The people behind the hashtag

How one university harnessed the power of the hashtag and became a symbol of academic freedom.

On March 28 2017, the Hungarian parliament tabled higher education legislation that set new requirements for universities accredited in foreign countries.

Several of the passages apply only to Central European University (CEU), threatening the university’s continued operation in Hungary. Thirteen days later, the legislation became law. Within those 13 days, CEU became a symbol of academic freedom.

Before the spring of last year, Central European University was a small English-language graduate institution in Budapest, with a steady flow of students from over 100 countries, dedicated alumni all over the world, proud and loyal academic and administrative staff, and a strong open society mission. And we remain that. But we lived in a bubble.

That bubble was burst on March 28, and we had to take a good look at who we were and what we stood for.

CEU has always been a community, first and foremost. We are not, and have never been, a political organisation. We are a community of students, faculty, staff, alumni, donors, supporters and friends who came together in an unprecedented and extraordinary way, to defend CEU, and with it, academic freedom in Hungary and beyond.

Building a plane while flying it

In the middle of a propaganda attack against the university, CEU leadership set up a response team to respond rapidly and strategically to government misinformation and to handle media inquiries.

During the first CEU press conference of the crisis on March 29, CEU president and rector Michael Ignatieff called on the Hungarian government to “find a satisfactory way forward that allows CEU to continue in Budapest and to maintain the academic freedoms essential to its operation.” From that moment, our fight had a greater purpose than keeping the university in Budapest: defending CEU became synonymous with defending academic freedom.

CEU moved into crisis communications mode with no time to develop a comprehensive strategy or hire external consultants. What we did was to turn our passion for everything CEU stands for into a cause that resonates. CEU, its open society mission, academic excellence, local civic engagement, international community, values and principles were all reflected in #IstandwithCEU.

#IstandwithCEU first appeared on Twitter on March 28 and was soon embraced by supporters. By March 30, we had the #istandwithCEU logo, by graphic designer Ildiko Petrok, which we posted on social media, put on badges and temporary tattoos and banners hung from buildings across our campus. The hashtag became a form of protest, the symbol of the defense of academic freedom.

With the whole world watching

We also made a strategic shift from posting to institutional CEU social media channels (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and YouTube) exclusively in English, to adding Hungarian in order to engage with the local community more effectively.

The first post in Hungarian, including the Hungarian version of #IstandwithCEU,  #aCEUvalvagyok, was shared on March 30. CEU’s first Hungarian Facebook post reached over 115,000 people, over three times the total number of followers at the time.

Our overall content strategy did not change – it only became more focused. On Facebook, we concentrated on showing CEU as a community of people, to contrast the often demonised image projected by government misinformation.

Testimonials by students, alumni, staff and faculty, group photos of the CEU community expressing gratitude for the immense support we received from Hungary and abroad, video montages of CEU students expressing support for the University in their mother tongues; together with the concise visual of #IstandwithCEU/#aCEUvalvagyok, conveyed the message loud and clear.

While the CEU Facebook page became a mirror reflecting how we saw ourselves, the @CEUHungary Twitter and Instagram feeds opened windows on how the world saw us.

Declarations of support began pouring in – from 19 Nobel laureates, the president of Germany, the presidents of Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and Oxford, and thousands of researchers, professional organisations and individuals. CEU leaders appeared on CNN, BBC, in the New York Times and media outlets from Berlin to Sydney, Tokyo to Buenos Aires. People sent in photos of themselves with the #IstandwithCEU/#aCEUvalvagyok badges and hashtags from all corners of the world. #IstandwithCEU was embraced by influencers on Facebook and Instagram, and started trending on Twitter on April 1.

#IstandwithCEU called for support in our fight for academic freedom. What the university never called for, or endorsed, was demonstrations in its name. CEU is a university, not a political organisation, therefore we sought to find a solution through negotiations with the government. 

This stance, reflected on official CEU accounts, prompted volunteers to set up unofficial, non-affiliated social media accounts using some variation of #IstandwithCEU. The largest of these, on Facebook, was started by volunteers, including CEU students and alumni. We were in contact with the administrators – the page owners were an invaluable help in mobilising support beyond what the university was able to do on its own.

"CEU is a university, not a political organisation, therefore we sought to find a solution through negotiations with the government."

CEU’s dedicated network of alumni was another key factor in garnering support. An alumnus who works at the European Commission suggested a Thunderclap campaign on Twitter to call for European leaders’ help in time for a debate on the legislation known as lex CEU in the European Parliament on April 26. The Academic Freedom and CEU Thunderclap launched on April 25 with a social media reach of 3,081,575 people.

According to research by Milan Janosov, doctoral student at CEU’s Center for Network Science, and Professor Balazs Vedres, the CEU-related hashtags #IstandwithCEU, #aCEUvalvagyok and #LexCEU had a potential reach of 140 million on Twitter in April.

To date, there are 6,734 public posts on Instagram with #IstandwithCEU. #IstandwithCEU appeared on badges and banners, among many others, in San Francisco, Prague, London, Bratislava, Tallin, Dhaka, Tbilisi, Munich, New York and Paris, and was written in the sand in Bali, Iran and Iceland.

In June 2017, the Hungarian government entered negotiations with the State of New York, where CEU is registered and accredited, to come to an agreement that would enable CEU to continue operations in Budapest with its academic freedom intact. The negotiations resulted in a draft agreement, which has not yet been signed.

On October 13 2017, the Hungarian government announced a one-year extension to comply with the legislation. This means CEU’s future is still unclear. The university has taken all the necessary steps to comply with the legislation, so we continue to call on the Hungarian government to sign the agreement with New York.

So what did we achieve in the past 12 months? We stepped out of our cozy bubble and became one of the best-known universities in the world. And not just as any university: CEU now stands for academic freedom.

 Central European University: a timeline

  • Founded in 1991 by George Soros, the Budapest campus opens in 1995
  • Granted Absolute Charter by the New York State Department of Education in 1996, the CEU becomes a full member of the Association of European Universities in 1998 and is granted Hungarian accreditation in 2005
  • Legislation on the modification of the Higher Education Law, discriminating against CEU, tabled on March 28, 2017
  • An estimated 80,000 people take to the streets of Budapest to protest against the proposed legislation on April 9, 2017
  • Hungarian President Janos Ader signs the amendments to Hungary’s national higher education legislation, popularly known as LexCEU, on April 10, 2017
  • European Commission concludes the law is not compatible with the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and takes legal action against Hungary on April 26, 2017
  • CEU signs memorandum of understanding with Bard College specifying the educational activities that CEU will conduct in New York on September 8, 2017
  • The Hungarian government announces a one-year extension to lexCEU on October 13, 2017, leaving CEU’s case unresolve

Main images: Photographer Daniel Vegel's portraits of people committed to Central European University / Photos:


Aranka Szabó

Aranka Szabó is digital content manager at Central European University, Budapest. She is responsible for developing and executing the university's social media strategy, training staff on social media best practices, and creating content for CEU's website. In spring/summer 2017, she coordinated the #IstandwithCEU/#aCEUvalvagyok social media campaign defending the university’s academic freedom after discriminatory legislation was passed in Hungary.