This post originally appeared on Media Matters.
Sweden is known as a bastion of progressive values and policies, but underneath the dominant ideology, there is a motivated, well-connected nativist movement that has existed for decades and is now re-emerging, armed with fake news.
With a population of just under 10 million, Sweden is a small, historically ethnically homogenous country that in recent years has accepted the largest number of asylum seekers per capita of any European nation. Sweden’s white nationalists, once relegated to the fringe, have been re-energized by a global so-called populist movement and a relatively progressive immigration policy that is anathema to their agenda. And there are signs that they may be succeeding in their efforts. Xenophobic hate crimes are up, stricter immigration policies have been imposed, and Sweden Democrats, the far-right political party, with ties to neo-Nazism is, for the first time ever, polling as the second most popular party in the country. To top it off, there is evidence that the media discourse on immigration has taken a dark turn to portray migrants “as a problem,” and fake news is on the rise.
Enter the Swedish “alt-right,” a movement that sees progressivism as having been imported into Swedish society as an experiment in cultural Marxism and views Sweden’s relatively small size and homogeneity as having contributed to a sort of "unitarian zeitgeist" of liberal thought.* The members of this movement see it as a fight to “diversify” the Swedish media landscape while promoting a decidedly racist agenda. Together, these attributes have created an environment ripe for the spread of “alt-right” ideas, and the most well-known white nationalist of the American "alt-right" has taken notice.
Richard Spencer, president of the white nationalist “think tank” the National Policy Institute (NPI), after having been recently alienated from a movement he named, is looking for legitimacy in a country he has dubbed “the most alt-right.” According to BuzzFeed, Spencer recently began a partnership with two Swedish “alt-right” outlets, Arktos Media, a publishing house that prints white nationalist literature in English, and Red Ice, a Swedish white nationalist video and podcast platform that often features international guests. The partnership, the AltRight Corporation, which has been called an attempt at a “more ideological Breitbart,” also has its own website and, until May 23, also had its own podcast, AltRight Radio. Soundcloud has since banned the podcast for violating its hate speech policy. But this movement is not confined to the internet. For the past nineyears, Sweden has hosted an “alt-right conference” which is attended by members and sympathizers from all over the world. One prominent American “alt-right” figure (whose name was not divulged) told AltRight.com’s Daniel Friberg that Sweden’s annual alt-right conference was the most “well-attended” he’d been to and, notably, the "most radical," too.*
Migrant crime is a favorite topic of the “alt-right” in Sweden, in part because the outlets that promote this content know they’re speaking to an audience favorable to their ideological agenda, not facts. (Media Matters previously documented Breitbart's use of a racist meme to categorize stories about migrant crime in Sweden, most of which also had little basis in reality). Journalists know this is happening but remain ill-equipped to respond to it. A recent study found that eight out of 10 Swedes believe fake news is altering their “perception of basic facts.” Sweden has acknowledged the rise of “inaccurate information” and, in March, the country’s prime minister announced a plan to combat fake news ahead of Sweden’s 2018 general election. Yet, Sweden remains vulnerable to fake news and, as the education minister admits, there is “some naivety when it comes to the information society.” Often the flow of misinformation looks something like this: A Swedish or British tabloid reports on a study or crime with a sensational headline and few details or context; “alt-right” or far-right outlets cite the original source but add new details to further sensationalize the story; these outlets promote each other to amplify the story; and eventually the story makes its way to a more mainstream news outlet. Sometimes, the news that a story is false makes its way back to Swedish media, but by then, the damage is already done.
Last year, American film producer Ami Horowitz made a deceptively edited film rife with false claims about migrant crime in Sweden. In February of this year, after having been promoted by U.K. tabloid the Daily Mail and conspiracy theorist website Infowars, he was invited for an interview with Fox’s Tucker Carlson, not oncebut twice, and one of the segments was later cited by President Trump as the impetus for his fact-free suggestion that something “was happening last night” in Sweden, which he couched amid discussion of terror-hit cities. The interview received so much attention that the Swedish police and embassy pushed back, one Swedish newspaper responded by fact-checking each of Horowitz’s assertions, and another criticizedTrump’s complicity in the “Sweden-bashing by the hard-core American right.” But how equipped is Sweden to deal with xenophobic fake news that doesn’t reach the pedestal of the president of the United States, and, thus, does not grab international attention?
