A game of whispers: How a mistranslation of the Swedish PM made global headlines

By: christian haag&
siri christiansen&
December 11 2023

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A game of whispers: How a mistranslation of the Swedish PM made global headlines

Source: Reuters/Composite by Matthew Hunter

On November 24, the Swedish minister for civil defense, Carl-Oskar Bohlin, issued a statement on X: "Right now, there are circulating clips with inaccurate translations and distortion of what the Swedish Prime Minister said," he wrote. "The purpose is obvious: To damage Sweden's image abroad and contribute to further polarization and division."

The translation claimed that Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson had said that "Sweden and the EU support Israel's right to commit genocide," and leading terrorism experts warned that the situation could fuel a new disinformation campaign directed toward the country if it gained hold.

Here, a local event was misinterpreted due to a lack of understanding of the local context. In this case, it was the Swedish language. It ended up sparking headlines worldwide. Logically Facts has tracked how the claim snowballed through social media – and found a critical starting point in a TikTok account for homemade birthday cakes.

Most international news sites reporting on the claim referenced a Swedish TikTok account with 413 followers. The account, appearing to be a small-scale bakery, had only published three videos before Ulf Kristersson’s disastrous event, showing homemade cakes of Minnie the Mouse, Spiderman, and Shrek.

How it spread

We found the earliest post from a local account from the Swedish city of Gothenburg. The video was uploaded less than an hour after the event finished. Since the organization is based in Gothenburg, the video clip may have been filmed at the Q&A with Ulf Kristersson. The account AlltatallaGBG is the Gothenberg section of Allt åt Alla, a Swedish organization that describes itself as working towards a classless society with roots in the autonomous movement. AlltatallaGBG uploaded a video from the Q&A with subtitles, giving the impression that Ulf Kristersson almost said “folkmord,” the Swedish word for “genocide.” This post spread quickly in Sweden, with 2.5 million views as of December 6. However, a different account made the claim viral internationally. 

Approximately 3 hours after AlltåtallaGBG published the video, an inconspicuous TikTok bakery account uploaded two versions from Gothenburg. One had Swedish subtitles, and one had English subtitles, each gaining approximately 140,000 views. The bakery account does not possess the usual characteristics of a misinformation spreader: Its first-ever post, a compilation of photos of cake designs and their prices, was on November 7. It follows just 65 other accounts, including Britney Spears, Kylie Jenner, and other celebrities – the rest are private and seemingly belong to teenagers. It has not shared any political content after the video of the Swedish Prime Minister. Most importantly, the version of the Ulf Kristersson video with English subtitles was deleted from the account after a week. At that point, the translation had already spread across the internet. 

The Turkish public broadcaster TRT found the video just one day after it was published on the TikTok bakery account. It tagged the bakery account as the source, resulting in a snowball effect. The claim was quickly shared by news sites around the globe in Qatar, Jordan, Indonesia, Palestine, India, Lebanon, Russia, Hong Kong, the U.S., and the U.K. Still, TRT’s TikTok video is one of the most viral on the subject, with almost 814,000 views as of December 6. At the time of writing, 34 videos TikTok users have reposted TRT’s clip as a #stitch or #duet, a number which has decreased since we began the study, indicating that videos have been removed by either users or TikTok.

Did it stick?

The international spread of the claim caused concerns in Sweden due to the ongoing disinformation campaigns aimed at the country. Magnus Ranstorps, an expert on terrorism, told Swedish Media and Logically Facts that if the claim gained a hold, it could further threaten Swedish security and enhance the image of Sweden as a country hostile to Muslims.

Using Newswhip, Logically Facts tracked the spread on news sites and social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, and Reddit. The data shows a peak in the days following the Q&A in Gothenburg on November 21 and a decline after November 25.

We manually checked the claim on X since November 24. The results also indicated the spread was reducing. We searched keywords and phrases such as“Israel has the right to geno,” which produced eight results. “Sweden,” “PM,” and “genocide” produced nine. However, “Swedish,” “Prime Minister,” and “genocide” showed seventeen results. Most of these accounts are small, and their posts have gained little attention. Just two have been viewed around 1k times as of December 7, the rest significantly less. Similarly, a manual check on TikTok of the same keywords in December yielded nine relevant results, each with a small spread. Only one video reached 22,000 views and 450 likes, showing dissemination has declined. During the manual check, We excluded Logically Facts articles and posts that did not spread the claim.

Andreas Önnefors, head of the fact-checking program at Sweden’s Fojo Media Institute, notes several explanations why some claims remain in circulation after being debunked while others die out. Referencing a 2013 study from the social psychologists Bradley Franks, Adrian Bangerter, and Martin W. Bauer, “Certain forms of messaging have a higher probability to stick, to spread, and to mobilize to action,” This includes messages endorsed by passion since they can be used to frame events more radically.

“In the case of Kristersson's supposed ‘Freudian slip,’ the messaging around it – alleging that the Swedish PM endorsed genocide – is possibly too diffuse and contradictory to engage passionately with over time. Perhaps the Swedish PM has a too low or anonymous profile to be identified as a key player in a larger narrative ‘The West endorses genocide,’” Önnefors said.

Önnerfors also highlighted research carried out by Joshua Tucker, co-director of the New York University’s Center for Social Media and Politics, which shows that misinformation tends to become established, or “stuck,” in the time frame between it being posted and debunked.

“...it might be that in the case of Kristersson’s “Freudian slip,” debunking and fact-checks as reactive interventions actually were available and spread quickly within the very short timeframe before the inevitable “stick” of false information has kicked in,” Önnefors said.

Small vs superspreaders

The story visualizes how a small account can become the source of a viral claim. Research has shown that a few large accounts often primarily disseminate disinformation. The Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) found in 2021 that 12 accounts were responsible for most COVID-19 disinformation on Facebook and Twitter. Similarly, Newsguard has found seven X accounts with “verified” checkmarks are responsible for 74 percent of false information disseminated during the Israel-Hamas war. Usually, larger accounts are the primary motor for spreading false claims. Yet, in this case, TRT became one of the main disseminators, adding legitimacy and pushing uptake from other news outlets. 

“Our research on anti-vaxxers shows there are a few distinct types of accounts that create and spread misinformation: those who create it for political goals, those who create it to profit from products they sell, and those who seek to promote and profit from conspiracy theories,” CCDH’s research head, Callum Hood, told Logically Facts. “In some cases, viral misinformation can leap from social to traditional media if it has the appearance of credibility and generates a critical mass of online attention. That's why it's so important for all of us, and particularly those in the media and public life, to check controversial new claims we see online before sharing them more widely.”

Logically Facts has contacted the local Gothenburg account that first uploaded the video for an interview, and the Swedish TikTok baker, but has not received any responses. 

(Edited by Francesca Scott, Tori Marland, and Alexander Smith)

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