investigation Analysis Conspiracy theories in Europe | George Soros

How George Soros was transformed from herald of democracy into Hungary’s “enemy of the people”

The conspiracy theories around hedge-fund billionaire and philanthropist George Soros have been spread for plainly political purposes by the spin doctors of Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán. The recipe is far from unique but the message has resonated especially well in Soros’s native country.

Published on 22 July 2021 at 10:00

A billionaire, Jewish, who supports liberal causes and democratic values – all these details of his curriculum vitae have made George Soros a perfect scapegoat to be blamed for a myriad of the world’s social and political problems. 

But how did Soros end up on the receiving end of 500,000 negative tweets daily?  How did he get blamed for financing the Antifa and Black Lives Matter movements, with a goal (shared with Hillary Clinton and Bill Gates) to turn voters into zombies  by “injecting chips into people’s bodies”?

It’s a long journey from communism to contemporary politics. Even today Soros is “blamed” in Hungary for “fighting Christianity with his evil Soros Plan”. Although the smear campaign against him has eased off in the last two years or so, he is about to resurface in the latest edition of a “national consultation” - a questionnaire sent to Hungarian citizens to pay lip service to the idea of a democratic public consultation.

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The roots of the Soros conspiracy theory have a long history which dates back to before the fall of the Iron Curtain. With his story as a Hungarian migrant who made his fortune in the United States, his Jewish family background, and his worldviews on democracy and liberties, George Soros made a perfect target.

Given his decades-long commitment to non-violent democratic movements,  his influence on the fall of Communism in the Soviet Union and around Eastern Europe, Soros was a marked figure long before disinformation and fake news went global.

Before 1989 he was already irritating Moscow and its authoritarian satellites in Eastern Europe, the Balkans and Central Asia, by openly supporting democratic movements, civil-society organisations, watchdog groups and political dissidents.

An important source of Soros-hatred originates in a narrative of how he became wealthy. Talking to British people, the first thing they will mention is that he “shorted” the British currency at the expense of the Bank of England. On so-called Black Wednesday (16 September 1992), speculation and market forces co-escalated to push London into removing the British pound from  Europe’s Exchange Rate Mechanism.In the end the pound emerged stronger with the recovery of the British economy, once inflation was controlled and interest rates reduced. With his investment fund Soros cashed out 1 billion USD on the British government’s decision, which gained him his reputation as the world’s foremost currency speculator. It should be noted that before and after the “pound-shorting”, Soros was a particularly successful fund manager with his Soros Fund Management LLC, bringing its investors exceptional profits.

After establishing his fame as a hawkish financier, Soros gained his reputation as a major philanthropist. With his lavish support for liberal causes and democratic-advocacy NGOs public attention to Soros continued to grow.

Soros’s philanthropy dates back to 1979, with his first Open Society Foundation was founded in South Africa to support studentgroups fighting apartheid. From 1984 in Hungary and other Soviet satellites, Soros started to help democratic opposition movements by giving grants for dissidents to study abroad. Famously, one of the beneficiaries was his later nemesis, prime minister Viktor Orbán, who in 1989 got a scholarship to study political science at Pembroke College, Oxford.

Beyond supporting democratic movements from China to South America, in 1991 Soros founded the Central European University, which was recently pushed out of Budapest in the name of “the fight against liberalism”. Other Soros initiatives supported early-childhood education, Roma minorities, women's and LGBT+ rights groups, harm-reduction-based drug policies, and disability rights, among others. With his billions of US dollars supporting all these causes, George Soros became an obvious target for a range of authoritarian governments and leaders.

“Public enemy Number 1”

Although conspiracy theories about Soros have existed since the early 1990s, disinformation experts agree that today’s “image of George Soros” can be traced to Arthur Finkelstein and George Birnbaum, political advisers to former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The pair, who started to work for Viktor Orbán and his government as early as 2008, advised Orbán to mount a smear campaign against Soros, making him the “puppet master” responsible for helping Hungary’s enemies, namely “encroaching Islam and secular forces”. Birnbaum himself acknowledged in an interview he gave to the Swiss Das Magazin that they viewed Soros as “the perfect enemy”. Orbán’s Fidesz government put the strategy into practice with an article in a pro-government newspaper alleging that, although “on paper Soros closed its Hungarian NGO in 2008”, since then it had handed out over half a billion US dollars to anti-Orbán groups in the country.

Although conspiracy theories about Soros have existed since the early 1990s, disinformation experts agree that today’s “image of George Soros” can be traced to Arthur Finkelstein and George Birnbaum, political advisers to former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Hungarian government’s state-financed campaign against the so-called “Soros Plan'' escalated into harassment by police and the justice system. There were smear campaigns against civil-society organisations supported by Soros funding. Orbán went as far as talking of “international capital” and applying other anti-semitic allusions. Soros was later blamed for “attempting to flood the EU with illegal migration”.

In 2017 Hungary was awash with billboards showing a smiling Soros with the caption “Don’t let George Soros have the last laugh.” According to a widely cited article (“The Unbelievable Story Of The Plot Against George Soros”) the approach of Finkelstein and Birnbaum hit home with a large swathe of the Hungarian population, helping Orbán to win parliamentary elections in both 2014 and 2018. The smear campaign worked so well that demonization of Soros redoubled around the world - including in Russia, Poland, the US and Italy..

In retrospect, it seems that the key to the success of the Finkelstein-Birnbaum strategy was that it was story-based rather than issue-based, which allowed the campaign to jump between topics while relying on the same narrative - this being a carefully constructed fairytale onto which public judgments are laid, providing all the necessary material and vocabulary. This allowed Orbán to talk about the “Soros plan” on almost any given topic, according to his political needs and interests.

Soros’s image as on ogre became a global phenomenon thanks to websites like Breitbart and Infowars that have labelled him a “globalist”. US Republican politician Marjorie Taylor Greene has repeatedly called George Soros an “enemy of the people”, while Donald Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani once told the press that Soros was “intent on destroying our government for some sick reason of his that goes back to his sick background.” These and countless other - often antisemitic - attacks against  Soros have led to the wildest of false accusations. Among them, that he pays protesters or for their transport in large groups, and organizes the stashing of piles of bricks near protests. In 2018 a Romanian TV station accused Soros of paying dogs to protest the government. A more recent rumor alleges that he was financing Covid-19 vaccination programs in order to inject people with microchips that would later allow him to manipulate them.

According to Matthew Lyons, a researcher in populist and far-right ideology, the most common accusations and narratives around Soros resonate with a long lineage of antisemitic myths and stereotypes. Speaking to Guardian, Lyons explained that “One of the central antisemitic themes for a thousand years, at least, has been the notion that Jews represent this evil, super-powerful group that operates behind the scenes.” Encoding Soros as a “globalist” ties him to this old way of talking about Jews in Europe – cynically by two Israeli spin-doctors.

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