Deep state dupe: How Swedish fringe-fluencers copied the U.S. conspiracy theory

By: siri christiansen&
March 28 2024

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Deep state dupe: How Swedish fringe-fluencers copied the U.S. conspiracy theory

Source: Reuters/alamy/Wdnet Studio

What if Sweden, one of the least corrupt countries in the world, is actually under the despotic rule of a shadow government that brainwashes the public and silences political opposition?

That's the growing perception among Sweden's far-right and conspiratorial groups, which, in a series of protests against the public broadcasters SVT and SR this spring, aim to "stop the indoctrination" and "save Sweden."

Hannah Pollack Sarnecki, a researcher at the Swedish Defence Research Agency, told Logically Facts that the deep state narrative has "exploded" in Sweden over the past years and is currently one of the most common conspiracy theories within the country's anti-democratic extremist groups. In 2023, the Swedish Defense Research Agency (FOI) released a report commissioned by the Swedish Security Service aimed at mapping the democratic threat posed by anti-democratic extremist networks – a report that Swedish alternative media claimed "confirmed the influence of the deep state."

The term "deep state" was initially coined to describe attempts by the Turkish military to undermine democracy. In recent years, the term has been co-opted by the U.S.-based QAnon movement to describe a child-trafficking, blood-drinking cabal secretly controlling the American government.

QAnon builds upon a long-standing American public cynicism and widespread skepticism toward government officials, dating back to the CIA's Cold War covert operations that led many to question whether secretive intelligence officers had more influence over American foreign power than elected officials. Sweden, on the other hand, is a consistent top performer when it comes to public trust in government. Whereas over 70 percent of Americans think that a group of unelected officials have secret influence over politics, according to a 2018 poll, only 16 percent of Swedes believe politicians are involved in extensive corruption, according to a 2022 poll by the Quality of Government Institute.

"Conspiracy theories are elastic – you adapt them to the socio-economic, cultural, and political context you're in, and to the argument you want to put forward," Pollack Sarnecki said, pointing to the U.S. where Democrats, Hollywood, and the "globalists" have all been blamed for running the deep state. 

Deep state origins in Sweden

In Sweden, the far-right groups have focused on the Social Democrats or a loosely defined leftist, feminist elite. The fringe conspiracy theorists have opted for a more elaborate theory in which Sweden is the headquarters of the global deep state, often pointing to several factors. Sweden has the oldest central bank in the world; it has one of the highest volumes of household debt relative to disposable income in Europe; it is projected to become the world's first cashless society; and Sweden is home to the most powerful business family in Europe: the Wallenbergs, whose family motto is "Esse non videri" – "To be, not to be seen" – and which "controls the world's telecommunication" through the telecom giant Ericsson. 

(Social media posts claiming that the Wallenberg family is the head of the deep state. Source: X/Screenshots)

In reality, the Wallenbergs have relatively little direct control over their $250bn business empire compared to other business families. Rather than being the sole owner of private companies, 16 non-profit public and private foundations collectively known as the Wallenberg Foundations hold stakes in companies via the listed holding company Investor and the unlisted holding company FAM. In other words, the Wallenberg family does not "own" Ericsson, AstraZeneca, the defense group Saab, the Swedish stock exchange Nasdaq, or the banking giant SEB, to mention a few – it is a large shareholder, and those shares are held by investment vehicles or foundations. Members of the Wallenberg family sit on boards of several of these companies, but the three brothers currently "running" the family empire do not even make it into the lists of the richest people in Sweden.

"The Wallenbergs function [in Sweden's antidemocratic extremist environment] today as the Rothchilds in an international context. Like any other wealthy company, they naturally have an impact on society, and this fuels conspiracy theories," Pollack Sarnecki told Logically Facts. "Often in these contexts, the Wallenbergs serve as code for ‘Jewish global conspiracy.'"

