´Take back SVT!’: Misinformation hits Sweden’s most trusted media

By: christian haag&
siri christiansen&
February 7 2024

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´Take back SVT!’: Misinformation hits Sweden’s most trusted media

Source: Alamy/Reuters

“Stop the lies!", "Enemy of the people - SVT!”, “Take back SVT!” the crowd chanted in a protest in Stockholm, Sweden. On the eve of February 3, hundreds of people marched with torches and banners in a self-described “love manifestation” through the streets of the Swedish capital towards the national public broadcasters Sveriges Television (SVT) and Sveriges Radio (SR). Outside the main entrance of the SVT building, the crowd rigged up a stage and a microphone

“We’re not here to avenge the inapprehensible damage you have inflicted on our country and us Swedes,” said Mikael Willgert, head of the far-right alternative media channel SwebbTV, addressing the journalists inside the building.

“We’re here to liberate you,” he said, to which the crowd cheered, “We want to liberate you from the Social Democrats’ and the politicians’ words! We want to liberate you from the international financial interests that control our media!”

The event was organized by a member of Frihetsrörelsen (“The Freedom Movement”), a Swedish organization previously involved in organizing anti-lockdown protests during the COVID-19 pandemic, with support from the large far-right alternative media channels SwebbTV and Frihetsnytt (“Freedom News”) and Knapptryckarna, a fringe party with a conspiratorial worldview. While the protest was peaceful, with no major incidents or arrests, the rhetoric was charged and included phrases such as “brain-washing,” “indoctrination,” and “Social Democratic militia.” One speaker said that public service journalists have “blood on their hands” and should be put on trial; “it is through their lies that Sweden is on the brink of catastrophe,” another speaker claimed. 

Andreas Önnerfors, project manager of the Swedish Fojo Media Institute's fact-checking and disinformation program, told Logically Facts that the speech by Willgert paints a picture of a “final battle between good and evil” to “save Sweden.”

“What is remarkable are the fantasies of violence that are expressed and implied as a concrete possibility,” Önnerfors said, referring to a comment by one of the speakers that SVT's journalists “deserve to be dragged into the streets (...) but that will not happen today.”

“Journalists are held directly responsible for crimes,” Önnerfors continued. The list of crimes was long, with speakers accusing public service journalists for silencing the debates on mass migration and NATO and nuclear weapons, silencing anti-immigration debaters and parties, the COVID-19 pandemic and “COVID injections,” and exaggerating the climate crisis.

Videos from the event were quickly uploaded to SwebbTube, YouTube, and X, where they have gained hundreds of thousands of views. The footage has also been picked up outside of Sweden by high-profile X accounts prone to sharing misinformation, such as Peter of Sweden,  Ian Miles Cheong, and Concerned Citizen.

SVT-demo-peter-of-sweden Videos from the event went viral and were reshared by multiple high-profile accounts. (Source: X/Screenshot)

Why now?

The protest comes as the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict has “turbo-charged” the public’s general concerns, emotions, and misunderstandings about the media, according to Morgan Finnsiö, a researcher at the politically independent, anti-racist organization Expo. Önnerfors thinks that recent events in Poland, where militant supporters of the old right-wing regime occupied the public service broadcaster buildings in protest against media freedom reforms, could also have inspired the protestors. 

“I think the organizers of this protest saw an opportunity now that people are talking about the media more than usual,” Finnsiö told Logically Facts. “Several hundreds of attendants for a small fringe extremist group should be considered a success.”

The strong turnout could be due to the event’s mash-up of far-right rhetoric and a wide range of conspiracy theories. Önnerfors noted that the “love” manifestation, just like the “freedom” movement, are empty signifiers – concepts emptied of meaning, against which several kinds of ideas can be projected. But while misinformation surrounding COVID-19 or climate change was mentioned only in passing, one overarching theory permeated the entire event – that Sweden’s public service is controlled by a Social Democratic militia, or the “global financial elite.” 

“This rhetoric is not new within far-right activism, which has agitated against the media for a long time. (...) But it has similarities with the deep state [rhetoric] because they both try and frame the situation as public servants betraying their duty to serve the nation’s interest, and instead working on behalf of a shadowy global elite, and – which was mentioned frequently during the protest – ‘international financial interests’ or ‘globalists,’ which in this context is Antisemitic code,” said Finnsiö, who has tracked the emergence of the deep-state narrative among Sweden’s far-right politicians. 

Conspiracy theories regarding the deep state or cultural Marxism also fit well into the far-right worldview, Finnsiö added, as they offer an explanation as to why more people have not rallied to their cause: “The explanation is that everyone is really on their side, but they’ve been brainwashed into wanting, for example, gender equality by institutions – such as the media, or universities.” 

Does the criticism hold?

It’s an unexpected critique in one of the world's top ten least corrupt countries. Sweden also enjoys one of the highest levels of press freedom in the world, according to Reporters Without Borders’ 2023 World Press Freedom Index. It is one of just eight countries with a “good” level of press freedom. 

Sweden’s three public service companies – SVT, SR, and the educational radio station Utbildningsradion (UR) –  have several controls in place to maintain their objectivity and impartiality. 

They are owned and managed by Förvaltningsstiftelsen, a foundation whose 13 board members are suggested by the eight political parties in the Swedish Parliament, and they, in turn, appoint the board members of the three public service companies. This is meant to ensure a fair representation of the democratically elected parties – including the far-right Swedish Democrats, Sweden's second-largest party. 

