#Skada Series 7: The Snowman’s Shadow
When Trump said “last night in Sweden” he had no idea what he was talking about and the right-wing coverage which followed was false. A divisive and deliberate attack on the truth, to serve nefarious ends: creation of fear through propaganda and disinformation.
I went to investigate and found a much darker truth.
“People were taken by surprise with Brexit, then Trump. If they’d looked to Sweden, a country where the right-wing party has much clearer Nazi roots, and where the government has openly acknowledged the political and physical threat posed by Russia, perhaps neither would have taken place.”
During the course of this investigation I’ve learned a lot about Sweden.
It’s a liberal, open-minded, forward-thinking country, which believes open democracy and internet access for all are closely interwoven. People feel safe and they share values which have no borders or ethnic definition. The country is strong in its unity, even in the immediate aftermath of terror.
Sweden has its fair share of criminality but, at the same time, takes one of the most honest approaches to crime recording I’ve ever encountered. The Polisen works constantly on developing innovative strategies to combat high volume crime and, in conjunction with criminologists and other agencies, they strive to address the socio-economic factors driving serious offending. The country also faces challenges of extremism, both foreign and domestic, too.
This investigation of the truth in Sweden uncovered the existence of a pattern. Something wrong. There is a thread to untangle and the trip was the key: something seedy is visible in the growth of insular, nationalist politics. Right-wing parties of this ilk are working together globally with a vast machinery of alternative media, ‘cyber attacks’, and data-laundering behind them. And this international network is linked to Russia.
People were taken by surprise with Brexit and then Trump. If they’d looked to Sweden, a country where the home-grown nationalist has much clearer Nazi roots, and where the government has acknowledged the political and physical threat posed by Russia, perhaps neither would have taken place.
“In August 2016, while debate was underway as to whether Sweden should enter a military partnership with NATO, Swedish social media was flooded with fake news from alternative outlets. The claims included warnings of stockpiling nuclear weapons on Swedish soil, NATO using Sweden to launch attacks on Russia, and sinister claims that NATO soldiers would rape Swedish women without fear of prosecution. Hultqvist faced harsh questioning across the country about the false stories, which also started to trickle into the mainstream media.”
By March 2017 support for the right wing Sverigedemokraterna (Sweden Democrats) party had almost doubled, with polls showing anticipated votes of between 19 and 23% putting them in second place, nationally.
Contrary to evidence uncovered in this investigation, the party website claims “the overall net impact of mass immigration from distant countries [is] strongly negative, both economically and socially.”
With roots deep in fascism, the party was officially founded in 1988 and rose from the white supremacy movement. The party logo from the 1990s until 2006 was a variant of the torch used by the United Kingdom’s National Front, but was changed to a distinctive blue flower with a yellow centre, the blåsippa (Hepatica).
Originally at its politically strongest in the south, the party gained 13% of the vote in the 2006 municipal elections in Malmö. By the 2014 general election, they had gained traction in the north - towards Stockholm - and polled at 12.9%, winning 49 seats in the Riksdag (the Swedish Parliament). They remain, however, isolated due to a policy of the other parties not to enter coalition with them.
Gustaf Ekström, a Waffen-SS veteran, was the first auditor of the party and Anders Klarström, once a member of the Nordiska rikspartiet ("Nordic Reich Party"), was an early chair. From the outset, the party sought alliances with the National Democratic Party of Germany and the American National Association for the Advancement of White People – founded by David Duke, Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. The early leadership also sought links with publications such as the Nazi Nation Europa and Nouvelle École, the latter being a newspaper which advocates racial biology.
After photographs surfaced of members posing in Nazi regalia, the wearing of any kind of uniform was formally banned in 1996 as the party began to present itself more moderately. The youth branch was expelled due to racism and links to extremist groups in 2015 but has since been re-initiated under the name Ungsvenskarna (Young Swedes).
