A voter casting a ballot is reflected in a mirror at a polling station during the Swedish general elections in Stockholm, Sweden. (Photographer Mikael Sjoberg/Bloomberg)

Fake News Takes Its Toll on Sweden’s Elections

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- As Swedish political parties struggle to form a coalition government, a growing body of research shows that social networks likely helped produce the election results that led to the impasse. And the confusion wasn’t the result of foreign interference, but rather homegrown abuse of digital media.

Sweden, like the Netherlands and Germany last year, is going through the longest period without a government in the history of its democracy. The latest election took place Sept. 9, but no party got enough votes to wield power and all attempts to form a governing coalition have failed so far. On Wednesday, the parliament rejected an attempt by Ulf Kristersson, leader of the center-right Moderate Party, to form a minority cabinet that would have had to rely on the support of the ultranationalist Sweden Democrats to make important decisions. Nor can Sweden’s biggest party, the Social Democrats, led by caretaker Prime Minister Stefan Loefven, cobble together a majority.

Now, Annie Loof of the Center Party, which only won 9 percent of the vote, could attempt to form a coalition; her idea is to bring the Social Democrats and the Moderates together, even though they have shown no desire to unite. Sweden’s elctoral rules give the speaker of the parliament four shots at picking a potential prime minister. If it doesn’t work out, a new election is held. That’s a likely outcome now, but polls show the vote is likely to be inconclusive again.

The deadlock could have its origins in the growing role of the internet in elections everywhere. According to data from the Swedish Internet Foundation, the 2018 election campaign was the first during which an overwhelming majority of Swedes got their news online. Despite a high degree of media literacy and relatively low trust in news shared on social media, the unprecedented fracturing of Swedish society was likely helped along by a phenomenon the Oxford Internet Institute described in a report published in September: The proportion of “junk news” shared on social media in Sweden during the election campaign was the highest of all recent European elections and second only to the U.S. presidential election of 2016. Deliberately misleading content accounted for 22 percent of all links shared with political hashtags. There was one link to “junk news” shared for every two links to mainstream media publications.

Sweden had prepared to fight off a Russian propaganda and disinformation campaign. It trained officials in spotting “influence operations” and distributed millions of booklets to households. But the Oxford Internet Institute said eight of the top 10 “junk news” sources during the campaign were Swedish, and “Russian sources comprised less than 1% of the total number of URLs shared in the data sample.” Many of the fakes promoted anti-immigrant narratives favoring the Sweden Democrats, a party that has no willing coalition partners.

Sweden has recently taken in more immigrants as a proportion of population than any other country, and a more recent report from the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue and the London School of Economics’ Institute of Global Affairs described an international campaign to paint the country as a hellish place of no-go zones and rampaging Muslim migrants. “The concerted international smear campaign against Sweden, portraying it as a country in crisis, verging on civil and ethnic war, is perhaps unmatched by any other far-right smear campaign in its longevity and consistency,” wrote the report’s authors, who include two of the most prominent experts on Russian disinformation, Peter Pomerantsev and Anne Applebaum.

They attribute the smear campaign to the international alt-right, based in the U.S., U.K., Hungary, the Netherlands and elsewhere, as well as the Russian government-controlled media. But the campaign doesn’t appear to be directed at Swedish voters. The ISD-LSE report found little evidence of foreign-coordinated efforts to spread disinformation targeting Swedes before the election. There were no international outlets among the top 20 domains linked to Twitter discussions using election-related hashtags. The Sweden Democrats tried to get their voters agitated over alleged fraud, but in this campaign, “coordination was very much driven from Swedish sources,” the report says.

The reasons for the lack of international coordination efforts seen on the scale of previous elections in France, U.S., Germany and Italy are unclear. First and foremost it is important to recognise the limited capacity of international groups to embark on campaigns in Swedish. Moreover, while Sweden is a prominent figure in the conversation topics of the international far right, it may still remain a relatively unknown political environment for most outside Scandinavia, and interest in or understanding of the Swedish political systems and its election audience is still relatively limited.

If this conclusion is correct and even Russia, with large resources to devote to international propaganda and a clear interest in keeping Sweden from drifting toward the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, hasn’t made a visible effort to influence the Swedish election, then it’s possible and even likely that social network-driven foreign interference is only a symptom. The social networks themselves as conduits for junk news, whether foreign-made or domestically concocted, are the disease.

Sweden takes media literacy extremely seriously, and even teaches high school students to detect fake news. If the findings of the Oxford Internet Institute are anything to go by, this approach hasn’t brought instant success. People still enjoy sharing fakes, and their political outlook is contaminated by malicious, divisive, manipulative stories that spread on the social networks despite the highly publicized efforts of companies such as Facebook, Google and Twitter to stop their circulation.

Recent studies in Germany and the U.S. have linked the prevalence of social media to hate crimes. It’s logical to extend these findings to political polarization and fracturing. Sweden’s current political deadlock could be at least in part caused by the prevalence of social networks: In 2017, 53 percent of Swedish internet users (or 50 percent of the country’s total population) were on Facebook daily. 

This year, according to the Swedish Internet Foundation, Facebook activity has begun dropping off. Whether political polarization will recede with it is a worthy subject for further research.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.