Corona debate

Private Facebook group attempts to influence Swedish interests abroad

6:59 min
  • A group is trying to get other countries to take measures against Sweden, including quarantining travellers, over fears about this country's Covid-19 response.
  • The leader of the activists says he doesn't want other countries to make the same mistakes as Sweden.
  • Experts in the field of information influence activities that Swedish Radio spoke to have called the tone and methods used by the group alarming.

The nation of Sweden is described as "brainwashed" and those responsible for Sweden's pandemic response as "perpetrators". These types of outspoken statements are spreading in a social media campaign by opponents of the Swedish strategy.

Swedish Radio News Ekot and Swedish Radio's Science department Vetenskapsradion have been able to observe the activities of a private Facebook group. Posts describe how members have also tried to get other countries' governments to act against Sweden during the pandemic. Experts in the field of information influence activities have called the tone and methods "alarming."

In the Facebook group, there are academics, opinion makers, researchers at Swedish universities and others who are troubled by Sweden's handling of Covid-19. These are people who are largely based in Sweden, though the dialogue is carried out in English. Swedish Radio has gotten an insight into the posts and activities of the closed group for some time.

The members coordinate activities in the Facebook group and spread its message in comment fields, on Twitter, and in Swedish and international media. Several members have published articles, had appearances in or been quoted in scientific journals and a range of prestigious international media, including Science, Time, Foreign Policy, and the Washington Post. In many international media, the impression is given that everything during the spring of 2020 was business as usual in Sweden, without restrictions or working from home.

Hanna Linderstål is an independent virtual analyst and works to bolster agencies' and industry's knowledge about information influence activities.

"What we can see in this group's activities that makes it interesting is partly that they're approaching international media where they present Sweden as failed and authorities in Sweden as pushing a hidden agenda about the country's Corona virus strategy," says Linderstål, adding, "The group's active courting of both international media and authorities is also very worrying. Among other things, they're calling for other countries to protect themselves by not letting Swedes in. And these are strong statements that people are making about Sweden internationally," she says.

The leading figure of the Facebook group posts about attempts to influence governments in Europe to have quarantine rules for Swedes who travel abroad and to keep borders closed to Sweden. He posts about how messages have been sent to embassies, authorities and politicians in Europe. He declined to take part in a taped interview with Swedish Radio but writes in an email that the group doesn't want other countries to make the same mistakes as Sweden, which he writes cost people's lives and health, and adds that the goal of the Facebook group was to create a safe space for members where they can concentrate on advocacy. He also writes that it appears the government's only strategy is to protect the economy and the image of Sweden abroad. As a Swedish citizen, he holds the view that Swedes are currently living in a society where state negligence and incompetence is tolerated and that there is nothing done about the grave mistakes he says were made throughout the pandemic.

James Pamment, an associate professor in strategic communication at Lund University has also analyzed the group's activity. It's one thing to try to influence Sweden's policy and form opinion, but it's another thing to try to influence Swedish interests abroad, which can affect Swedish citizens – that's where the group goes over the line, according to the experts Swedish Radio's reporters spoke to.

"It seems like the group has two goals: partly to influence Sweden's Covid policy and partly to criticize media coverage of the policy," says Pamment, adding, "Then, there are a lot of other things in the group that seem to be about damaging the image of Sweden abroad and the reputations of individuals who work in this field."

Pamment also says that over the last year, the description of Sweden internationally in different fora and in media has often given the appearance of a welfare society that has been totally wrecked, and that it's a common exaggerated image of Sweden that's spreading, he says.

Experts in information influence activities that Swedish Radio has spoken with also deem it notable that in Swedish and international media's interviews with members of the group, it isn't mentioned that these people belong to a group. Several of the active researchers in the group who comment in public are neither epidemiologists or virologists, but researchers in completely other fields. The key figure of the group, though, in an email to Swedish Radio writes that there are several epidemiologists in the group.

Information influence experts James Pamment and Hanna Linderstål also point out that during a global crisis like this it is natural that people are worried and angry, and that it is not strange or forbidden to criticise and debate Sweden's corona strategy or try to influence public opinion on this issue. Sweden has been an unusual country in this respect and many have been hit hard by the pandemic. But experts Swedish Radio have spoken to and several security analysts think that the tone and the methods of the group are very troubling

In a Facebook post, members of the group are encouraged to contact the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control to see to it that Swedish regions with high levels of Covid-19 are on the centre's red list. The leading person in the group also encourages members to Tweet and send messages to Linköping University to protest that they awarded a prize to state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell. There has also been an attempt to prevent a Swedish minister's participation in an international context. It's a paper-thin line between what is engagement and what is harassment, according to the experts who stress that the group's messages can be experienced as disturbing. The leading person in the group responds in an email to Swedish Radio's reporters that many who have voiced concerns themselves have been harassed and bullied and threatened, hence the creation of the group as a safe space.

The key person in the Facebook group also describes in a post and on Twitter plans to try to take those responsible for the Covid strategy in Sweden to international courts for crimes against humanity, but public international law experts that Swedish Radio spoke to described this as absurd. The experts stress that that crime classification has to do with deliberate attacks on a civil population which are used, above all, in war and conflicts.

But the chief figure in the group writes to Swedish Radio that, "Such crimes can be considered under a "moral category. This concept of crimes against humanity seeks to embody the idea that individuals who either make or follow state policy can be held accountable by the international community," he writes.

To hear the full report in Swedish, you can find it on Swedish Radio's website by searching for "Vetenskapsradion på Djupet.