How white supremacists used a hashtag to drive an anti-migrant message
Last week, a new hashtag surged in popularity across various social media and blogging platforms. This hashtag, #SwedenSOS, represents a deliberate campaign by far-right activists from Europe and the United States to portray Sweden as a society destroyed by migrants.
“Trump, Please Help Sweden”
On March 8, nationalist Swedish media outlet Nya Dagbladet published an “open letter to President Trump from Sweden”. At the bottom of the publication, a link was included to a PDF letter uploaded on the Nya Dagbladet server. The letter claims that Sweden is “about to collapse on every level” and demands that Trump arrest financier and democracy advocate George Soros. No link between immigration and Soros is explained.
The letter also features the hashtag #SwedenSOS. This hashtag was later used on various social networks in a coordinated campaign to alert English-speaking users about, as the participants of the campaign see it, the “critical situation” Sweden faces as a result of its open migration policy.
Call for help on Twitter
The letter itself failed to achieve significant traction. However, three weeks later, a coordinated burst of posts on Twitter, apparently partly driven by automated amplification accounts, launched the hashtag #SwedenSOS with a series of videos in which commentators called on Trump to save them from migrants.
The most popular of these tweeted videos shows a blond-haired woman talking about how Sweden had changed for the worse because of migrants. The tweet was shared over 6,500 times — almost half the total traffic on this hashtag.
— Unfiltered☢Boss on GAB (@hrtablaze) March 27, 2017
In the video, which appears to have been clumsily edited, the girl says:
… not Swedish, but my husband is. The first time I went to Sweden, I was a teenager, and I saw nothing but Swedes. It was clean, safe and peaceful. Today I cannot walk the streets of Sweden without seeing hijabs, burkas, and loitering foreign men who cat-call woman on the streets. Men who live-stream gang-rapes from a ghetto, while they throw rocks at cops. Little Sweden was always known for vikings and their good looks. But today they are told they don’t have a culture, and that they don’t even have a right to have a country for their own people. Because of politicians and anti-Swedish propaganda they are being replaced by “the new Swedes.” This is criminal. Trump, please keep talking about Sweden. And if you are Swedish, make a video and tell the truth about Sweden. Hashtag Sweden SOS.
The girl on the video is Lana Lokteff, a host of Radio 3Fourteen, an online radio station, and claims to be based in the United States and Sweden. Lokteff’s biography on the site states that she “contributes political/social commentary in the form of articles and videos” and that “she is passionate about European identity politics, ancestral traditions and health.”
The radio site’s coverage is anti-migrant, anti-EU, and anti-liberal and supports the administrations of President Donald Trump in the US and President Vladimir Putin in Russia, suggesting that the latter is the “pre-eminent statesman of our times.” It is linked to a similarly strident TV station, Red Ice TV, which claims to be focused on “issues concerning European survival.”
On her Twitter account, Lokteff is open about her sympathies towards Russia, as she “was born of Russian-American ancestry”. On her personal account, she posts content that supports anti-migrant and far-right ideas and her show on Red Ice TV.
On March 27, she posted a #SwedenSOS tweet, but it only produced 18 retweets and 19 likes among her 23,000 followers.
Her call to the Swedish people to “tell the truth” about migrants comes from a self-declared migrant who speaks English, not Swedish, in the video. It therefore appears to be a case of a primarily external far-right actor instrumentalizing an image of Sweden as existentially threatened by migrants to confirm anti-migrant positions elsewhere.
The primary amplifier of Lokteff’s video on Twitter was the account @hrtablaze, which tweets and retweets on anti-migrant, anti-liberal and anti-feminist themes.
This appears to be an active, but not automated, account. Twitter data from December 13, 2016 to April 03, 2017 show a moderate ratio of tweets (around 27 per day) and quite high engagement. Almost 50 per cent of tweets posted by this account are retweeted and favorited.
Unlike @hrtablaze, this Twitter account shows signs of being automated. It tweets an average of 157 tweets per day, and 95 per cent of its content is retweets, making it likely to be at least a semi-automated cyborg account, if not a simple automated bot.
Other accounts which amplified the hashtag #SwedenSOS heavily also appear to have been US-focused bots or cyborgs.
The accounts @eversfam and @lovtoridemytrek tweeted 27 tweets in two days with the hashtag #SwedenSOS. Both of them show a suspicious ratio of tweets per day (271 tweets and 290 tweets respectively). Approximately 98 per cent of both accounts’ posts are retweets of pro-Trump accounts. A third account, @radicalrw, tweeted 24 tweets with the hashtag. This tweets an average of 455 times a day, and 79 per cent of its posts are retweets.
It therefore appears that the Twitter campaign on #SwedenSOS was significantly amplified by fake accounts in an attempt to increase its penetration.
The account @hrtablaze shared two other videos in the series. One of them features Ingrid Carlqvist, a far-right Swedish activist, describing how Sweden has changed in front of her eyes.
Carlqvist is a well-known figure in Swedish far right circles who has been described by Swedish media as an extremist. She is a prolific writer on the evils of migrants in general and Muslims in particular.
One piece in early 2016, for example, was headlined “Sweden: death by immigration,” and asked the Swedish Ministry of Justice the following question:
If several millions of Muslims come here and implement Sharia law, then the right of asylum has effectively contributed to abolishing the democracy in our country, replacing the Swedish people and annihilating the whole concept of Sweden. Have none of you pondered these fateful issues?
