Social Media and the Rise of the Far Right in Sweden
By Jonathan Birdwell
In 2010, for the first time ever, the far-right nationalist Sweden Democrats (Sverigedemokraterna) won representation in the Swedish parliament. And polls suggest they are not going to go away. Mainstream parties in Sweden may continue to ignore them, but they must not ignore their supporters—who, our research suggests, are particularly young, disillusioned, and socially networked.
In order to understand fledgling political movements like the Sweden Democrats in the 21st century, social scientists must turn their attention to websites like Twitter and Facebook. As many readers will be aware, there are Facebook groups for just about anything. This includes far-right, anti-immigrant political parties and street-based movements, like the Sweden Democrats. In many instances, the number of supporters on Facebook of these groups far outstrips the number of formal party members.
Last Friday, the UK think tank Demos released its report on the Facebook supporters of the Sweden Democrats. The study is part of a series that explores the social media fans and supporters of similar groups—such as the Danish People’s Party, the True Finns, France’s Front National, Geert Wilder’s Freedom Party, and the English Defence League, to name a few—across 12 different European countries. We have based our findings on over 13,000 responses from supporters of anti-immigrant populist groups online across Europe, including over 500 supporters of the Sweden Democrats.
An overview report, The New Face of Digital Populism, was released in November 2011, followed by a report on the Jobbik movement in Hungary released in January 2012. Our work represents the first time that Facebook fans of these groups have been researched. It reveals insights into who these keyboard warriors are, and the extent to which they are active in the "real world."
Winning 5.7 percent of the vote in 2010 and entering Parliament for the first time meant that the Sweden Democrats could no longer be ignored. And yet, ignoring them is exactly what the mainstream parties set out to do. Some suggest that this strategy of ignoring and refusing to engage with them has been successful in minimizing their impact on policy. Ignoring the party in Parliament is one thing; ignoring their supporters, their frustrations, their concerns, their young age profile, and their popularity on social media is another. The former may be principle, but the latter is dangerous.
Groups like the Sweden Democrats are extremely adept at mobilizing supporters on social media, using the medium to spread propaganda and organize demonstrations. They are much more expert than mainstream political parties. At the time of writing this article, the Facebook page of Jimmie Akesson, the leader of the Sweden Democrats, had nearly 25,000 "likes." The current prime minister, by contrast, had fewer than 3,000. Mainstream parties are clearly missing a trick.
Of course, the important question is the extent to which the Facebook supporters of the Sweden Democrats are the same as the voters. It is easy to dismiss Facebook fans as mere frippery, but it is in fact an increasingly important way for people to express their political views. Our research found that almost two-thirds of Facebook supporters voted for the Sweden Democrats, nearly half were formal party members and a fifth had participated in a Sweden Democrat demonstration or street protest. In other words, these are not mere keyboard enthusiasts but rather "real world" activists.
Most want to dismiss Sweden Democrat supporters as racist xenophobes. No doubt many of them are. But our research shows that many are also young Swedes concerned about a perceived erosion of cultural and national identity. Among the Sweden Democrat Facebook supporters that we surveyed, almost two-thirds (63 percent) were between the ages of 16 and 20 years old. This makes them the youngest supporters of anti-immigrant groups across all of the similar groups that we surveyed in Europe.
They are also incredibly disillusioned with mainstream political parties and politicians. In an age of bland, sanitized, and desiccated political speech, who can blame them? As a result, populist credibility is easily purchased simply by appearing "courageous" and saying the uncomfortable things that most mainstream politicians wouldn’t dare.
But disillusionment with the current establishment does not translate into dislike of the system as a whole. Our research suggests that supporters of Sweden Democrats are committed to the democratic process. An overwhelming majority believe in the importance of voting, and, when compared to supporters of similar parties across Europe, they are among the most likely to say that politics is an effective way to respond to their concerns. They are also the least likely to say that violence is justified if it leads to the right outcome compared to supporters of other anti-immigrant populist groups across Europe.
Moreover, those online supporters who are also active offline—through voting for the Sweden Democrats, being formal party members or participating in a demonstration—were more likely to trust a variety of social institutions, such as the justice and legal system, than those who were not active offline. Evidence from the UK Citizenship Survey suggests that low levels of trust in social institutions are correlated with the likelihood of justifying violent extremism. This is powerful evidence that encouraging more people to become actively involved in political and civic life is an important way forward. It’s not the activist on the street that we should worry about; it’s the one who is too disillusioned to take to the street.
To be clear, we are resolutely opposed to the Sweden Democrats and their ideology. It is simplistic, divisive, and dangerous. But ignoring and dismissing their supporters, or adopting undemocratic means of suppressing them, is most certainly not the answer.
Mainstream parties must share the blame for the rise of the Sweden Democrats. Instead of burying their heads in the sand to this new movement, mainstream parties must think about how they can win back the growing legions of young people who are disillusioned with PR politics, and thus susceptible to populist and extreme propaganda.
Mainstream politicians must be bold in articulating and defending the benefits and necessity of immigration, as well as what’s expected of immigrants who come to Sweden. They must learn to speak about the importance of cultural identity without resorting to xenophobia and the demonization of minorities. But they must do so in the context of defending the fundamental values and freedoms that European societies are built on such as the equal rights of all, freedom of expression and freedom of and from religion—often the same values espoused by the supporters of Sweden Democrats, albeit for different conclusions. Perhaps most importantly, they have to take the fight to Facebook. That is where the groundswell of political movements in the 21st century is taking place.
Jonathan Birdwell is author of Populism in Europe: Sweden, and head of the Citizens Program at the think tank Demos.