Unusual online support for ultra-nationalist group ahead of Swedish general elections
As Sweden’s general elections approach, one group seems to be gaining traction online — without much acknowledgement from anyone but those within their own network.
Alternativ för Sverige (AfS, Alternative for Sweden) does not currently hold any seats in Parliament, but it is bidding to secure its place in the 2018 elections, which are to be held on September 9. Political discussions largely discount this likelihood, but AfS’ presence online created an illusion of significant support.
Most of the activity appeared to come from organic users with one or more accounts created specifically to amplify the fringe nationalist party’s content. They boosted their content by providing greater engagement than would likely occur otherwise.
The engagement patterns are unique and highly coordinated, but may not be inauthentic.
This analysis details the process through which suspicions of AfS popularity were identified by the @DFRLab. The initial findings do not show the motive, organization, or veracity of high levels of engagement by AfS, which is an indicator — but not a definitive one — of false accounts for amplification.
Alternative for Sweden
Alternative for Sweden is a political party without the necessary four percent of votes to hold a seat in Parliament. Nonetheless, it has almost two times as many followers on Facebook as the smallest parliamentary party (with 4.5 percent of votes), the Christian Democrats. On some posts, AfS’ 35,259 followers provided nearly as many likes as the Social Democrats, currently the largest political party, which had a Facebook following of 158,884. This indicates an almost unbelievable percentage of engagement.
AfS is an ultra-right-wing party that broke off from the Sweden Democrats, a social conservative party with nationalist beliefs comparable to the right-wing movements spreading throughout Europe. The Sweden Democrats now look set to gain a majority over the Social Democrats, according to opinion polls. Despite the Sweden Democrats being a nationalist, and often reportedly radical party, AfS has criticized them for being too liberal. Although AfS did not seem to have the substantive base it would need to gain a seat in Parliament, its supporters were visibly active across Twitter and Facebook.
Their Facebook account showed awareness of, and confidence in, the significant engagement it receives. The party’s social-media accounts often posted about how they compared to the other parties in terms of engagement.
Facebook Amplification Techniques
Looking at AfS’ posts, it was quickly evident that they had a number of dedicated followers who engaged with each post. The algorithm that organized the order of likes is not known, but it seemed that those who interacted with the page most were sorted at the top, and always in the same order.
The top ten likes on each post often had accounts with similar profiles — generally, they were created in the months since May, they had recent, publicly-visible activity, and the activity was generally minimal or devoted primarily to AfS. Many had anonymous profile photos, opting instead to use photos of cartoons, celebrities, scenes, or objects. It was not possible to confirm whether the accounts had more activity that was hidden to the public.
Some of the names used in these profiles were used for one or several other accounts. For the most part, these other accounts lead to pages that appeared organic, and generally less political. They also exhibited photos or activity similar to one another. It is important to acknowledge, however, that the fact that two accounts appear to be linked doesn’t necessarily mean that they are.
It is not clear from the open source information whether this activity was coordinated by AfS, or if it was a grassroots movement by dedicated supporters trying to remain anonymous. On the page of one active liker, however, supporters exchanged comments about the number of pages they had, some of which had been suspended by Facebook.
Most pages did appear to be run by Swedish users. This activity suggests that there is a group of AfS supporters who work to amplify AfS content online, often, but not always, anonymously. To this end, they have proven highly effective. Despite AfS’ lack of substantive impact in the government, their engagement online gave them a voice and created the illusion that they have a significant number of supporters.
Fringe and extremist groups often emphasize their online followings, sometimes using fake accounts or bots to do so. This allows them to appear larger and more influential than their real-life followings would suggest. Supporters of the far-right French National Front used similar, but much more aggressive, tactics in the 2017 election in France, as @DFRLab reported here.
Most of the users who frequently liked AfS posts had similar characteristics: they created their profile in the past few months, their pages often obscured the owner, and they dedicated their page primarily to amplifying AfS content and to engaging with other AfS supporters. If these users created multiple profiles, they violated Facebook’s community standards and created the illusion that the party has more support than it may actually have.
In trying to spread its political messages, amplification of social media content improved AfS’ potential to reach audiences. Indeed, social media is perhaps the realm in which AfS is most visible. Considering its small size and lack of substantive engagement in Swedish politics, AfS garners impressive engagement online.
At this point, it appears unlikely that this support is automated or outsourced to foreign groups or users.
As Sweden heads to the polls this weekend, the amplification of nationalist rhetoric, whether by a recognized party or a faction of one, holds the potential to influence opinions. @DFRLab will continue to continue identifying amplification around the election and as the potential for an important shift in Swedish politics intensifies.
Christina Apelseth is an Editorial Intern at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).
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