In November 2012 Swedish newspaper the Expressen released a series of videos from August 2010 for the second time. The ‘iron pipe scandal’, as it became known, was recorded by one MP, Kent Ekeroth, and featured his fellow SD MPs Erik Almqvist and Christian Westling. Almqvist was shown arguing with comedian Soran Ismail, and was referring to Sweden as "my country, not your country" before the trio went on to argue with a drunken man. Ekeroth was approached by a woman and called her a whore then pushed her, before the three went on to pick up iron bars in continuance of the argument with Ismail.
Almqvist left his position as the party's economic policy spokesperson and resigned from his seat on the executive committee after the publication. The party went on to announce Ekeroth would ‘take a break’ from his position as justice policy spokesman. Before their own expulsion, the youth movement argued the party shouldn’t have bowed to media pressure.
Shortly after the departures, another Swedish Democrat MP, Lars Isovaara, left his seat after reporting "two unknown men of an immigrant background" had robbed him of his backpack. The party backed the claim until the Expressen revealed Isovaara had forgotten his backpack at a restaurant and the two innocent men had helped him when he fell out of his wheelchair. The MP was also reported to the police for racial abuse against Riksdag security guards.
After the scandals, the party began to rise dramatically in the polls in 2015, at the peak of immigration, seeking rigid controls of those coming in for “the benefit of indigenous Swedish citizens” while simultaneously remaining critical of the special rights given to the indigenous Sami people of northern Sweden. In 2008 they went as far as adopting a motion against the rights to reindeer husbandry, arguing those "who do not involve themselves with reindeer husbandry are treated as second class citizens". They have expressed a desire to abolish funds supporting the Sami and redistribute them "regardless of ethnic identity and business operations” and seek to abolish the Sami Parliament.
In a mirror of right-wing part policy across Europe, the Sweden Democrats reject any notions of joining the Economic and Monetary Union of the EU, are opposed to the accession of Turkey, and want to renegotiate Swedish membership in the European Union.
Within this background is a key to the global network of purported national parties. The SD have long term links with the extreme right but have shifted - trying to escape this image - and found themselves aligning with the newer, more acceptable face of this politik - what is now known as the ‘alt-right’.
“By March 2017 the Swedish defence ministry had announced the country was reinstating the military draft and 4,000 men and women would be called up for service beginning in January 2018. "The security environment in Europe and in Sweden's vicinity has deteriorated and the all-volunteer recruitment hasn't provided the Armed Forces with enough trained personnel," a spokesperson said at the time, adding "the re-activating of the conscription is needed for military readiness."
The party has found itself in regular scandal situations, being accused of antisemitism, having members expelled for extremism, and having its website blocked by the government for posting anti-Islamic cartoons. They are also boycotted from advertising space by some Swedish newspapers which has hindered their traditional reach to the electorate.
A few weeks prior to the general election of September 2014, the chairman of the Swedish Democrat’s Stockholm branch, Christoffer Dulny, resigned from his position. He was found to have been calling immigrants “shameless” and mocking them on alternative media sites.
In December 2016, Anna Hagwall was thrown out of the party after using arguments associated with antisemitism to argue for a bill she introduced in parliament, intended to "reduce the concentration of media ownership" in Sweden. She was attempting to make way for alternative outlets through legislation.
Right-wing sites Info Wars and Breitbart have been posting articles with a supporting lean towards the Sweden Democrats since 2015 at least, on a cursory search alone.
The link is easy to miss unless you are looking for it specifically.
Breitbart was founded by a right-wing journalist who died in 2012 and, though it retains his surname, was headed up by Steve Bannon (chief advisor to President Donald Trump), who was funded directly by billionaire republican donor Robert Mercer. With the original mission being to “take back the culture”, Breitbart launched careers of a host of controversial ‘alt-right’ figures and came to London in 2014 - with Bannon saying the coming election (and subsequent referendum) were a key focus in their “current cultural and political war.”
While some of the back links are more obvious – for example, Duke and the SD have a long history and Bannon’s appointment in the Trump cabinet was hailed a success by Duke – these are only small components of a broader, more complex picture. And this also goes well beyond the established links between the Sweden Democrats and their EU parliamentary associations with Nigel Farage’s UKIP and Marine Le Pen’s Front National.
