As It Happens

How a far-right group in Norway mistook bus seats for burkas

Swedish fact-checker Hugo Ewald explains how a picture of empty bus seats sparked outrage among members of an anti-immigrant Facebook group.
Johan Slattavik posted this picture in an anti-immigrant Facebook group with the caption: 'What do you think of this?' (Johan Slattavik)

Story transcript

Members of a Norwegian anti-immigrant Facebook group were up in arms this week about a picture of empty bus seats, because "people see what they want to see," says Hugo Ewald.

The editor and fact-checker for Metro Sweden says members of Fedrelandet Viktigst, or "Fatherland First," believed they were looking at a photo of women wearing burkas. 

Members filled the comments section with anti-Muslim sentiment.

"Get them out of our country," wrote one person. 

"Should be banned. You can't tell who's underneath. Could be terrorists," wrote another.

Sindre Beyer, a former Labour Party MP, published 23 screenshots of the group's comments on his own Facebook page.

"The group, as these kind of groups in the Nordic countries are, is famous for being kind of an echo chamber, where people simply post statements so everyone kind of assumes that it's correct because it aligns with their point of view," Ewald, who wrote about the photo for Metro, told As It Happens guest host Piya Chattopadhyay

A man named Johan Slattavik first posted the picture to the group with the caption, "What do we think of this?"

He told the Norwegian news site Nettavisen he knew exactly what the photo depicted, but was "interested to see how people's perceptions of an image are influenced by how others around them react."

"I ended up having a good laugh," he said.

But Ewald said the 13,000 or so people in the Fatherland First group do not appear embarrassed by the flub.

"Every time we do these kind of fact checks, which we do regularly, and it's often pertaining to far-right statements so to say, people mostly shrug it off and [see] it as bias in the media rather than something that they have done wrong," he said.

"It's often brushed off as, 'Media tries to discredit us and that's why they found this simple, single instance of us doing something wrong.'"

The picture, he said, later spread to Swedish social media pages, where more people mistook the bus seats for burkas.

Ewald, who debunks fake news for a living, said this mistaken perceptioni shows the problem with private, ideologically driven social media communities. 

"I think it shows the tendency of people to see what they want to see, this kind of cognitive bias, confirmation bias," he said.

"And I also think it shows the problem with these kinds of closed-off rooms that are created as a result of social media where people can choose to only listen to views that align with their own, which makes it easier for disinformation, fake news to ... spread."

Last month, Norway proposed restrictions on wearing burkas and niqabs. The law would ban the face-covering Muslim veils in kindergartens, schools and universities.

Norway's minority government, a coalition of centre-right Conservatives and the populist Progress Party, believes it has opposition support for the change in legislation.

France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Bulgaria and the German state of Bavaria have all imposed similar restrictions on wearing full-face veils.

Norway's parliamentary election is set for Sept. 11, 2017.

With files from Reuters

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Hugo Ewald as Norwegian. In fact, he is Swedish.


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