Sweden is facing a widespread disinformation campaign ahead of its general election this weekend according to a new study, with a third of articles shared online coming from deliberately misleading sources.
The study, conducted by researchers at Oxford University and first reported by Reuters, analyzed 275,000 tweets during a ten-day period in August. It found that a third of shared articles came from “junk” websites that deliberately shared misleading information, most of them with a rightward tilt. Three of the most popular “junk sites” employed former members of the Sweden Democrats, a far-right party currently riding high in the polls.
A significant portion of the fake news focused on stories about Islam and immigration. For example in June, the popular fake news website Samhallsnytt (which had previously received financial support from the Sweden Democrats) published a fake story about how a youth soccer tournament had banned pork as “haram.”
Despite the economy doing well, many Swedes are deeply pessimistic about the current state of the country, with fears about surging crime and immigration dominating the election narrative. Professor Per Ödling of the University of Lund however, maintains that social media has played a pivotal role in creating a more pessimistic populace. He told Nordic Business Insider that this pessimism is partly fueled by social media algorithms, which will show you more pessimistic and panic-inducing fake news if you show interest in one “junk” source.
According to current polls, the Sweden Democrats are set to win up to 20 percent of votes, a huge increase from when it first entered parliament in 2010 with just 5.7 percent of votes. Because of Sweden’s parliamentary system, no mainstream political party is likely to win enough of the vote to govern outright. This will potentially position the Sweden Democrats as kingmakers, and force a coalition to adopt at least some of its hardline policies.
Sweden is not the first country, however, to experience an upsurge in fake news ahead of an election. Prior to the 2017 French elections, the country was received a deluge of fake news. One of the key electoral strategies of Cambridge Analytica was to exploit ethnic and social tensions, manufacturing news stories in the run-up to elections in developing countries like Kenya.
The spread of fake news was also used during the German election as part of a deliberate misinformation campaign by the far-right to boost support for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. The AfD is now the main opposition in the German Bundestag and has taken an extremely hardline stance against immigration.