'Israel has the right to genocide': Dubious translation of Sweden’s PM goes viral

By: christian haag&
siri christiansen&
November 24 2023

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'Israel has the right to genocide': Dubious translation of Sweden’s PM goes viral

Swedish Prime Minister, Ulf Kristersson. (Source: Reuters)

Sweden could be on the brink of a new disinformation campaign, experts believe, as a speech by Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson has been interpreted by some as Sweden supporting Israel's right to commit genocide.

What happened?

On November 21, pro-Palestine protestors shouted slogans in and outside the venue where Kristersson and Finance Minister Elisabeth Svantesson held an open Q&A in Gothenburg. The situation was tense, with demonstrators shouting "shame on you," saying Kristersson had "blood on his hands" and "supports genocide." 

Kristersson said, "Sverige och EU står enade i att Israel har rätt till folk (Sweden and the EU stand united in that Israel has the right to folk)…" before he interrupted himself mid-sentence and continued, "till försvar inom ramen för folkrätten (to defense within the framework of international law)." 

The Swedish word "folk" (in English: "people" or "folk") makes up the first part of the Swedish word for genocide, followed by "mord" (in English: "murder"), but it is also included in over 200 other Swedish words. 

Some audience members reacted immediately, assuming the prime minister was about to say "folkmord" (genocide). They screamed, "Does Israel have the right to genocide?" and "We heard it!"

The first reaction from the Swedish government came on Thursday when the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs issued a statement on X: "An inaccurate translation of a clip of Sweden's Prime Minister is being spread on social media. Do not contribute to this. What he said is that Sweden and the EU stand firmly behind Israel's right to defend itself."

On Friday, Ulf Kristersson commented to the  Swedish Public Service,  saying, “I tried to say what I have said many times since this war broke out, that the EU and Sweden condemn Hamas, that it is a terrorist organization. The EU and Sweden support Israel's right to defend itself under international law and that Sweden and the EU also want to have humanitarian access.” Regarding the claim, Kristersson referred to it and the dissemination as “pure disinformation.” 

Shortly after the prime ministers speech, social media users started adding subtitles or captions to footage from the event, claiming Kristersson said "folkm" or "folkmo" before pausing, which would make it more probable to hear "folkmord" - the Swedish word for genocide. 

Audience members shared several videos from the event online, claiming Kristersson said that Sweden and the EU "support Israel's right to genocide." One of the original Swedish posts was first published on Instagram, where it has received 2.4 million views and 14,600 likes at the time of writing. The video was quickly shared by several Swedish users on TikTok, with one getting almost 417,000 views and 59,000 likes in 24 hours. 

On X (formerly Twitter), "folkmord" was one of Sweden's top ten trending topics on the morning of November 23, with over 3,500 posts on the topic.

Clip shared worldwide

The video with English subtitles also gained global virality. The claim has been shared in Spanish, Turkish, Italian, and Arabic. Archived TikTok posts in English can be found here, here, and here. The clip is also being shared on YouTube, BitChute, Tumblr, and Reddit.

Lebanese journalist Pierre Abi-Saab and British journalist and writer Alan MacLeod sharing the viral clip of Swedish PM Ulf Kristersson. (Source: X/Screenshot)

"The Swedes have a hard time sticking to the script, it seems. Here's the Prime Minister, Ulf Kristersson, saying that 'Sweden and the EU stand united in that Israel has the right to genocid- [No, I mean] self-defense,'" the Swedish-Iranian author and political scientist Trita Parsi wrote in an X post that has reached over 1.3 million views as of November 24.

The claim has also been picked up by Palestinian, Pakistani, U.S., Indonesian, and Turkish news media, including Quds News Network, CNN Indonesia, and The Messenger. Turkish public broadcaster TRT World has shared the clip on X, YouTube, and TikTok, increasing the dissemination of the claim. On Thursday, it was also covered by Russia's RT DE.

Some news outlets, such as the Palestinian news agency Wafa, reported, "Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson says Israel has the right to commit genocide before correcting himself to say the right to self-defense." Others used more careful phrasing, like "almost suggests" or "accidentally says," such as Middle East Eye and the major Pakistani newspaper Dawn

Screenshots of news coverage of Ulf Kristersson's comment by the Palestinian news and information agency Wafa and the Pakistani newspaper Dawn. (Source: X/Dawn)

Unpacking the sentence

Logically Facts sent two different videos from the event to Mattias Heldner, a phonetics professor and head of the linguistics department at Stockholm University. Heldner examined the audio to determine if Kristersson said "folkm" or "folkmo" before pausing, as being claimed to allege the prime minister said "geno" or "genoci."

"There is nothing in the acoustic signal that suggests that he says anything more than just" folk" and then interrupts himself. There are no visible traces of [m] or any [u] vowel before he says" till försvar." An [m] might have been hidden in the background noise, but a vowel should have been visible also in this noisy signal," Heldner told Logically Facts.

