Harry Potter Fandom in an Illiberal Democracy

I am always on the look out for research which can shed light on the diverse forms participatory culture takes around in the world and in particular, the impact participatory culture has on the political realm (what my collaborators and I like to discuss as The Civic Imagination.) I was, thus, pleased to receive email this summer from a scholar in Hungary — Tibor Desswffy — who is doing research on the ways Harry Potter is being deployed in political struggles within his country, which he describes as “an illiberal democracy.” I have circled around the example of Harry Potter both in my own scholarly writing and on this blog, including a report on the forms Harry Potter fandom was taking in Russia and an interview with Andrew Slack, who was then a leader in the Harry Potter Alliance. When I read the draft of his scholarly essay, I asked if he could write a shorter summing up of the key findings to share here with the readers of my blog.

Harry Potter Fandom in an Illiberal Democracy

Tibor Dessewffy

Life in an illiberal democracy, anything but boring. Recently, for example, I run into a plea from Márton Békés, "Gramsci is ours - read it, interpret it, use it!" Békés is not a marginalized left-wing thinker - just the contrary. He is the Director of Research at the House of Terror, a Disneyland kind of history museum, which aim to display the crimes of the twentieth century.

The House of Terror is a central institution for the construction of Orban's cultural hegemony. Its visit is strongly recommended to schools by the government and when May 2018 Steve Bannon flew into Budapest to give an invitation-only lecture, a visit to the Terror House was squeezed into his busy schedule. But the Museum  also represents significant disproportionality: while the Hungarian collaboration with the Nazis, that leads to the deportation and mass-murdering of 600 000 Hungarian Jew occupies two rooms, the crimes of the communist era are portrayed in 22.

Thus Békés, who holds several other positions besides being an instrumental part of the House of Terror, is an important right-wing ideologue whose fascination with Gramsci draws attention to a strange feature one can observe throughout Europe: while the left is almost completely devoid of striving to create hegemony, the virulent right-wing demagogic populism is building consciously and successfully in this area.

This is surprising when one considers the fact that, in the diverse world of popular culture there is a marked presence of highly successful texts that could help to strengthen a liberal progressive worldview. For the sake of simplicity, here I will focus on just one element of this, often elaborated in the literature, the Harry Potter universe. The reason for this choice is that the Potterverse's popularity, value, and political activism are well documented in the academia. (following the inequalities in the scientific world, these are primarily demonstrated in the Anglo-Saxon context)

In contrast, in Orban’s Hungary, there is almost no social activism. This is partly because the regime, is very conscious of preventing the emergence of such movements, and although not with Putin’s or Erdogan’s brutality crashing them down. But in the all-encompassing apathy, two further questions arise and our research focuses on answering these.

 1. How popular is Potterverse in Hungary? After all, although it would contradict to our intuition, in principle, these messages may resonate less in Hungarian society.

 2. If the answer to the previous question is that Harry Potter, is indeed, popular in Hungary then maybe the values, ambitions, and activities of the fandom differ from international experience, like for instance, in the often discussed case of the Harry Potter Alliance.

Therefore, we need to examine the activity repertoire and preferences of the Hungarian Harry Potter fandom. Here we embarked on an innovative methodological development: we tried to reconstruct these preferences from public pages in the social media. (Although, I find the potentials of this method very exciting for cultural research, I won't discuss that here.)

1 Looking at the popularity of the Harry Potter universe, we find that Harry Potter is not just popular, but in fact, its public reception is overwhelming.

A glance at the Hungarian fan fiction site, Merengő, underscores this. Merengő was established in 2004 and fifteen years later it has 17. 341 fanfictions by 4,462 authors. The single biggest category books, with 7486 fanfictions, where fans wrote further chapters and books related to their beloved bestsellers. What we find here are the conservative authors who best embody the values of the governing party that seeks to establish a cultural hegemony are hardly exist at all. On the contrary, the list of books that top the rankings of novels that have inspired the most efforts to weave the storyline of the original further looks as follows: Game of Thrones 63; Twilight 370; and Harry Potter 6,923 pieces of original fanfictions!

This stunning level of activity can be explained in part by the fact that Harry Potter is not the only popular among active and creative fans in Hungary - the series has a vast social base. According to a survey of reading habits, JK Rowling is the most popular author among Hungarian teenagers today who tends to cite Harry Potter as their favorite book. That is why it is no exaggeration to claim is not a single novel or work of fiction that is capable of generating a reading fever on par with that unleashed by Harry Potter, which has emerged as a shared experience of an entire generation. ”[1]

Actually, Hungarian government policy evokes an awareness of Harry Potter's popularity and has reacted to it: The State Secretariat for Education, Rose Hoffmann, justifies the introduction of a new uniform and centrally mandated elementary school curriculum by arguing that "significant changes can be expected, "Harry Potter is slowly taking the place of János vitéz [one of the classic pieces of Hungarian literature]."[2]

2 Thus, we can assert that even under the conditions of illiberal democracy, the popularity of Harry Potter is undiminished.

 It is important to stress that in the prevailing Hungarian situation the values exuded by the Harry Potter universe can be of substantial interest. What we seek to explore is how the Harry Potter series, which openly espouses the values of tolerance, acceptance, and social openness, can be so successful in a social context where right-wing political attitudes, national pride and anti-migration views continue to be typical of young peoples – who are at the same time also broadly characterized by political apathy and a basic commitment to democracy.