The Swedish Reddit-equivalent online forum Flashback, popular particularly among the alt-right, has seen an uptick in new threads concerning Wallenberg and the deep state, in which users claim that "The criminal clan family Wallenberg is behind implementing the Corona passport in Sweden," that Wallenberg was "the driving force behind both world wars and the Cold War," and that "Sweden is the most Jew-controlled country in the world." The most popular thread about Wallenberg currently has over 210,000 views.

The deep state in the public debate

Despite being a fringe movement in a small country of just 10 million people, the Swedish deep state "fringe-fluencers" have racked up a considerable following, with the most popular having between 10,000 and 19,000 followers on social media. Their content also seems to have gained a relatively large reach; a two-hour YouTube lecture in Swedish on Wallenberg has gained 67,000 views in two years, and a half-hour YouTube video about the "Social Democratic deep state" has over 100,000 views. 

The claim that Wallenberg or Sweden is the core of the deep state has also been pushed internationally. Using CrowdTangle, Logically Facts found several international Facebook pages with thousands of followers that have posted content claiming Wallenberg "is behind and owns the infrastructure of the vaccine passport" and "control surveillance in 180+ countries." 

Screenshot of Facebook post found using Crowdtangle. Source: Crowdtangle/Screenshots/Modified by Logically Facts)

Wallenberg has also been mentioned in viral videos by crypto/conspiracy theory influencers like Ian Carroll and Joshua Jake, the latter of which claims that Wallenberg is "even worse" and has "more dark secrets" than BlackRock. In recent months, Swedish deep state influencers have also pushed a theory that the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, Sida, is complicit in a "child slavery industrial complex" for adrenochrome and organ harvesting.

(Source: X/Screenshots/Composite by Logically Facts)

"I don't think you can say it's a fringe phenomenon anymore, because we see how deep state theories are being spread in established political discourse," said Pollack Sarnecki, referring to Donald Trump, Victor Orban, and Vladimir Putin, as well as within Swedish politics.

The theory about a "Social Democratic deep state" – in which, despite having lost the 2022 election, the Social Democratic party has maintained its power by appointing loyal people to key positions in the Swedish authorities and universities – has been voiced by Kent Ekeroth, a prominent veteran of the far-right Swedish Democrats party, as well as conservative commentators who have written that "Swedish authorities are filled to the brim with officials steeped in social democracy who will see it as their job to resist the implementation of new laws."

Morgan Finnsiö, a researcher at the Swedish antiracist organization Expo, told Logically Facts that he has noticed an increased use of the explicit term "deep state" over the past years. 

"It's a mobilizing narrative that makes people angry and more likely to support the movement he represents," he said, adding that while it is difficult to know whether people like Kent Ekeroth genuinely believe in the deep state or not, "it serves an instrumental purpose to undermine the legitimacy of the institutions being attacked."

A new narrative for a low-corruption country

While the idea of a secretive Swedish shadow government is new, it draws inspiration from a long-standing leftist critique of the Wallenberg family's influence over Swedish business and politics – one that has resurfaced during Sweden's NATO application process and the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Representatives from Wallenberg-owned businesses were present during Sweden's NATO meetings with Finland and Turkey in 2022, which commentators said demonstrated the Wallenbergs' influence over politics at large. Similarly, a viral TikTok video claimed that the Swedish media is withholding information about the Israel-Hamas conflict to help the Wallenberg family, which is a majority shareholder in the defense company Saab. In a tone not too dissimilar to the deep state fringe-fluencers, the Swedish communist newspaper Proletären wrote in August 2023 that "the Wallenberg family and the U.S. run Sweden," referencing a paywalled interview with the hedge fund manager Christer Gardell. This concern didn't appear out of the blue. A 2014 investigation into Sweden's Saudi arms deal suggests that the Swedish government resumed aiding a controversial weapons factory in Saudi Arabia after Marcus Wallenberg said it would harm business interests to pull out.

"It's not strange that a company that has created so much wealth and owns so much of the economy has a certain political influence," Andreas Bågenholm, a researcher at the Department of Political Science at the University of Gothenburg and program manager of the Quality of Government Institute, told Logically Facts. "The question is how that influence has been exercised, and whether it has disrupted the democratic process. There is very little to suggest that it has."