Mercer once worked for IBM designing revolutionary technology which went on to form the basis of today’s artificial intelligence and became CEO of a complex hedge fund which uses algorithms to trade. One of the funds is reported to be the most successful in the world. Since the start of the decade, Mercer has also focused millions on right-wing, “ultra-conservative” political donations.
Both he and Bannon are also linked to controversial data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica, which uses big data to focus tailored messaging on voters down to an individual level. (This is the subject of my #snowman investigation which builds a picture of the mass manipulation of the electorate with the aim of controlling not only geopolitics but the financial markets too.)
The vital factors in the success of any such campaign is a combination of the use of psychometric data, propaganda/disinformation, artificial intelligence, and hacking. The unifying feature which the strands hang off is the involvement of Russia – who have been found to be involved in state-sanctioned hacking and AI targeting of western elections.
“Shortly after the reintroduction of military service, Sweden’s Prime Minister, Stefan Löfven, set out measures designed to prevent foreign countries interfering in the 2018 Swedish general election and Anders Norlén, chair of the Riksdag constitutional committee, told Radio Sweden parties should avoid relying on Russian propaganda or other support. “Every party in the Swedish parliament has a responsibility to make sure that the facts they use and the arguments they use are sound and valid and not just a way of repeating propaganda from, for instance, Russia,”
The Sweden Democrats do have direct links to Russia and this has raised a significant concern over security within the Riksdag.
A Russian-born political secretary for the party resigned in September 2016 after making several million kronor in a suspect property deal with a St Petersburg businessman.
Known by a Swedish name in parliament, having changed it on arrival in Sweden ten years before, Egor Putilov had wide access to the Riksdag when he entered a deal with an imprisoned businessman known to have strong ties to the Russian state. The property deal in question made around six million SKE for Putilov.
While a property scandal may seem a regular or low-level occurrence in politics, the case was unusual as the Defence Minister, Peter Hultqvist, made a quick public statement that “several people with a high level of competence have declared a potential security risk, therefore, I think that one should take the situation seriously.”
Clarifying the threat and indicating Russia had acquired a ‘hold’ over Putilov by way of the transaction, Lars Nicander, Director for the Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies at Sweden's National Defence College, said: “You can hear intimate conversations, you can hear the different parties' positions on the Nord Stream [gas pipeline], for example, or on NATO and trade agreements. You can even install listening devices.”
In August 2016, while debate was underway as to whether Sweden should enter a military partnership with NATO, Swedish social media was flooded with fake news from alternative outlets. The claims included warnings of stockpiling nuclear weapons on Swedish soil, NATO using Sweden to launch attacks on Russia, and sinister claims that NATO soldiers would rape Swedish women without fear of prosecution. Hultqvist faced harsh questioning across the country about the false stories, which also started to trickle into the mainstream media.
Analysts and experts in American and European intelligence singled Russia out as the prime suspect in the disinformation campaign, as the likely outcome was tightly aligned with their national objectives. “Moscow views world affairs as a system of special operations, and very sincerely believes that it itself is an object of Western special operations,” said Gleb Pavlovsky, who worked with the Kremlin before 2008. “I am sure that there are a lot of centers, some linked to the state, that are involved in inventing these kinds of fake stories.”
By March 2017, the Swedish defence ministry had announced the country was reinstating the military draft and 4,000 men and women would be called up for service beginning in January 2018. "The security environment in Europe and in Sweden's vicinity has deteriorated and the all-volunteer recruitment hasn't provided the Armed Forces with enough trained personnel," a spokesperson said at the time, adding "the re-activating of the conscription is needed for military readiness."
Shortly after the reintroduction of military service, Sweden’s Prime Minister, Stefan Löfven, set out measures designed to prevent foreign countries interfering in the 2018 Swedish general election and Anders Norlén, chair of the Riksdag constitutional committee, told Radio Sweden parties should avoid relying on Russian propaganda or other support. “Every party in the Swedish parliament has a responsibility to make sure that the facts they use and the arguments they use are sound and valid and not just a way of repeating propaganda from, for instance, Russia,” he said.
