Can Europe Make It?

Meme warfare in the Swedish context

The alt-right mobilised online to back far-right parties at Sweden's general election – but are their tactics no longer effective?

Jacob Davey
3 November 2018


Screenshot: Jimmie Åkesson, Leader of the Sweden Democrats, August 2018. YouTube.

Recent years have seen the far and extreme right wing building international coalitions to disseminate propaganda in an attempt to bring the public around to their talking points, including the development of large networks of online activists and trolls who deliver sophisticated coordinated campaigns. These digital militias operate across a range of platforms, but have especially come to be associated with the ‘Politically Incorrect’ (/pol/) boards of the 4chan and 8chan sites.

Such campaigning became particularly pronounced in Donald Trump’s campaign to become the Republican’s presidential nominee, and his subsequent presidential race. Overnight fringe memes like Pepe the Frog became public talking points as these troll armies shitposted themselves to fame, flooding social media with a range of far-right talking points and conspiracy theories designed to boost Donald Trump’s image and denigrate his opponents. Such activity also aligned with Kremlin objectives, and the different groups of internet trolls enjoyed a symbiotic relationship, disseminating and provoking a range of complementary disinformation.

Following the US election these communities continued their activity, seeking to replicate their perceived success in 2016. In the run-up to the French election we observed American activists engaging in a range of activities designed to sway the public in favour of the Front Nationale. Some of these were poorly considered, with American activists attempting to replicate their strategy from the US election with little consideration for the French context. However, there were more serious efforts, including the dissemination of Macron’s leaked emails which occurred with potential support from Russia. Perhaps most interestingly US alt-right activists outlined sophisticated propaganda efforts which included the microtargeted dissemination of disinformation.[1] Such activity also aligned with Kremlin objectives, and the different groups of internet trolls enjoyed a symbiotic relationship,

This trend continued into the German elections where sophisticated communities of German and American trolls coordinated on the Discord chat platform, organising themselves into pseudo-military structures and engaged in prolonged activity to discredit Angela Merkel and promote the AfD.[2] Here a clear dynamic was observed whereby individuals were recruited on platforms such as 4chan before being directed to closed communities, highlighting how individuals travel through digital ecosystems as they become more actively involved in radical activity; something which was also observed in the Italian elections, albeit with limited impact.[3]

A cooling trend?

Most recently the Institute for Strategic Dialogue has been engaged in a research project designed to track the extent of such activity in the Swedish election, the results of which are published today. Importantly although we identified some instances of coordination this was of low quality, and ultimately failed to translate into effective campaigning, potentially because of an inability to galvanise or enthuse Swedish activists to engage in this activity, suggesting that the trend for international coalition building which could be observed in 2016 – 2017 seems to be cooling.

In order to examine the extent to which users of 4chan’s /pol/ board sought to influence the Swedish election we analysed all threads posted in the month proceeding the election which mentioning Sweden. Analysis of these discussions demonstrates that the election was the most widely discussed topic in this period, with 44% of threads analysed directly engaging with the topic. 17% of these threads contained a call to action inviting individuals to directly engage in activity to disrupt the election. Threads which explicitly contained a call to action ranged from general requests that individuals share a piece of content on social media to more organised Swedish Election General (SWEG) threads, which mirror the format and lay-out of similar discussions which took place in the run-up to the German and French elections.

These contain a set format and a call to action for activists as well as clear objectives and tactics including the dissemination of online propaganda, the use of offline media, and efforts to on-board new individuals to the broader metapolitical movement. These threads made up the majority of all calls to action which suggests that there was some organised effort made to galvanise broader support for grassroots information operations, potentially originating in Denmark.

Interestingly, individuals on 4chan were not directed to closed chat channels, as was observed in the Italian and German elections. This could be because of intense press coverage of this topic in the German election, with the result that activists are more cautious about infiltration, a possibility which seems only too likely when it is considered that researchers have been able to identify and infiltrate communications channels which have been set up for the purpose of election disruption.

Screenshot 2018-11-03 at 22.40.25.png

Screenshot: Swedish Election General (SWEG) threads.Whilst the presence of such discussion demonstrates some effort to galvanise grassroots activity there is little evidence to suggest that this desire for coordination translated into campaigning, effective or ineffective. Indeed discussion on 4chan after the election blamed the lack of electoral success by the AfS and SD on the international far-right’s inability to engage in effective communications campaigns. In the Swedish instance this dynamic appears to have been reversed, with the international far-right attempting to galvanise domestic groups.

When it is considered that a large proportion of these threads appear to be being created outside of Sweden this also provides an opportunity to reflect on the overall efficacy of such activity. Whilst there have clearly been highly coordinated and sophisticated efforts to use memetic warfare in the past, these relied largely on committed domestic activist groups who could draw on international support. In the Swedish instance this dynamic appears to have been reversed, with the international far-right attempting to galvanise domestic groups. This is perhaps related to the activity of far-right parties in Sweden as well. Whilst the Trump and AfD campaigns both provided some explicit or implicit recognition of grass-roots digital campaigning, there is little evidence to demonstrate that AfS or SD politicians actively courted digital militias.

It is evident that the efficacy of digital meme ops was stymied in the instance of the Swedish election, largely due to an inability to effectively galvanise or organise a committed activist base. Whilst these efforts demonstrate an attempt to replicate a tactical playbook which appears to have been effective in the past and are thus worthy of our attention, the inability of the global extreme right to effectively mobilise perhaps represents a cooling of the international campaigning we have previously seen.

This is worthy of further study; if it can be established why these tactics weren’t effective, this provides us with an opportunity for counter-hate strategists to attempt to replicate these barriers to frustrate future far-right activism.

[1] Davey, Saltman, and Birdwell, ‘The mainstreaming of far-right extremism online and how to counter it: a case study on UK, US and French elections’, in Trumping the Mainstream: The conquest of democratic politics by the populist radical right (Routledge 2018)

[2] Davey and Ebner, The Fringe Insurgency, ISD 2017

[3] Ebner and Davey, Mainstreaming Mussolini, ISD 2018

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