The ‘Sweden incident’ is the tip of a disinformation iceberg
I was more than a bit surprised when I got off a plane on Saturday and switched on my phone to find that Donald Trump had warned the world of a terror attack in Sweden. As someone whose job involves keeping tabs on the Nordic countries, if something had happened I should probably have heard about it.
How then, did the US President come to say something so easily disprovable?
For a great many people, Sweden is a paradise, albeit one they know nothing about. The internet is full of spuriously sourced stories claiming that Sweden is introducing six hour days, has got rid of carbon emissions, or has transcended the boundaries of corporeal existence. Under-researched clickbait is not just the vice of the far right sadly.
The right-wing version of the mythical Sweden that only exists on the internet is, however, a far more insidious phenomenon. For every feelgood click story about feminist fathers and climate change action, there are two or three pieces reporting on terminal decline in Swedish society, usually connected to the actions of Muslims, women, or socialism.
There are always a few sure-fire headlines in the hat, including that Sweden is the rape capital of Europe, that crime has skyrocketed since the country took in over 130,000 people during the Syrian refugee crisis, and that there are ‘no-go zones’ where white people fear to tread populated by immigrant welfare free riders.
The far-right Sweden Democrats party are more than happy to put on respectable suits and play expert commentator for international broadcasters looking for soundbites in English. The anti immigration and anti EU party are the subject of regular puff pieces by Breitbart, the hard right news site connected to Donald Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon.
A network of right wing sites, including Breitbart and The Gatestone Institute have realised that dystopian portrayals ofSweden mean profile and ad income. This network of alt-right sites take stories from and interview one another, meaning that stories become ‘verified’ through duplication and internal systems of citation. They also have an uneasy alliance with Sputnik, the Kremlin run news service which claims that Sweden has been playing down crime by immigrants and regularly pushes out stories on the failure of the Swedish project.
Earlier this year Sweden had to issue media guidance to its diplomats around the world to combat increasingly lopsided portrayals of the country, particularly in the US press.
Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter recently tracked one fake news story about Muslim refugees desecrating a church to its source, a basement flat in Macedonia that makes money punting made up news stories to angry demographics of Americans. In reality the Church was vandalised by some locally born heroin addicts and the Islamic angle entirely fabricated. Until Dagens Nyheter’s journalist investigated, nobody had bothered trying to establish the real facts of the situation.
Some of the fake news punted around about Sweden is cynically commercial, other stories merely willingly disingenuous. To right wing Americans, Sweden is the new Soviet Union, everything America shouldn’t be. Never mind the fact that Forbes Magazine, hardly a socialist Pravda, recently named it as one of the best places to do business in the world.
Famously The Spectator published a cover story last year on Sweden’s refugee policies featuring a hand grenade in the colours of the Swedish flag. The Daily Mail and the Express also joined it. The portrayal of Sweden as a country under siege is not just the work of people on fringe click sites and forums but newspapers and editors who know that hate brings in revenue. Most concerningly, Donald Trump claimed to have based his views on Sweden on the decidedly mainstream Fox News.
Sweden is like any other country. If you don’t report it properly then someone else can come along and fill in the gaps, and those people will often have questionable agendas.