Mattias Karlsson, parliamentary leader of the Sweden Democrats gave a statement that Russian interference was “likely” and the security services should be tasked to investigate, but added “the Social Democratic government are using Russia as a means to try to silence the opposition, and trying to make everybody who doesn't share their political views suspect of being a Russian spy."
“The notion that Russia might be funding agents of influence by providing financing to sympathetic parties in Europe has become more salient as relations between Russia and the West have deteriorated.” This was a long time before the extent of the Trump/Russia inquiry began to unravel in the US.”
In June 2016, the European Council on Foreign Relations, chaired by Carl Bildt the former Swedish PM, carried out the first comprehensive survey of so-called ‘insurgent’ parties in Europe and found that “despite their differences, a majority of them are positively inclined towards Putin’s Russia and pursue policies that promote Russia’s interests in Europe.”
The council went on to say “parties are useful for Moscow in that they help legitimise the Kremlin’s policies and amplify Russian disinformation. At times they can also shift Europe’s domestic debates in Russia’s favour. Voting patterns in the European Parliament show that on issues such as Ukraine, the human rights situation in Russia, and association agreements with Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, the Dutch PVV leads the pack in pro-Russian votes. UKIP, the Sweden Democrats, Italy’s Northern League, and France’s Front National come in a shared second place.”
Crucially, the report did not refrain from adding, “But it is not just in matters of policy that these parties’ sympathies with the Kremlin are revealed. In them, Moscow has also found convenient and willing conveyors of its anti-Western, anti-globalisation narratives. Several of the far right leaders, such as Nigel Farage, Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen, are frequent guests on Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik, with Farage reportedly having been offered his own show on RT.”
While the report noted the obvious policy leanings, it was circumspect in saying “it is less clear to what extent there is collusion,” though it made clear “the notion that Russia might be funding agents of influence by providing financing to sympathetic parties in Europe has become more salient as relations between Russia and the West have deteriorated.” This was published a long time before the extent of the Trump/Russia inquiry began to unravel in the US.
In their conclusion, the council recommended “European law enforcement agencies should prioritise looking into Russian covert support for populist parties and [take] steps to counter such support. European governments should consider publishing intelligence on this in the public domain. Voters have a right to be informed about whom they are voting for.”
“European law enforcement agencies should prioritise looking into Russian covert support for populist parties and [take] steps to counter such support. European governments should consider publishing intelligence on this in the public domain. Voters have a right to be informed about whom they are voting for.”
What’s clear, from an investigation which began over alt-right narratives that didn’t fit the publicly available crime figures in Sweden, is the shadow of something much larger looms over much of the western world.
The threat to democracy is credible and substantiated, and it is impossible to dismiss the clear and present security risks – for example, no progressive, modern country re-introduces the military draft on a whim.
It’s apparent that data, notably ‘big data’, plays a crucial role in what is happening because without it the delivery of often pro-Russian propaganda would not be able to gain such traction through targeting and tailoring. In turn, the globally similar messages – too alike to be coincidental – can be linked locally to nationalist parties in individual countries, while the people behind those parties and alternative media sources can be traced back to each other – internationally once again - without much effort.
It’s not hard to study the interaction between shifting geopolitics and the financial markets either, though within this other factors are obviously at play.
Only days ago Reuters reported that “on eight occasions over the past 12 months, the pound has moved against the dollar in the minutes before the release of the retail sales numbers, correctly anticipating the direction the currency took once the figures were published.” Some experts believe the shifts can only be as a result of leaks – the information only being provided to a short list of 41 people, twenty-four hours in advance of publication. Others believe some funds have just become very good at predicting movements working with technology and broader data sets. Publicly available 'big data'.
I thought this was about skada, damage caused in Sweden by alternative news, but it turns out I was wrong. The truth is more important now than ever and, in Sweden, I saw the shadow of the snowman clearly for the first time...