Therefore, we investigate how this value disposition correlates with other political/public affairs affinities. We researched interests, affinities, and actives patterns as they can be reconstructed from public Facebook activities. A huge advantage of this method as compared to the standard survey methodologies is that through its use of digital footprints it provides the analysis with data taken from actual online behavior.

 In the forthcoming paper, we present the preferences and attitudes of the 14,200 anonymized Facebook users from 35 Harry Potter relevant platforms, who were included in the sample we generated for our social media analysis.

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One observation about the users with an affinity for Harry Potter is that they exhibit a high level of non-party related political activity, as 85% of them were active in our on some Facebook page, group, or event involving a public affairs issue. This ratio was very high compared to the average Hungarian Facebook users (the overrepresentation score, compare to the average Facebook users, was 26). Half of the users with Harry Potter affinity (50%) were active on the platforms of political parties, which is also higher than the Hungarian average (the overrepresentation score was 15) 

We also examined how active Harry Potter fans were on the pages of civic organizations, social movements, as well as charity and welfare organizations. The analysis reveals that based on their Facebook footprints, 40% of Harry Potter fans are active on charity-related Facebook pages, which is also rather high compared to the often-mentioned general apathy of Hungarian society. (the overrepresentation score was a 4). We also observed that 35% of them are interested in civic organizations, NGOs, or some type of social movement (the overrepresentation score for this segment was a 7).

The analysis of media consumption revealed that the major left-wing/liberal news sites and left-wing political blogs. We observed higher than average levels of activity on the Facebook pages of these media outlets. However, blogs and newspapers heavily influenced by the Orbán government did not score well; the overlap between the target group’s online activity and these sites is 1%. The media consumption patterns of the Harry Potter group demonstrate openness to left-wing/ liberal media and a lack of interest in pro-government news outlets.

Concerning political parties, we can assert is that the group of persons with Harry Potter affinity exhibited manifold and often opposing party preferences. When looking at their activities on the platforms of the various political parties in Hungary, Harry Potter fans were most active on the pages of the Hungarian Two-tailed Dog Party (26%), an anti-establishment satirical party that is extraordinarily popular in the online space and on social media pages. Their most prominent slogan is “Free beer and eternal life for everybody.” It followed by the radical right-wing Jobbik Movement for a Better Hungary  (9%) and Momentum (5%). Even though in polls with a 36% level of support among the youngest cohort of voters, Orbán’s Fidesz enjoys the highest level of support, which makes it all the more striking that we did not see any activities on the part of Harry Potter fans on Fidesz-related platforms.

The Momentum Movement is a small centrist-liberal party that was founded in March 2017, and thus we only had one year’s worth of data on Momentum-related activity in the data collection period (as opposed to the four years of data collection on the other parties).

Summarizing the above, it appears that Harry Potter fans evince not only a high level of interest in public affairs and politics but are also sensitive when it comes to social and welfare-related issues.

These findings are supported by the results of European Value Study. Trust in and the social acceptance of political institutions is at a low point in Western societies and in Hungary even more so, especially among the younger generations.

The basic question we explored in our research was whether being a fan of Harry Potter is correlated with a more open attitude towards public affairs and reflects more active social/political attitudes. Based on the empirical examples examined here, it can be asserted that this relationship unequivocally exists. And even if we can't prove it right now, one of the most important questions in Hungary today is whether these existing values will be able to turn into significant political activism.

The esteemed reader may recall that Momentum, a generational party founded in 2017 that explicitly seeks to attract and represent youths, has generated sufficient online reaction to be measurable in our research despite the lack of a long history. Still, the party failed to reach the parliamentary threshold of 5% in the national election of April 2018. After that failure, they adopted a new strategy, which was leaked to the press. The first point of this new strategy was the “Construction of social ties - creating a Dumbledore Army.”[3] In the European election of May 2019, Momentum achieved a stunning breakthrough when it won 10% of the votes, receiving a spectacular 17% in the Hungarian capital, Budapest.

Tibor Dessewffy, Mikes Mezei:   Fandom and Politics in an illiberal democracy    (forthcoming: Transformative Works and Cultures special issue on Fandom and Politics March 2020 )

Tibor Dessewffy, Mikes Mezei: Fandom and Politics in an illiberal democracy (forthcoming: Transformative Works and Cultures special issue on Fandom and Politics March 2020 )

We do not suggest that this particular success owed to their references to Harry Potter, but what we can nevertheless say with certainty is that under the illiberal Orbán regime it was the newcomer party that actively used the Harry Potter mythology to mobilize the Harry Potter generation which generated perhaps the most spectacular unexpected electoral result. As the party chairman, András Fekete-Győr confirmed, “the Harry Potter universe is relevant both as an inspiration within the organization and to successfully reach out to the new generation”.[4] It remains to be seen how far the utilization of Harry Potter narratives will take Momentum in stimulating political activism, and how much impact they will have on Hungary by so doing. But it could be useful as a building block in a Gramscian hegemony and awakening dormant values in society.

Endnotes

[1]  http://www.azenkonyvtaram.hu/documents/11543/34323/toth_mate_-_kozvelemenykutatas_-_3-17_evesek.pdf/e4bc8bac-c8e2-4fc9-a63d-7922d03045a5

 [2] https://index.hu/belfold/2010/08/24/hoffmann_rozsa_harry_potter_kiszoritja_janos_vitezt/

[3] https://24.hu/belfold/2018/08/28/momentum-mozgalom-fekete-gyor-andras-strategia/

 [4] Personal correspondence with the author

Biography