Right-wing websites swamp Sweden with 'junk news' ahead of Sunday vote
Officials see increased risk of foreign meddling amid uncertain election result
One in three news articles shared online about the upcoming Swedish election comes from websites publishing deliberately misleading information, most with a right-wing focus on immigration and Islam, Oxford University researchers say.
Their study, published on Thursday, points to widespread online disinformation in the final stages of a tightly-contested campaign which could mark a lurch to the right in one of Europe's most prominent liberal democracies.
The authors, from the Oxford Internet Institute, labelled certain websites "junk news," based on a range of detailed criteria. Reuters found the three most popular sites they identified have employed former members of the Sweden Democrats party, while one has a former MP listed among its staff.
It was not clear whether the sharing of "junk news" had affected voting intentions in Sweden, but the study helps show the impact platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have on elections, and how domestic or foreign groups can use them to exacerbate sensitive social and political issues.
Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, whose centre-left Social Democrats have dominated politics since 1914 but are now unlikely to secure a ruling majority, told Reuters the spread of false or distorted information online risked shaking "the foundations of democracy" if left unchecked.
'Significant part of the conversation'
The Institute, a department of Oxford University, analyzed 275,000 tweets about the Swedish election from a 10-day period in August. It counted articles shared from websites it identified as "junk news" sources, defined as outlets that "deliberately publish misleading, deceptive or incorrect information purporting to be real news."
"Roughly speaking, for every two professional content articles shared, one junk news article was shared. Junk news therefore constituted a significant part of the conversation around the Swedish general election," it said.
A Twitter spokesperson declined to comment on the results of the study.
Incorrect and biased reporting promotes a harder, harsher tone in the debate, which makes it easier to throw in disinformation and other deceptive tools.- Mikael Tofvesson , Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency
Facebook, where interactions between users are harder to track, said it was working with Swedish officials to help voters spot disinformation. It has also partnered with Viralgranskaren — an arm of Sweden's Metro newspaper — to identify, demote and counterbalance "false news" on its site.
Joakim Wallerstein, head of communications for the Sweden Democrats, said he had no knowledge of or interest in the party sympathies of media outlets. Asked to comment on his party's relationship with the sites identified by the study, he said he had been interviewed by one of them once.
"I think it is strange that a foreign institute is trying to label various news outlets in Sweden as 'junk news' and release such a report in connection to an election," he said.
Swedish security officials say there is currently no evidence of a co-ordinated online attempt by foreign powers to sway Sunday's vote, despite repeated government warnings about the threat.
But Mikael Tofvesson, head of the counter-influence team at the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB), a government agency tasked with safeguarding the election, said the widespread sharing of false or distorted information makes countries more vulnerable to hostile influence operations.
"Incorrect and biased reporting promotes a harder, harsher tone in the debate, which makes it easier to throw in disinformation and other deceptive tools," he said.
Lisa-Maria Neudert, a researcher from the Oxford Internet Institute's Project on Computational Propaganda, said most of the "junk news" in Sweden supported right-wing policies, and was largely focused on issues around immigration and Islam.
The top three "junk news" sources identified by the study — right-wing websites Samhallsnytt, Nyheter Idag and Fria Tider — accounted for more than 85 per cent of the "junk news" content.
Samhallsnytt received donations through the personal bank account of a Sweden Democrat member between 2011 and 2013 when it operated under the name Avpixlat. A former Sweden Democrat member of parliament, who also previously ran the party's youth wing, is listed on the Samhallsnytt website as a columnist.
Pork ban a case in point
Samhallsnytt often publishes articles saying Sweden is under threat from Islam. In June, for example, it said a youth soccer tournament in the second-biggest city had banned pork as "haram" — or forbidden under Islamic law. The article is still online with the headline: "Islam is the new foundation of the Gothia Cup — pork proclaimed 'haram.'"
A tournament organizer told the Dagens Nyheter newspaper that caterers had not served pork for more than 10 years for practical reasons, and there was no ban against eating or selling pork at the event.
Samhallsnytt and Fria Tider did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
If you are doing a tabloid you cannot have dry, boring headlines, it should have some punch to it. But we do not lie, we do not make false accusations.- Chang Frick , founder of Nyheter Idag
Commenting before the Oxford study was published, Nyheter Idag founder Chang Frick disputed the "junk news" label and said his website followed ethical journalistic practices, citing its membership of Sweden's self-regulated Press Council body.
"Yes, we put our editorial perspective on news, of course, like everyone else," he said. "If you are doing a tabloid you cannot have dry, boring headlines, it should have some punch to it. But we do not lie, we do not make false accusations."
Facebook said its work with Viralgranskaren to fact check content on its sites helped it quickly identify "false news."
The company declined to give specific figures about the amount or sources of false news it had recorded around the Swedish election, but said any flagged content is given a lower position on its site, a practice known as "downranking" which it says cuts views by 80 per cent. Users who see disputed articles are also shown other sources of verified information, it said.