(Source: X/Composite by Logically Facts)

Bågenholm emphasized that no one involved in researching corruption would argue that Sweden is corrupt and governed by actors behind the scenes. He pointed to the fact that Sweden has eight political parties in parliament that all push for different politics, which goes against the idea that politics is controlled by one single agenda and that the election results are in line with independent opinion polls, which shows they are unlikely to have been fabricated.

He believes it is up to the conspiracy theorists to provide evidence to support their theory rather than for experts to disprove it: "[Conspiracy theorists] shift the burden of proof. You have to turn the question around and let them explain why Swedish democracy doesn't work."

To support the claim that Sweden is run by a Social Democratic deep state, Kent Ekeroth has referenced a 2021 report titled "The one-party state" by the free market think tank Timbro, which examines the heads of authorities appointed during the 2014-2020 Social Democratic government. It claims that "weighted by the size of the authorities," 90 percent of heads of authorities with a political background were from the Social Democrats. In total, 173 appointments were made between 2014 and 2020, 40 of which had a political background, out of which 22 had a background in the Social Democrats. 

"I absolutely disagree that this is an example of the deep state," Bågenholm said of the report's findings. He highlighted every government is free to change the head of an agency and that these appointments have not been concealed from the public. "There are certainly a number of appointments where party book has taken precedence over merit and skill, but many people with party experience are also suitable for the jobs they are appointed to." 

"This is how conspiracy theories work: it's not that there aren't any occasional facts that seem remarkable and invite further debate, it's that the data points are cynically used to claim to support a narrative they do not, in fact, support," said Expo's Finnsiö. "Let's have a debate about whether people are appointed on proper grounds or not, but let's not have that conversation led by people like Kent Ekeroth – who is pursuing a political agenda that, ironically, wants to usher in a highly authoritarian system."

Why Sweden?

Pollack Sarnecki doesn't rule out that the Swedish deep state theory could be fueled by foreign actors that have an interest in portraying liberal democracies as being on the verge of collapse – such as Putin, who, in his recent interview with Tucker Carlson, claimed that the U.S. is run by unelected powers at the CIA.

"We see that they are very quick to spread pro-Russian propaganda in these environments," she told Logically Facts. "There has been a perception of Sweden as an ideal country when it comes to corruption, and of course, there are foreign actors who work to try to give a different image of Sweden." 

The dramatic world events of the past few years – the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the Israel-Hamas conflict, climate change, inflation, and widening income gaps – could also have made Swedes more susceptible to anti-democratic ideas: "Conspiracy thinking thrives in crises," Pollack Sarnecki said, "A situation with several parallel crises at once favors anti-democratic movements."

Expo's Finnsiö attributes the rise of the deep state narrative to Trumpism, highlighting that the transnational far-right tends to share narratives over time. "If the American far-right finds that the deep state narrative works, other far-right politicians [outside of the U.S.] will start paying attention," he said. "What shows up in one far-right [context] usually shows up in another, that's why we're very unsurprised and why we expect it to spread further."

He also emphasized that the trust in government is lower among Swedish Democrat supporters than in the general population. Just 27 percent of people who voted for the Swedish Democrats in the 2022 election said they have "very high" or "fairly high" trust in politics, compared to 54 percent overall. "It's a kind of self-reinforcing narrative," Finnsiö said. "The deep state theory is just an iteration of the same kind of meta-narrative the far right has said for many decades and many different countries; the reason [the far-right] can't make headwinds is because people are brainwashed and democratic institutions are fundamentally unreliable."

Andreas Bågenholm, however, doesn't think the conspiracy theorists should be awarded too much credit.

"I don't think these are widespread perceptions," said Bågenholm, arguing that Sweden's large national media organizations offer mixed, nuanced news coverage, which means that conspiracy theories rarely go unchallenged the way they can in the U.S. "Sweden is a poor breeding ground for this conspiracy theory."

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