The other video is with right-wing extremist Henrik Palmgren, who accuses the Swedish media of covering up the truth about migrants’ criminal deeds in Sweden. Palmgren is the founder of Red Ice TV and has repeatedly interviewed David Duke, former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, including on the “occupying enemy force of Zionism.”
On the Red Ice Creations website, Palmgren claims to have been “born in Götaland (Geatland), the land of Goths, today known as Sweden, Scandinavia.” Nevertheless, his website and Twitter accounts are mostly in English.
At first Red Ice was focused on conspiracy theories, pseudo-history and the paranormal. It later shifted its focus towards alt-right content.
The About page of Red Ice describes Palmgren’s passion for seeking the “truth”: “He is not afraid to tackle controversy and go where it’s necessary to expose our hidden history and the roots of corruption.” According to far-right encyclopedia Metapedia, he is a “foreign Swede” (utlandssvensk), one living abroad.
The full compilation of the videos with “concerned Swedes” calling for Trump to help was published on the Red Ice TV YouTube channel.
The footage was also included in the second episode of an hour-long YouTube talk show called Norse News, published, again, by Red Ice TV.
The show does not have its own web page or YouTube channel. At the time of publication of this report, it had just two videos.
Early in the first episode, Palmgren explains what Norse News is, in apocalyptic and anti-migrant terms:
Norse News is a program where we put focus on some of the biggest news stories coming out of the North with specific focus on Sweden, since our beloved country is a canary in a multi cultural coal mine. It is an extraordinary situation, a historic scenario, unique suicidal Scandinavian altruism that now is accruing, and that deserves specific focus. And we think that you should know what really is happening in the country, since our domestic mainstream media is lying to us, government has turned its back to Swedish people.
The co-hosts of Norse News, Ingrid (Ingrid Carlqvist) and “Conrad” (Daniel Frandelov), have had their podcast YouTube channel since July 2015. As of April 2017, it has 2,304 subscribers. A couple of episodes are released every week, with around 2,000 views on average. The #SwedenSOS campaign is a continuation of their earlier efforts.
Twitter is not the only place the hashtag #SwedenSOS has been promoted. A new YouTube channel, called Make Sweden Great Again, was launched in the week of March 27, when the hashtag began to gain traction.
The account is secretive about its purpose. The channel does not have any descriptive or relevant information, and published thirty videos before March 28. Each video covered alleged problems that Sweden has with Muslim immigrants, and had the hashtag #SwedenSOS before its title.
The profile picture of the channel is an African man running towards the picture with a machete, accompanied by the caption, “You are about to be culturally enriched.”
Though all of the videos uploaded on this account used the #SwedenSOS hashtag, they accrued little popularity in comparison with the video compilation featuring the hashtag on Red Ice TV channel. The YouTube channel only has twenty-two subscribers, and most of the videos have only a dozen or two views.
This case demonstrates that hashtags on YouTube work as amplifiers on already popular channels with larger audiences, but do not appear to drive traffic to new channels.
On Facebook, the majority of public posts lead to multiple websites promoting the video compilation and calling for regular people to record their own message addressed to Trump. Some of these sites include 100PercentFedUp.com, the blog War Dog 6 Actual: Rumor Control, Knights Templar International, Brainfeed TV, The Daily Digest, The Daily Stormer, the blog PearlsnPonderings, the blog Ik ben in de hemel, and others.
Some of the sites mentioned use the same text encouraging others to produce their own message and share the YouTube video:
The sites and blogs that shared the video and the call to action do little to seem like trustworthy news sources. Most of the sites have features consistent with content aggregators. This strategy demonstrates how the quantity of sites that appear on web search engines or social networks create a deceptive impression that the hashtag is more popular than it really is.
The hashtag was also promoted on aggregator site Reddit. One of the most popular Reddit articles was shared on the The_Donald sub Reddit, which is a known insertion point for far-right fake news and disinformation (see the DFRLab’s post, “Spread it on Reddit”).
The 415 Reddit karma points gathered by this video are not much, but another Reddit article featuring the hashtag got even less — just 10 karma points. This appears to show the limitations of hashtags on platforms for which they were not designed.
This case highlights the extent to which Sweden has become a target of international far-right and neo-Nazi groups. Some of the commentators on the video campaign, notably Palmgren and Carlqvist, are Swedes with clearly far-right sympathies. Others, such as Lokteff, are not of Swedish origin, and appear to belong to a more international far-right movement. Red Ice TV itself features far-right commentators from both the United States and Europe, showing the extent to which various far-right movements have coalesced around the Swedish issue.
At the same time, it shows that marking a campaign with a hashtag can be an effective way to gain traction across different social media platforms and engage like-minded users. The context of the hashtag plays a crucial role in driving audience engagement, especially on YouTube and Reddit.
The quantity of the posts, articles, and videos using the hashtag suggests that the campaign managers are trying to create the illusion of additional popularity, rather than achieving it, as only a few posts, videos, and articles garnered significant engagement with English-speaking internet users.
Ben Nimmo is Senior Fellow for Information Defense at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab). Nika Aleksejeva is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the DFRLab.