The Swedish government's innovation agency, Vinnova, is financing a project led by the combined forces of Swedish mainstream media to, in the words of Vinnova, "prevent fake news and unfounded statements from spreading and playing a decisive role in the Swedish elections in 2018". The next elections, which take place every four years, are scheduled to take place on September 9, 2018. The Swedish media giants involved in the project consist of Swedish State Television, Swedish State Radio, Bonnier, Schibsted Sverige, and NTM. Together, these media companies effectively own Swedish mainstream media in the form of newspapers, online news outlets, and state and private television and radio. The Swedish state is financing the technical aspects of the project with 1.9 million Swedish kroner ($240,000), while the Swedish mainstream media is financing the remaining project costs themselves. The "fake news" project was originally launched in October 2017.
According to Maria Rimpi, chief editor of Svenska Dagbladet, one of the main Swedish mainstream newspapers:
"There are several successful examples of editors who have collaborated on fact-finding in different parts of Europe. As a result, the people in the steering group, who have great faith in each other, began to discuss whether we can do something similar in Sweden.
"We have seen how false statements and apparent news have been widely spread and influenced elections in other countries. To go into the depths of an assertion, and, for example, trace sources of origin, are very resource-intensive. Through this collaboration, more voters can access correct information".
How adorable that Swedish media, which has been going out of its way to conceal and beautify news about Sweden – migrant rapes and other crimes, for example -- in its news coverage, suddenly and conveniently in election season, pretends to care about whether Swedish voters can access correct information. Correct information has not exactly been a priority until now: Swedish media never reports the ethnicity of rapists, for example, thereby not only making it harder for the public to help locate the perpetrators, but also refusing to depict reality as it is. Swedish media has even covered up entire news stories in order to protect migrants: In 2015, there were widespread sexual assaults by young men, mainly from Afghanistan and Syria, at a music festival in Stockholm. One of the largest Swedish newspapers, Dagens Nyheter, once it was informed of the national origin of the criminals, did not want to report the story. The story was only finally reported -- six months after the newspaper learned about it -- because of the obvious similarity to the sexual assaults in Cologne, Germany, which had just occurred.
Granted, it is not always easy to be a journalist in Sweden: Sexual assaults had been ongoing at this Stockholm festival for years, yet the Swedish police suppressed the information. "Sometimes," according to Svt Nyheter, "[the police] consciously choose to cover up incidents where the suspects have a foreign background". According to police chief Peter Ågren, "This is a sore spot; we sometimes do not dare to say it as it is, because we think it could play into the hands of the Sweden Democrats".
Swedish authorities thus have a history of joining forces with the media to keep Swedes from knowing what is going on in their own country, lest they vote the opposition into power. In fact, a 2002 survey from the University of Gothenburg revealed 70% of Swedish journalists to be left-wing and very loyal to the Swedish state, which in modern times has historically been dominated by Social Democrat Party. Therefore, when Swedish authorities representing a Swedish left-wing government and media announce a project to combat "fake news" from "decisively influencing" the 2018 elections, this ought to set off loud alarm bells among Swedes. Who determines what constitutes "fake news" anyway? Is it not the very essence of "fake news" when a media outlet refuses to report mass sexual assaults, because the perpetrators happen to be foreigners from third world countries?
Ultimately, the unholy alliance of government agencies and media giants to silence criticism of government policies in an election year in the name of "fake news", is not only indicative of an astonishing contempt for established democratic principles and the freedom of expression and information. It also reveals how truly terrified the political establishment is of falling from power, and just how far it will go in compromising democratic principles in order to be able to cling to that power.
Sweden, naturally, is not the only country with a political elite clinging to power at all costs and using the slippery slope of "fake news" to cover up the silencing of dissent and government criticism.
In France, President Emmanuel Macron has threatened to go as far as to block entire websites during election season in order to fight "fake news". He is expected to present new legislation on the topic in the near future.
In the UK, Prime Minister Theresa May is setting up a "rapid response fake news unit". The purpose is, according to a news report by Sky News, to "monitor social media and challenge false stories". The unit will be based in the Cabinet Office, according to Alex Aiken, the executive director of the Government Communication Service (GCS), the public-relations wing of the civil service. Aiken said that the civil service needed to "build a rapid response social media capability to deal quickly with disinformation and reclaim a fact-based public debate".
A British Cabinet Office spokesperson told Sky News: "The Government is committed to tackling false information and the Government Communications Service plays a crucial role in this". Perhaps the unit should begin with Theresa May herself, who falsely and against all factual evidence continues to claim that Islam is a religion of peace and that ISIS is not Islamic.
Meanwhile, European citizens continue to face costly legal prosecutions for refusing to accept the fake news about Islam propagated by people such as Theresa May.
In Sweden, for example, a 71-year old pensioner, Denny, who decided to read the Koran and was shocked to see what it said, is being prosecuted for "incitement to hatred" for calling Islam "a fascist ideology" on Facebook. According to Denny:
"A few years ago, I also thought that Islam was just a normal religion, but then I read the Koran and became shocked by the hatred that exists there, the misogyny... The more Islam takes over, the more we compromise. Islam is a totalitarian ideology, which means dictatorship. So, I believe that our democratic system is in danger... I hate no people. What I hate is ideology, Islam. One can criticize fascism or Nazism, but why not Islam? Why should Islam have any protection status?"
Denny's case will go to court in June. He could face up to two years in prison.
Sweden's government is leading an unholy alliance with media giants to silence criticism of government policies in an election year, in the name of "fake news". Pictured: Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven. (Photo by Michael Campanella/Getty Images)
John Richardson is a researcher based in the United States.