The Swedish group that blew the lid on hateful online comments
David Landes · 12 Dec 2013, 14:14
Published: 12 Dec 2013 14:14 GMT+01:00
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On Tuesday, Swedish tabloid Expressen made waves with a report they had identified the people behind more than 6,000 anonymous accounts tied to a number of far-right websites. Among those outed were several members of the Sweden Democrats, one of whom resigned immediately, with Party Secretary Björn Söder warning that more members of the populist, anti-immigration party could be purged as a direct result of their racist and xenophobic comments.
While Expressen received the lion's share of the spotlight for the report, the tabloid's revelations were only made possible by the efforts of the Research Group (Researchgruppen), a group of journalists who take seriously what its members call "the journalistic tradition of examining power".
"We saw an opportunity to find the truth about who was leaving all these hateful comments," Martin Fredriksson, the Research Group's publisher (ansvarig utgivare) tells The Local. The group, which now consists of about 16 journalists, started to form in 2009 when working together on a story about the online activities of a convicted neo-Nazi after his release from prison.
Since then, the debate in Sweden about online comments and internet bullying has continued to flourish, further piquing the interest of Fredriksson and his colleagues.
"There was this huge discussion going on about the impact of internet hate and how these comments were shaping the climate of debate in Sweden," Fredriksson explains. "But no one was really looking at who these anonymous commenters were."
Work on the project that led to Expressen's articles this week began in earnest back in February 2013. Taking advantage of features provided by popular comment-moderation service Disqus, the Research Group started downloading user comment data from Disqus servers, something anyone can do.
"We wanted to perform a statistical analysis of the comments to learn more about how many comments people were leaving and what sort of comments they were," Fredriksson explains.
But he and his colleagues soon realized that the comment data also included metadata that made it possible for them to find the email addressed linked to the accounts - in other words, not just to analyse the comments but find out who was leaving them.
The group then set to work focusing on comments linked to a number of websites linked to Sweden's far-right, although the researchers also obtained data on Disqus accounts from a number of other news sites that use the service.
"The hate sites were interesting to us. We really wanted to reveal these internet haters and clear up the mystery behind all these anonymous comments," says Fredriksson.
He adds that the Expressen reports have helped bring the group "out of the shadows".
"For the first time we've become known to the general public," he says, welcoming the praise – as well as the donations – the Research Group has received in the wake of the reports.
The group's financing is almost non-existent, says Fredriksson, explaining that "we have no money, so any money we get is big money". Much of the time he and his colleagues put into the Research Group is voluntary, with donations, lecture fees, and fees from news organizations who want to use the data as their only income, although he was unable to provide any concrete figures on the costs of the operation.
"Our expenses are much higher than our income," he says.
The Research Group's grasp of how to find and utilize data has earned comparisons to the hacker heroine Lisbeth Salander of the famed Millennium crime novels by Stieg Larsson.
"It's fun to be compared to an anti-hero like Salander. She does things her own way, and so do we," said Frediksson, who emphasizes that the Research Group doesn't engage in hacking to obtain data.
The Expressen expose has also resulted in the Research Group being the target of various threats, as well as accusations that their work constitutes a violation of people's privacy. Fredriksson is quick to point out that it was Expressen, not the Research Group, which published the names of the people behind racist and hateful comments on the far-right sites.
"These sites spread hate, reveal the identities of others, and advocate violence," he explained, agreeing that the hateful anonymous commenters now have to deal with getting a taste of their own medicine.
"They shouldn't expect not to have to be faced with the consequences of what they've written," he says, while at the same time defending anonymous online comments in general.
"They should be allowed. In many case anonymity is important. But nowhere does that mean people can express whatever they want like hate speech, threats, and slanderous accusations."
Editor's Note: The Local's Swede of the Week is someone in the news who - for good or ill - has revealed something interesting about the country. Being selected as Swede of the Week is not necessarily an endorsement.