seekers in Hungary without the agreement of the Hungarian parliament?", and the proposed answer: "No."
Despite the fact that Hungarian interests were already being represented in such decisions via the European Parliament, that a referendum would have provided Hungary with no additional representative power in deciding against the establishment of such quotas, and finally that by September, 2016 the proposition for such quotas was abandoned anyways (by large part due to the vivid opposition from governments of eurosceptic countries such as Hungary) effectively rendering the whole debate meaningless, the Hungarian government continued the campaign until and held the referendum on the 2nd of October, 2016.
This attitude illustrates their underlying motivation of maintaining a policy of general euroscepticism, which in turn perhaps explains why official communications held the change of public opinion at the forefront of their campaign, surpassing other possible intentions such as providing accurate and unbiased information, or being genuinely interested in the opinion of the citizens of Hungary regarding immigrants. Whether they have acted correctly is a political question I am unqualified to answer here, but their apparent goal in mind provides us with a great example of propaganda, unhindered by ethical or financial considerations.


Amongst traditional television ads and ongoing narrative in speeches and interviews given by politicians, a central element of the campaign were a series of billboard posters. Initially, two of these were posted nation-wide with the text saying:
"If you come to Hungary, you have to keep our laws!" and "If you come to Hungary, you cannot take the jobs of Hungarians!" 
The text being in Hungarian yet addressing the immigrants already highlights two facts: these posters are aimed at the Hungarian citizens (who actually speak Hungarian) and that immigrants are unlawful jobtakers.
The next step in the campaign in May, 2015 was a textbook example of the Foot-in-the-Door technique as depicted by Cialdini (1993): every citizen of the country over 18 was sent a mail, containing a questionnaire, subsequently criticised by social scientists as asking suggestive and biased questions, the gist of which was: "Would you like to have terrorists as neighbours?" The number of people who have filled out and have returned the questionnaires is unknown, but the tool used is clear: trying to incite commitment in the population towards the ultimate cause: a valid referendum with a resounding "No" as an answer.

"Did You Know?"

The real operation was yet to come at the time: starting in the summer months of June, 2016, six new posters were posted across the country. In immense quantities: for several weeks all you could hear about on radio and television and the internet, was the shock (or awe?) of citizens at the sheer number of posters present. Practically, it was highly unlikely for anyone to move around in the city or the countryside for an entire day without seeing at least a few of these blue billboards which became iconic since.

"Did You Know?" billboard ads around Budapest - retrieved from
These six new posters conveyed an even clearer message: to save your country, you have to vote No on the referendum. The texts of the posters were the following:

  • “Since the beginning of the immigration crisis more than 300 people have died in terror attacks.”
  • “Last year one and a half million illegal immigrants have arrived to Europe.”
  • “Brussels wants to relocate a city-worth of illegal immigrants to Hungary.”
  • “Since the beginning of the immigration crisis the number of acts of harassment of women is rising sharply.”
  • “The terrorist attack of Paris was committed by immigrants.”
  • “From Libya alone close to a million immigrants want to come to Europe.”
Each of these bore at the top the label "Tudta?", meaning Did You Know?, suggesting that the information disclosed on the posters is of crucial importance at the most, and is a fascinating fun fact at the least. If the messages seem daunting, you are right. Seeing these scattered around wherever you went had an immediate effect of inciting fear in most people, be that of immigrants or a government masquerading as a remnant of fascism.

Propaganda 101

So what are then the tools of persuasion utilised by this campaign? Besides the above mentioned Foot-in-the-Door technique, it is clear that relying on framing effects is at play here. Both the questionnaire and the billboard ads make the words "immigrant" and "terrorist" almost interchangeable. As demonstrated by Tversky & Kahneman (1985), making an educated decision is dramatically hindered by the framing of the relevant information. This, in addition the the phrasing of the original two posters (us/ours) further entrenches the perceived difference of the in-group (us, the Europeans) and the out-group (them/the immigrants/the terrorists).
Next, one can see that out of the six posters three contain numbers, plus one a vague hint at an amount. When looked at these at first seemingly innocent pieces of data from the perspective of anchoring effects reported on by Kahneman, there emerges another communicative trick: If these numbers are correct, the government will be perceived as a respectable and honest source of information: an authority we should trust. Yet, if the numbers presented on the posters are overstatements of reality, the anchor has already been cast and those less trusting towards the government, claiming that the numbers must be too high will not deviate in their suspicions too far from these original numbers. In both cases, the party has the upper hand.

If we want to put this attempt at changing the opinions and therefore their subsequent behaviour (voting on the referendum) the theory of planned behaviour as proposed and amended by Ajzen (1991) is at hand: attitude, social norms and perceived control over the outcome of the behaviour shape the behaviour in this model. The game the government played fits nicely in this framework: the ongoing narrative about national, Christian and European values combined with the campaign about an outside force jeopardising these is an efficient tool to shape the social norms of the in-group. Cialdinis observations on consistency sets this in motion: No one wants to appear as someone disregarding the values of their fellow citizens, and as such, to remain consistent, the campaign strongly suggest the only solution is to vote no on the referendum. Regarding the locus of control aspect, this is an easy case: going to the polling station and casting a vote should be available to everyone, and it directly contributes to the outcome of the referendum.

Now the only component remaining is the attitude. Research done by Kiousis (2004) highlights that in the effects of saliency of information in media the main component is frequency, followed by valence. With the extreme exposure to the posters and their dramatic and fear inducing tone, the utilisation of the availability heuristic is evident here: The posters were everywhere and their message was clear. Therefore, sooner or later everyone knew about this, and felt that this issue must be of major importance (hence it came to mind very easily, with a clear emotional component). Furthermore, the fact that everyone was talking about this acted as a snowball effect of social proof: not just that everyone knew about it, everyone talked about it too. Thus not talking about it would have been a violation of norms. Yet talking about it in a positive or welcoming manner (the immigrants) would have been again a violation of norms ("protecting national values"). In this situation, it is not hard to imagine that one would soon undergo a change in their attitude, and go into the voting booth with one thing on their mind: I am Hungarian, I want to save my country, and the way to do this is to vote "No."

The Aftermath

So, was the campaign successful? Despite the referendum not being valid (not enought people turned up) 98% of those who voted said no. According to TÁRKI (found in Kenyeres et al, 2016), a prominent Hungarian polling institution, the level of xenophobia in the country is at an all time high as of November, 2016, with xenophilia down to unmeasureable levels. Well done Mr. Orbán, this was truly an exceptionally succesful media campaign!


Ajzen, I. (1991). The theory of planned behavior. Organizational behavior and human decision processes, 50(2), 179-211.

Cialdini, R. B. (1993). Influence: The psychology of persuasion. New York: Morrow.

Kenyeres, A. Z., & Szabó, J. (2016). The migration crisis: representation of a border conflict in Hungarian, German and Pan-European television new coverage. Corvinus Journal of Sociology and Social Policy7(1), 71-91.

Kiousis, S. (2004). Explicating media salience: A factor analysis of New York Times issue coverage during the 2000 US presidential election. Journal of Communication, 54(1), 71-87.

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