Since 2020, no active parliament members can sit on the board, and the board has no influence over SVT, SR, or UR’s programs and content. 

Sweden’s public service is supervised by Granskningsnämnden, an independent commission to which anyone can report programs they believe have violated impartial and objective reporting rules. Complaints on ethical issues are reported to and handled by an independent media ombudsman.

Public service is, however, excepted from impartiality when it comes to the so-called “democracy paragraph,” which states that public service needs to uphold democratic ideals and the belief that all humans are equal – in practice, this means that SVT, SR, and UR must address discriminatory or racist statements.

The discussion about Swedish public services' impartiality and objectivity is ever-present in Sweden, with strong opinions on both sides of the political spectrum. However, according to a research overview of Sweden’s public service from 2022, there is no evidence their reporting is left- or right-leaning. For instance, one of the most comprehensive studies of the political debates broadcast on SVT in 2002, 2007, and 2010 showed no signs of political partiality. Research from Bengt Johansson and Jesper Strömbäck, looking at the 2022 election, reached the same conclusion. 

Swedes also have a strong degree of trust in public service media. The last major poll from the SOM institute in 2023 showed that 77 percent of respondents had high trust in SVT and 72 percent in SR – making them the most trusted media outlets in the country. 

“Of course, this is what galls the extremists, particularly because they have alternative media outlets of their own,” said Finnsiö. ”They have a very strong desire to substitute the mainstream of society in every aspect – they want to be the norm, and so they have to turn reality on its head to manifest that they are the ordinary people, they are the ones doing journalism, the ones doing serious democratic politics.”

Alternative media in Sweden

The alternative media sphere in Sweden is strongly influenced by far-right influencers and politicians, who are often directly involved with producing news content. 

SwebbTV, which co-organized the protest against SVT, was founded by former Swedish Democrats, and the recurring news anchor Lennart Matikainen is an active politician in the far-right party Alternativ för Sverige. The other co-organizing media outlet, Frihetsnytt, is part of a far-right group referred to as “Nätverket” (The Network), with former Sweden Democrat and Nationaldemokraterna politician Tor Änglasjö as one of its leading figures. The Network has disseminated antisemitism, racism, and conspiracy theories.

Similarly, several key figures in the creation of Samnytt held strong links to the Sweden Democrats, including former Swedish Riksdag members Kent Ekeroth and Erik Almqvist. Almqvist is also the current Editor-in-chief at Exakt24. Both were involved in the Iron Pipe scandal in 2012, after which Almqivst left the Riksdag and Party. Kent Ekeroth was removed from the Sweden Democrat Party list in 2018. He became part of the Sweden Democrat opposition in Dalarna on the regional political level in the 2022 election. 

Some alternative media platforms, such as Exakt24 and Samnytt, have also decided to leave Sweden’s self-sanitizing media ethics system, in which the media ombudsman and the board of media ethics supervise and ensure member publications follow media ethics, arguing that the “leftist liberal media establishment is abusing the system to silence and tarnish its conservative competitors.”

Given the alternative media platforms’ own political entanglement and the decision to discard the industry’s ethical framework, their criticism of public service may seem misdirected. 

“You can't find a single scholar or journalist who would look at these outlets and call it journalism,” said Finnsiö. “They are repetitive, selective, highly misleading – and yet, they talk about SVT and SR as propaganda. For all their flaws and failings, what public service does is journalism. You’re free to call it propaganda, but when your own media is a textbook example of propaganda, it rings false.”

Kristoffer Holt, a professor in Media and Communication Studies at Linnaeus University who has researched alternative media, said that the alternative media do not attempt or claim to be neutral. 

“[It is] never really ‘independent’ or neutral, but from the beginning a reaction against something perceived as wrong, unfair, irregular or downright dangerous,” Holt told Logically Facts. “Thus, their function is initially centered on correcting and influencing by disseminating perspectives that are perceived as displaced and giving space to people who are not allowed to speak in the established media sphere.”

Risks and impact? 

Finnsiö stresses that it is essential that people are allowed to criticize the media and raise questions regarding its impartiality and objectivity – but he also sees the protest as part of a larger, antidemocratic project that could become dangerous in the long term. He pointed to the murder of a prominent civil servant in the annual political event of Almedalen in 2022, which was motivated by deep-state conspiracy theories and where SVT CEO Hanne Stjärne was one of the planned targets.

“The idea is not to go there, speak their mind, and go home,” Finnsiö emphasized. “It’s a larger strategic project to undermine trust, and they are happy to agitate and incite people along the way so that people feel extreme measures are necessary.”

Kristoffer Holt agrees that the demonstration was part of a larger project. “It is clear that it is primarily intended to be disseminated in various media channels, and that attention from other media, such as Expo, was explicitly expected and was part of the plan.” 

Andreas Önnerfors at Fojo said that the talk about the media lying, manipulating, and being corrupt tools of mind control risks fuelling distrust in media and its credibility.

“The fact that this is happening with a war in Europe and the Middle East and the forthcoming super-election year with EU elections and the presidential election in the USA is directly playing with the fire in the formation of public opinion,” he added. “There is an obvious risk that ‘alternative truths’ will influence people in democratic elections, but it is also quite obvious that the risk of undue information influence and campaigns such as the LVU [A global disinformation campaign aimed at Sweden, claiming Sweden systematically kidnaps children, and especially targets muslims] campaign increases.“

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