Heldner also pointed out that Kristersson's sentence structure leads up to the words "to defense" (as pronounced in full immediately after the disputed word) rather than "genocide." The prime minister did not say "att begå" which would translate to "to commit" -  words that would typically precede "folkmord" ("to commit genocide") in this context. Instead, he used the preposition "till" ("to"), which makes it more probable that he intended to say "försvar" ("defense").

Lost in translation

Many posts of the clip include captions and subtitles where "folk" has been translated to "geno," "genoc," and "genoci." "That is a misleading translation," says Heldner. "The whole word is required to make a reasonable translation."

The Swedish word "folk" can be used on its own or as a prefix to a number of different words, including folkförsvar (people's defense), folkrätt (international law), folkets (the people's), folkrörelse (people's movement). The Swedish Academy's dictionary lists 231 words beginning with "folk."

While it cannot be ruled out that Kristersson almost said "folkmord" (genocide) in Swedish, it is not the only probable answer. 

"There are lots of word compounds beginning with "folk," for example, folkrätt. But as there is no acoustic material after folk, all of them are equally probable," said Heldner.

A third disinformation campaign? 

The viral video may compound the hostility Sweden has received from Muslim countries, which has grown significantly due to the Quran burnings earlier this year. 

The burnings led to widespread protests in Muslim countries along with condemnations of the act, including Morocco recalling their ambassador to Sweden and Iraq expelling the Swedish ambassador. The situation also led to real-world harm as the Swedish embassy in Baghdad was set on fire, and a shooting occurred at the Swedish Consulate in Izmir, Turkey, injuring one person. The Quran burnings also have further complicated Sweden's bid to join NATO, as Turkey condemned the act.

Demonstrators burn a Swedish flag outside the Swedish embassy in Tehran, Iran, July 21, 2023. (Source: Reuters)

According to Andreas Önnerfors, project manager of the Swedish Fojo Media Institute's fact-checking and disinformation program, the viral clip of Kristersson could be exploited by foreign actors and lead to a new disinformation campaign designed to further harm Sweden's interests, such as its ongoing NATO membership application.

"The situation can easily slide out of control since the insinuation that the Swedish prime minister endorses an alleged Israeli right to genocide in the highly charged context of this conflict easily can stick, spread, and mobilize to action," Önnerfors told Logically Facts. "Sweden's standing in the international context, particularly in the Muslim world, after the coordinated campaigns against Swedish childcare services and burnings of the Quran, is already tainted and has resulted in attacks against Swedish embassies and consulates as well as the killing of Swedish soccer fans in Brussels in a terrorist attack." 

An example of a potential disinformation campaign has already occurred. The clip was reposted on X by the account "Shuoun Islamiy," run by Mustafa Al-Sharqawi, a key disseminator of disinformation about Sweden, as assessed by the Centre for Total Defence and Societal Security (CTSS) at the Swedish Defence University. 

"It is a serious claim that Sweden supports genocide, and it is serious that Shuoun Islamiya is spreading the claim," expert on terrorism Magnus Ranstorp, research leader and associate professor at CTSS, told Logically Facts. "Shuoun Islamiya has given a platform for previous disinformation campaigns against Sweden, and if this claim comes on top of that, it will enhance the threat towards Sweden and the perception that Sweden is a Muslim-hostile country at war with Islam."

Ranstorp added that the situation is "not easy to correct." "This isn't illegal material, so it is not possible to remove it from the web," he said.

Demonstrators prepare to burn a Swedish flag outside the Swedish embassy in Tehran, Iran, June 30, 2023. Source: Reuters

Logically Facts previously reported on disinformation campaigns against Sweden over the past two years. Online rumors that Swedish social services kidnap Muslim children, coupled with the Quran burnings, have fuelled rumors of anti-Muslim sentiment inside the Swedish government and resulted in threats from several Salafi-jihadist terrorist groups. 

The Swedish Security Service (SÄPO) raised Sweden's terrorist threat level from Elevated (3) to High (4) on a five-level scale in August this year, citing concerns that Sweden is now considered a priority target rather than a legitimate target by terrorists. The terrorist attack in Brussels in October, in which two Swedish football fans were killed, has further deepened this fear. The perpetrator reportedly followed TikTok accounts spreading the conspiracy theory that Swedish authorities are kidnapping Muslim children and stated in a video published after the attack that he enacted "revenge for Muslims" by killing Swedes.

"Taken together, the viral spread of the alleged slip of the Swedish prime minister fits well into the wider deeply polarized perception of the conflict between Israel and Palestine and the current decline of Sweden's image," according to Önnefors. "News about the prime minister is easy to pick up and receive attention, contributing to the mobilization of emotions against Sweden in particular and the Western world in general."

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