Social media brings power to the people

Are social media changing global relations? Can tools like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube strengthen Sweden’s relations with regions such as the Middle East? These are important question to raise, for us as individuals and for Sweden as a nation, writes Javeria Rizvi Kabani from the Swedish Institute.

Social media brings power to the people

In the last few years, the internet, digital and mobile technologies and social media tools like blogs, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and other user-generated content (UGC) have rapidly changed the way information is shaped, shared and spread. This shift in power from governments and traditional media to the people provides a window into the events and lives of people who in the past were distant.

Today, we know more about countries like Iran, Egypt and Yemen not only from what their respective state-run media wants to share or from selected western media but, more importantly, from the people. In this respect, social media has provided a new generation of opinion leaders with the means to express their views and reach out to a larger audience – instantaneously. Everyone with access to internet has potential political power.

Building respectful relationships with the Middle East continues to be important, and while cultural barriers and common misconceptions still exist, social media tools provide great opportunities to create and enhance respectful and long-lasting relationships.

On May 10, 25 high-profile opinion leaders from eight countries in the Middle East and North Africa arrive in Sweden to participate in the Young Leaders Visitors Program (YLVP), a leadership training that will equip them with the latest tools to help promote freedom of expression and social change in their respective contexts. They will be joined by five Swedish leaders. They are all young, they are passionate and they are people who want to change the world for the better.

In its three years of existence, YLVP has helped form strong relationships between the participants. Through social media these networks have expand and strengthened. However, in order to lay a foundation for dialogue, mutual understanding and knowledge-sharing among young opinion-makers from different Arab countries and Sweden, social interaction is critical. Because social media only connect people – it is real-life social interaction that changes people and the world.

YLVP is a Swedish Institute initiative, in line with the public agency’s goal to create mutual relationships with the Middle East. We call these efforts public diplomacy. The program focuses on improving the participants’ leadership and social media skills in order to empower them and help maximise their potential. Human rights, freedom of expression and democracy are some of the topics that are presented and discussed via lectures, workshops by prominent speakers and study visits. The participants are encouraged to come up with ideas for future social networking platforms that can help improve the level of freedom of speech and social change around the world.

The result is a passionate network of young leaders with sound social media skills that help them share and support each other through their own democratic endeavours in their respective countries. Anyone can listen to the dialogue between these young leaders on Twitter by searching for the “#ylvp” hashtag and by reading their blogs.

A recent Harvard University report shows that the majority of the Arab blogs surveyed are written in diary form, featuring personal accounts and observations on everyday life. When it comes to politics, however, Arab bloggers tend to offer a critical view of political leaders. In other words, bloggers play an important role in disseminating information on issues rarely covered in the mainstream press, such as police brutality, sexual harassment and torture.

Wael Abbas, renowned Egyptian blogger and a former YLVP participant, once said to me: “I envy you and your country for the freedom and democracy that you have. I wish I could have it for my country and for my people.”

In the West and particularly in Sweden we often speak about the lack of democracy in the Middle East. We claim that we need to do more to support democracy in the region. We do not need to support democracy; instead we need to support people who are democratic forces. Young men and women are risking their lives to get the free word out to the world.

Javeria Rizvi Kabani, YLVP program manager, Swedish Institute

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ANALYSIS: The conservative Swedish news site that crashed and burned

How did a would-be "Swedish New York Times" rise and fall only months after its launch – and what lessons can the media world learn from the story of Bulletin, asks journalism professor Christian Christensen in this opinion piece.

ANALYSIS: The conservative Swedish news site that crashed and burned
Bulletin was marketed as a place where Swedes on the political right could feel at home. Photo: Helena Landstedt/TT

I imagine a Swedish newspaper inspired by the UK’s quality press or their American counterparts – such as the Times of London, the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. Which makes a distinction between news and views, between news and opinion, and which strives to make its readers more enlightened, rather than to pursue an agenda.

These words were published in late December 2020 by Paulina Neuding, editor-in-chief of the newly launched online newspaper, Bulletin. Four months later, Neuding and almost the entire editorial staff, had left Bulletin after a series of embarrassing mistakes, organisational shake-ups and a brutal public conflict with ownership. Taking over as the new editor? A former senior staffer from the New York Times who cannot read or speak Swedish, knows little about Sweden and who will edit the paper from his home in New Jersey.

How did we get here?

