Either you believe Sweden is on the verge of collapse under the strain of rapist immigrants, or you see Sweden as one more European nation coping with the challenges of the modern world.
How you see the Nordic country says a lot about where you sit in the spectrum of propaganda seeping into global news.
Only weeks before an Uzbek national killed four people in a terror attack on the streets of Stockholm, there was a global uproar over Donald Trump’s assertion that some kind of immigrant-linked incident happened in the country.
Both of these events were seized on by networks of people determined to believe Sweden “is about to collapse on every level…because of a Third World invasion.”
No one doubts immigration, terrorism and sexual violence are real issues in the country. In fact, they are issues helping fuel the rise of the country’s far-right party in the polls.
But the claim that liberal democracies like Sweden are somehow unable to cope with these, or any 21st century challenge, is not true.
Nevertheless, that assertion is at the heart of the message conveyed in networks of misinformation, located far from Sweden.
Increasingly people on social media are motivated or encouraged to believe false and damaging realities about politicians, nations, political beliefs.
That’s what happened after Trump tweeted about the #LastNightInSweden non-incident.
Such “weaponised narratives” are both spawned and amplified by networks of conspiracy theorists, bloggers, trolls and bots.
They have become a feature of the modern political social media environment.
During the 2016 US election, claims of rape figured into the untruths told by Donald Trump about undocumented migrants from Mexico. Other weaponised narratives were the slur that politicians ran paedophilia rings or that billionaire financier George Soros was paying protesters in streets.
Such narratives are made possible, in part, by groups exploiting the unrelenting information overload we live in today, say Brad Allenby and Joel Garreau of the Weaponised Narrative Initiative in the US.
And promoting the alternative news that taps into a set of public anxieties is proving effective in shaping perceptions of current events and political realities online.
“By offering cheap passage through a complex world, weaponised narrative furnishes emotional certainty at the cost of rational understanding,” write Allenby and Garreau.
The “emotionally satisfying” acceptance of a weaponised narrative, they write “inoculates cultures, institutions, and individuals against counterarguments and inconvenient facts.”
This gives such misinformation plenty of staying power in the global media environment.
Such emotionalism driving politics isn’t new.
During World War Two, psychologists identified the same trends in the totalitarian mindsets seen in Nazi Germany and fascist Italy.
They believed fascist communication split the reasoning part of the personality from the emotional one. The personality found in democracies, meanwhile, could internalise both authority and control.
That’s why Sweden’s response to the #LastnightinSweden non-event may contain a lesson for how nations, governments and legitimate institutions of democracy can respond to the relentless distortions about them shared on social media.
As soon as the US president incorrectly referenced Sweden, Swedish social media accounts were flooded with questions, concern and even abuse by members of the public poised to believe the worst about the situation there.
One of those accounts was @Sweden, with more than 100,000 followers. It’s curated by a different Swedish citizen, from a different walk of life on a weekly basis.
When the swarm of questions came, a school librarian on medical leave named Emma Johansson was thrust into the position of defending not just her nation’s reputation but its political reality.
Johansson, armed with knowledge of her own society and confidence in its institutions, responded to the surge in questions.
Johansson fact-checked the mistruth spoken by Trump, explaining to the global public that Trump’s views were based on misinformation.
“We were amazed to see that people actually turned to @sweden about what really happened #LastNightInSweden,” said Emma Randecker of the Swedish Institute, which organises the @sweden account.
Johansson’s role calls to mind an observation by US psychologist, Gordon Allport, who said: “In a democracy, every personality can be a citadel of resistance to tyranny.”
She spontaneously challenged the storyline of Sweden as out-of-control. The fact that she was a regular citizen speaking up for the country underscores the strength of the society and democracy.
While Johansson dispelled the fear-inducing misinformation and reassured a worried global public, the Swedish Institute also mounted a rapid, multi-day effort to expose the world to the reality of Sweden. (Johansson didn’t respond to requests for comment ).
“The non-incident created an unprecedented buzz about Sweden, which we tried to make the most of by stating facts about Sweden,” says Randecker.
Using the spontaneity of Facebook Live to invite the world to actually see and inspect key parts of Sweden themselves, the Swedish Institute promoted targeted events online.
But the lure of a weaponised narrative is strong.
The Swedish Institute focused not on battling those committed to the untruths, but to those at risk of being duped by them.
“Unfortunately, experience shows that those who already have strong opinions about what Sweden is – for example, those that like to believe in and spread the misinformation that Sweden is the ‘rape capital of Europe’ – are very hard to turn,” Randecker says,
This underscores the damage such narratives can do in influencing a situation, political perception or organisation – often across borders.
And to that end, there is a political element to the kind of weaponised narratives bolting through social media today.
“Sweden has become a target of international far-right and neo-Nazi groups,” Ben Nimmo of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab writes.
In March, a nationalist Swedish media outlet published an “open letter” to Trump, praising the US president and blaming Sweden’s imminent collapse on “Third World invasion” and the actions of earlier US administrations.
Trolls these days often refer to it as “Swedenistan.”
Allenby and Garreau write: “In the hands of professionals, the powerful emotions of anger and fear can be used to control adversaries, limit their options, and disrupt their functional capabilities.”
Given Sweden’s Cold War experience – wary of Russia but also wary of courting confrontation with Russia – there are geopolitical motivations for the targeting of the Scandinavian nation, too.
The threat of information used in such ways faces not just Sweden but open democracies everywhere that rely on consent of an informed public to function.
The slowness of democratic society’s response to these external challenges may actually be a trait of democracy itself. In a 1951 speech, Allport said:
“Totalitarian governments thrive on emergency. Democracies dislike it. When crisis threatens they find themselves unprepared. The result is fear and hysteria.”
“Slowly the democracy may mobilise and win great victories because the morale of free men is greater than the morale of slaves.”
Currently democracies are only at the infancy of response to the weaponised narratives found on social media.
How then are democracies to respond if such weaponised narratives are manipulating discussion?
Again, maybe history holds the answer:
While fascism in the 1930s sought to split a citizen’s personality in two – shutting down reason in favour of emotions in order to accept the outside authority of a strongman leader, the democratic personality required something different.
“While it is natural for every child to depend on authority and for adolescents to want it, the ideal of democracy calls for people to carry their backbone inside their own personalities.”
Whether Allport’s views on the democratic personality have the same relevance or application today – not because liberal values have changed – but their adversary and communication technology have, is an open question.
Arizona State University’s Scott W. Ruston, in work for the Weaponized Narrative initiative, writes that cyber defence and fake news detection tools are helpful but “real resilience to weaponised narrative will come from a united effort of civic groups, political leaders and the citizenry to fortify our social institutions.”
Last week nine European and NATO nations announced the creation of a centre in part to counter such threats.
But perhaps Sweden’s amplification of the variety of average citizens’ voices, and Johansson’s quick provision of facts, showcases the kind of backbone online required in democracy today.
Swedish Institute’s Emma Randecker said she hopes Johansson’s role in defending Sweden “serves as inspiration.”
“The mere fact that we have that Twitter account says a lot about Sweden, transparency and democracy.”
Likewise, the Swedish Institute’s realisation of the need for an instant and robust response is telling.
As Johansson tweeted in the aftermath of the #LastnightinSweden non-incident:
“No country is without challenges, Sweden included. But in order to be able to discuss this properly, we need facts and perspective.”
Follow Chris Zappone on Facebook