Katalin Erdélyi is a Hungarian blogger, journalist, and activist. She led a fairly normal life, until she and her activist group became nationally famous earlier this month for launching a crowdfunding effort against the government’s anti-immigrant billboard campaign. The state's campaign is part of the “National Consultation on Immigration and Terrorism,” based on the results of an allegedly biased survey. The Hungarian government is spending 300 million forints (1 million USD) on a follow-up campaign.
Within days, tens of thousands of dollars came pouring in for the counter-campaign.
Some critics of the government's new effort have even begun tearing down or painting over the billboard signs promoting anti-immigrant messages. Social networks are flooded by photographs of billboard templates with altered texts, and a Hungarian news site ran a competition for the funniest. Many people, moreover, have started donating money to the counter-campaign run by Erdélyi's Vastagbőr blog and the Hungarian Two-Tailed Dog Party (a party which was originally just a joke).
Global Voices spoke to Erdélyi in Budapest about the counter-campaign, public sentiment on immigration in Hungary, and her organization's crowdfunding effort.
Global Voices (GV): As of June 12, 9 am, four days into the two-week crowdsourcing campaign,how much money do you have in your bank account at the moment?
Katalin Erdélyi (KE): 28.9 million forints [about 103,500 USD].
GV: That’s quite a lot for an activist and journalist from Eastern Europe. How did that money get there?
KE: Individuals donated because they want to support the counter-campaign of Vastagbőr [blog] and the Hungarian Two-Tailed Dog Party.
GV: Is it legal to receive that amount of money on your bank account? Isn’t the Hungarian Tax Authority after you?
KE: The Hungarian Tax Authority is not after me yet. The fundraising is totally legal, we accept donations only from individuals. We don’t accept money from companies, and for individuals the limit is 150,000 Forints [ca. 530 USD] per year. This way it doesn’t cause any problem.
GV: What will you spend the money on and what is the purpose of your campaign?
KE: Billboards. We want to send a message to the government.
GV: Why do you have to send messages to the government on billboards? That seems like an odd way to do it.
KE: Because the government is sending messages, presumably to refugees, on billboards, but in the Hungarian language; they are using an unspeakable tone, and we thought we should do something against it.
GV: For those who are not familiar with the situation in Hungary, can you explain what the government’s anti-immigrant campaign is about?
KE: Since 2010, the Hungarian government has always picked a group that they can declare an enemy of [Hungarian] society. Previously it was the banks, multi-national companies, later came the utility [company] costs, and now the immigrants are next. They send messages to them like “If you come to Hungary, you can’t take away Hungarian people’s jobs.”
GV: What do the statistics say and do Hungarian people feel that Hungary is “overflown with immigrants”?
KE: According to the statistics, Hungary is not overflown with immigrants. In the first place, many refugees who arrive to Hungary aim to get to western Europe. The other part of the problem is that the Hungarian government spends more money on this campaign than on the provision for refugees arriving to Hungary. This makes no sense at all.
GV: Who is the target audience of the government’s campaign? Someone like you?
KE: Maybe I am, but it has no effect on me. I think it’s quite obvious that [ruling politicians] are communicating only to their voters. Since the essence of all these hate campaigns is the government picking an enemy, from whom they can ‘protect’ the people, a way to become heroes in the eyes of the people, and a chance to get re-elected. This is what I see behind the anti-immigrant campaign too.
GV: Who is the target audience of your counter campaign?
KE: Our target audience are those self-conscious citizens living in Hungary or abroad, who, like us, think that the government’s hate campaign is very harmful, and would like to do something against it.
GV: Who is wiring the money, do you have any information about them?
KE: Because of the bank transactions we know a lot about those who donate, but we are not publishing any information about them. All I can say is that we receive a great deal of donations from Hungary and from abroad, as well. Wires from within Hungary come from Hungarians, as well as from people with foreign names. Not only English-sounding and German, but also more “exotic” ones like Spanish and Arabic, probably immigrants themselves. Wires come from abroad from people with Hungarian names, who have probably emigrated to a foreign country. In the meantime, wires come from abroad from foreigners as well. We have received donations from everywhere really—from Finland to New Zealand and China.