In another, more recent example, Swedish tabloid Dagens Nyheter published a study titled, "Young Men Who Commit Shootings Often Have A Foreign Background," which found that 90 out of 100 shooting suspects had at least one foreign-born parent. Of course, these findings are concerning, but a closer look illustrates problems that are not unique to Sweden: Unemployment, lack of educational opportunities, and mental illness were all identified by experts as important contributing factors to gun violence. It is also worth noting that almost half of the individuals counted in this study were merely suspected, not convicted, of perpetrating these crimes. Of course, this context was missing from the misleadingly titled article that notorious Islamophobe Virginia Hale later wrote for Breitbart. Alex Jones’ Infowars also engaged with the story, citing the Swedish fake newspurveyor and “alt-right” outlet Fria Tider (which has been called the "Breitbart of Sweden"*) in its report, with an even more misleading headline: “SWEDEN: MIGRANTS RESPONSIBLE FOR 90% OF SHOOTINGS.” Both articles used the opportunity to push debunked claims about crime in Sweden.
Though they’re false, these claims are repeated so often that they begin to exist as facts. For example, the fact-checking website Snopes has debunked many stories on Sweden and even issued a three-part seriesdebunking the most common misleading narratives on Swedish migrant crime. But the narratives persist. There are a few reasons for this. It’s now widely known that sensational headlines get more clicks, and the effect is especially heightened when they play on a person’s deep-seated emotions like anger and anxiety. Sweden has not become the “rape capital of Europe,” but real or imagined, Sweden’s historically liberal refugee admissions policy has created enough tension to make people vulnerable to fake news about the population. Another universal reason for the rise of fake news, as it relates to Sweden, is disaffection from mainstream outlets and increasing preference for alternative sources. A 2016 study in Sweden found half of media consumers get their news from sources other than Sweden’s traditional news sources and around 20 percent have “no confidence” in them.
There are uniquely Swedish reasons for why the country is susceptible to fake news. These include the well-intentioned ways crime is defined and reported and the language barriers to understanding Swedish news. For instance, according to a late 2015 internal memo, Swedish police were instructed not to report externally the ethnic or national origin of suspected criminals in order not to appear racist. The decision, while admirable and also not unique to Sweden, has raised suspicion. Many far-right outlets perceived the move as an attempted cover-up, and the controversy became so big that the Swedish government responded to the contention. Another Swedish practice that has unintentionally created the illusion of increased crime is the way Sweden defines and categorizes crime and the culture around crime reporting. For example, Sweden defines sexual assault much more broadly than the U.S. and other European countries do, and records every single offense as a separate crime, even if they are committed by the same perpetrator. The country has also created a culture in which victims are encouraged to report crimes rather than stigmatized. Sweden’s open and progressive crime reporting practices, when viewed comparatively, allow fake news purveyors to speculate on a suspected criminal’s ethnic background with impunity, as well as manufacture an inflated perception of criminality.
From the reader’s perspective, the fact that most “alt-right” outlets and fake news purveyors link to Swedish language news stories in order to validate their claims forces even the most critical reader to either know Swedish or rely on rough translations to discern the validity of the source. Knowing this, outlets can wrongly attribute or incorrectly paraphrase quotations from Swedish sources that advance their narrative without fear of retribution.
The intersection of fake news and the “alt-right” is a particularly troubling one. It is ever-shifting, beholden neither to facts nor ideology and, in the realm of the internet, almost totally unaccountable. What we do know is that its adherents are white men who are targeting everyone else, that it’s not going away, and that we must remain vigilant. Sweden is the favorite target of the American “alt-right” as it expands to Europe, desperately looking for legitimacy, and armed with total lies.
*These quotations were taken from the now-deleted AltRight Radio podcast, "Eurocentric #2: Killing Captain Sweden."