Google said Wednesday it is withdrawing a grant given to the publisher of a Hungarian news site that has come under fire after critics flagged it is publishing fake news.
The tech giant announced last month that Hungarys New Wave Media group would be awarded a grant from its Digital News Innovation Fund, a program that aims to “help journalism thrive in the digital age.” In all, Google awarded funds to 103 media projects from 23 countries.
But when one of the unsuccessful applicants, MediaPowerMonitor, published a story that the New Wave Media group had won a grant, independent journalists in Hungary voiced outrage.
New Wave Media group is the publisher of Origo, a site that researchers and critics say regularly purveys racist, anti-Semitic and conspiratorial content. The site is allied with the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and is a major recipient of government advertising.
“Origo is an emblematic player of the Fidesz propaganda media,” said Gábor Polyák, head of Hungarian watchdog Mérték Media Monitor. “It spread thousands of pieces of news about migrants in an extremely negative context and accompanied by false videos and photos.”
In 2018, Hungarian courts ordered Origo to issue corrections in 34 cases.
He added that Origo is financed by a “huge amount of public money” and that Googles decision to grant it funds could be interpreted as a “counterbalance” for the funding of independent media outlets.
In response to questions from POLITICO, a Google spokesperson said the company decided not to award the funds to Origo.
“We recently made an initial offer of funding to a range of projects as part of the last round of our digital news innovation fund. After further review, weve decided not to go ahead with the grant to NWM,” the spokesperson said.
Origo and New Wave Media did not reply to requests for comment.
Googles Hungarian quandary
The back-and-forth over Origo is an example of the problems companies like Google face in illiberal or repressive countries.
It also underscores the challenge facing a global tech company that has given itself a mission to support journalism projects while also participating in the fight against misinformation.
While the Digital Innovation Fund also awarded grants to opposition sites, Origo is linked to the government and is known for carrying misinformation. A New York Times article from 2018 used Origo as an example of Orbáns increasing control over the media.
In a 2018 report, U.S. watchdog Freedom House wrote that “the pro-government news site origo.hu ran a Facebook advertisement with a video of two dark skinned men attacking a white skinned woman in a church, with the tagline Western Europe, 2017. Do you want this?'”
Independent Hungarian media later found that the video was actually of a 2015 robbery in Nebraska, “and the sound of the video was tampered with to contain shouts praising Allah.”
Hungarian judges have repeatedly found that Origo incorrectly portrayed facts about Hungarian citizens who are critical of the government, including in a case where the site