GV: How does this all work? What would I have to do if I wanted to support your campaign?
KE: We are collecting donations on a bank account, as well as on a PayPal account. You sign in to your online banking, wire your donation to our account, or you sign in to PayPal and wire via PayPal.
GV: Do I have to add a message in the payment details?
KE: You don’t have to but many people use this option which makes us really happy. Some only send us a “Go for it”, but some wrote they are happy to finally take part in something good, or just say “Stop the hate campaign”. When you are filling a 2,000 row Excel sheet and a quote from V for Vendetta comes up… They are very succinct and smart. The payment details field is a short thing and they make the message as concise, just like on Twitter.
GV: You mentioned you are keeping record of the crowdfunding in an Excel sheet and in you asked for help from your followers and friends on Facebook in doing this post on Facebook. Have people volunteered to help?
KE: I’m not ashamed of this, I’m a journalist and mathematics were never my strength. I know how to use [Excel] at a beginner level and that’s it. At the start of the campaign, I promised to keep the books in a public Google Spreadsheet, anonymizing the names to initials with each row showing a donation from someone. We thought that during the two weeks of our campaign we will reach our goal of 3 million forints (about 10,700 USD). We didn’t expect that it would be surpassed in a couple of hours. When I was there with a dataset of thousands of rows, then I thought I would ask for help. Our readers were super helpful, they helped with Excel, sent us functions, templates for the task. And the latest is a developer who wrote a macro which really makes it possible to update the donation spreadsheet in two seconds.
GV: There have been quite a few Facebook posts in the past few days praising the success of your crowdsourcing campaign and discussing how civil society organizations have been struggling with crowdfunding and fundraising in general lately. When you hear that more than 100,000 USD has been raised so far, you wonder what the secret is.
KE: I don’t think that’s a question. They raised 2 billion forints [7 million USD] when the “red mud disaster” happened. There are many successful fundraisers for hospitals and foundations, [but] maybe those are not as visible as this. Since ours is a political action, it received huge media attention. That’s why it looks big.
GV: I know you’re not allowed to give us the details of the planned campaign, but is there any chance you could leak a bit of information?
KE: On one of the [leaflets] we will print a section of the Criminal Code, paragraph #332 says that incitement to hatred, to hatred against a group of people is a crime. According to Hungarian law.
GV: Has the government provided any response to the counter-campaign?
KE: The government has not, but the Civil Cooperation Forum, an organisation supported by state and party funds has published a statement claiming that we are attempting to discredit the government from foreign funds, and that is outrageous, and we should account for each Forint, and we should publish the names. This is absurd because we are individuals who are fundraising, and we are allowed to publish the donors’ information only if they consent. They haven’t done that, so we are keeping their secret. Meanwhile the same organization has a legal obligation to publish their funding, and they are not fulfilling that.
GV: You said that the Hungarian Two-Tailed Dog Party is a co-organizer in the campaign. When did what was originally only a “mock party” become a political actor in Hungary?
KE: They were officially registered as a [political] party last year. Incidentally, at the time when they couldn’t take part in the elections anymore. The registration procedure took an [exceptionally] long time for the Hungarian authorities.
GV: Do you think the campaign is any help to immigrants and refugees who are already living in Hungary?
KE: We’re hoping for that. If only it changes the attitude of the society, opens people’s eyes up in order to not to fall for government propaganda — that would be a huge success.
GV: What has the effect of the “government propaganda” been?
KE: Many adopt the message promoted to them by the government, that immigrants are causing everything, that’s why there are no jobs, and we spend all the money on them…
GV: Atlatszo, the investigative journalism site where you work, has received an award for digital activism from the Index on Censorship in 2015. Are you a journalist or an activist?
KE: I am a 2 in 1. It says “journalist” in my employment contract. As a citizen, I’m an activist.
GV: Are you a member of the Hungarian Two-Tailed Dog Party?
KE: No. I’m a volunteer.
Disclaimer: GV author Marietta Le is a contributor to Atlatszo.hu.