Marketing itself as a place where Swedes on the political right could feel at home, Bulletin was created, Neuding wrote last year, to provide “liberal conservative” opinion combined with “evidence-based and neutral” reporting. These comments were made within a very specific context: conservatives in Sweden consider mainstream Swedish media outlets to be predominantly leftist or centre-leftist in ideology. The national public service television (SVT) and radio (SR) channels are particular targets of the right, with steady accusations of leftist bias. Research, however, shows that claims of leftist bias in Swedish news media, including public service broadcasting, are without merit.

So, Bulletin was born. Investors put down around 8 million Swedish kronor (around €800,000); well-known media columnists and personalities signed on to give the site name recognition; and, Swedish media (mainstream and social) gave Bulletin a great deal of coverage and free advertising. If the hype was to be believed, Bulletin could be an interesting case of a new, “high quality” right-wing news outlet entering the Swedish media market.

Despite the PR and hype, however, Bulletin imploded in what can only be described as the most spectacular of fashions.

For all of the lofty talk of inspiration from highbrow Anglo-American publications, Bulletin was always more likely to resemble the anti-immigration Daily Mail Online, or a slightly more serious version of Fox News, than the New York Times or Wall Street Journal. Multiple commentators in Sweden noted that the purpose of Bulletin, rooted largely in the ideology of the primary financiers of the project, was to serve as a messenger for the anti-immigration conservative right.

The content during the early weeks of the publication only confirmed this. Heavy on re-hashed wire service stories and opinion pieces, and thin on actual journalism, Bulletin marked itself with stories and articles centering around immigrants and immigration, and particularly those related to crime and cultural clashes. Evidence of “evidence-based” reporting in the vein of the New York Times was almost non-existent.

But, as it would turn out, low-quality anti-immigrant content was the least of Bulletin’s problems. The outlet was marked from the outset by deep and fundamental structural problems, as well as the presence of owners who saw Bulletin as their own, personal messaging system.

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After just two months on the job, Paulina Neuding inexplicably stepped down as editor-in-chief, handing the reins to former columnist Ivar Arpi. As would be revealed later, after discovering that a Bulletin co-owner had published an article on the site without her knowledge, Neuding had the piece removed. The resulting conflict led to her stepping down.

Only a few weeks later, the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter published a piece showing that Bulletin had plagiarised over 20 news articles, with material taken verbatim from press releases, wire service articles and even other media outlets. Adding to the crisis, free speech expert Nils Funcke argued in a separate article that Bulletin did not have the proper legal structure in place to offer their sources protection and anonymity; and, in addition, the lack of proper legal structure made those who wrote the stories legally responsible for the content, rather than the publisher (the standard for Swedish news outlets). In short, Bulletin was nothing like an actual news outlet.

At the start of March, the wheels had come off, and open warfare broke out between Bulletin owners and editorial staff. Senior editors accused owners of undermining editorial integrity by using the platform to publish personal pieces without oversight. Owners, on the other hand, accused editors of being both dishonest and incompetent. Publicly. On Facebook. An audio recording was even leaked to the media trade newspaper Journalisten documenting a heated meeting between Bulletin staff and owners. The situation became untenable, and by the end of March editor-in-chief Arpi and several other senior staff announced their resignations.

What are the lessons of Bulletin?

First, the story exposed the fallacy of the idea that if you combine well-known media “personalities” with some money and hype, you can overcome an almost total absence of editorial experience and organisational structure. Bulletin put all of its eggs into the celebrity basket by recruiting famous conservative columnists who had little or no experience either editing a daily newspaper or starting a news organisation from the ground up. The results became immediately obvious to anyone who actually looked at the website.

Second, Bulletin is a classic case study of media owners who think that their investment gives them the automatic right to dictate the content of their outlets. This is nothing new, of course, and owners influencing content – either directly or indirectly – is a feature of many privately controlled outlets around the world. What is unusual in the case of Bulletin, however, is how explicit and how public was the exposure of that tension.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Bulletin is a particularly brutal case study in reaping what you sow. The investors, and many of the media personalities they recruited, made their names by attacking the ideological biases and political agendas of mainstream outlets in general, and public broadcasting in particular, as well as advocating for increased freedom (often in form of the free market) from what they see as an oppressive state apparatus. And what happened? The media personalities ended up working for an outlet that displayed the bluntest forms of corporate bias and owner interference. Those who resigned from Bulletin were not simply victims of aggressive owners. They were, first and foremost, early and willing participants in a media venture that reflected a worldview they had themselves pushed and defended.

That this conservative outlet, which published multiple opinion pieces lamenting the decline of Swedish culture, is now edited by someone sitting in a foreign country who is literally unable to read the stories he publishes is perhaps the perfect conclusion to a tale of media failure.

Christian Christensen is a professor of journalism at Stockholm University in Sweden.