How to calm down: get off Facebook and start talking

In a world that's suffering a political nervous breakdown, getting off Facebook and arguing face-to-face could be the best way to calm us all down, argues The Local's managing editor James Savage.

How to calm down: get off Facebook and start talking
Calm down, guys. Like this man in Almedalen. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

I’m writing this from Visby, a medieval walled city on the island of Gotland, which this week is home to the entire Swedish political establishment, businesses, charities and most of the media for the Almedalen political week. Some say the soul of Almedalen political week has been snatched by big business. And endless seminars on the future of public procurement aren’t exactly the stuff of political viagra. 

But actually, what’s most striking about Almedalen is how open and varied it is. For every big business, there are dozens of charities, political parties, pressure groups and ordinary people with bees in their bonnets.

Ordinary tourists might be crowded out of the tiny medieval town for the week, but the gabfest still brings people together. 

As I write this, the Sweden Democrats, Sweden’s nationalist party and the country’s third biggest, are preparing for their day in the spotlight. Yet also today the European Commission is holding a debate about the role Europe should play in the refugee crisis, the Salvation Army is discussing human trafficking and a feminist group is talking about porn. 

And those are just a few of hundreds of talks, seminars and discussions being held on a single day. All of them open to anyone who wants to drop in. And all of them face-to-face discussions. All  of them civilised, reasonable discussions between people who often disagree with each other.

Prime Minister Stefan Löfven talking to journalists at Almedalen. Photo: Linus Sundahl-Djerf/SvD/TT 

This is the perfect antidote to Facebook, where it’s becoming clear that the algorithm essentially delivers us arguments that we’re already likely to agree with, meaning it can be very hard for facts and counter-arguments to get through. Put another way, social media will reinforce your prejudices and protect you from alternative views. Discussions, when they happen, often result in people digging their heels in rather than re-examining their views.

This became glaringly apparent during the Brexit referendum in Britain. The success of the Leave campaign’s populism and lies (lies that they cheerfully admitted to hours after the result) and the failure of the sober and factual Remain campaign led to claims that we’re living in a post-factual society. Very often Leave voters and Remain voters say few of their friends held a different opinion from them, and many complained they found it hard to get hold of facts.

Events in America, split between supporters of Trump and opponents distraught that their countrymen can support a populist, racist demagogue, seem to mirror events in the UK.

Equally, both Trump and Brexit reflect deep anxiety from globalisation’s losers. The chasm that separates the elites of our capital cities and the half of the population who reject them is wider than ever.

Leave supporters campaigning in the Brexit referendum. Photo: Sofia Eriksson/TT

And you see it everywhere in our western world. Take a trip to the former industrial areas of Bergslagen in Sweden and you’ll see the same empty shop fronts you’ll see in Britain’s north-east. With asylum centres opening up in closed down hotels across the area, the Sweden Democrats have been prospering by talking up the problems of immigration.

Likewise, in a portrait of the small town of Fougères in Brittany, the French magazine Nouvel Observateur, painted a familiar picture of closed-down factories, run-down public services and struggling farms. Locals speak of Romanians and Poles working in local factories on short-term contracts at wages 30% below what locals would command. The centrist local mayor reckons “Frexit” would be supported by six out of ten locals if they were given a vote.

People are determined to send a message to the smug, urban, cosmopolitan middle class. To the journalists, the university educated, the politicians, the lawyers, the bankers, to those of us who find more in common with people like ourselves in Paris, London, Berlin and New York than with them. To the people who will speak up loudly for immigrants – our big city friends, neighbours (and cleaners) – but work hard to ignore the existence of areas a couple of hours down the road. To the elite.

That message is getting heard loud and clear. But an election or a referendum is a blunt (and in the case of referenda, toxic) instrument for communicating. And the echo chambers of Facebook and Twitter are making things much, much worse. It’s time for us to re-learn the art of talking – face to face – with people we disagree with.

For members


Gothenburg: is the dream of a new city turning into a nightmare? 

Sweden’s second city is the site of Scandinavia’s largest urban development project. But there is rising concern that the costs outweigh the benefits, says David Crouch

Gothenburg: is the dream of a new city turning into a nightmare? 

Last week, residents in the area of Fågelsången (birdsong), a quiet street at the very heart of Sweden’s second city, woke up to read the following news: “Explosions at Fågelsången: On August 8, week 32, we start blasting around Fågelsången and are expected to be done by week 40. When blasting, for safety reasons, no one is allowed to go out, open their windows or be within the blasting area. We will work weekdays 7am to 5pm.” 

Blasting deep holes in the granite – along with sprawling roadworks – has been the reality for central Gothenburgers for the past four years, as a vast rail tunnel is being dug to link the current terminus with other parts of the city and enable smoother connections with other routes. The aim is to triple rail passenger numbers and eliminate traffic jams on the main road through the city, at a cost of 20 billion crowns (€1.9 billion).

This railway, known as Västlänken (the West Link), is not the only big construction project in the city centre. It is just the largest element in a gigantic scheme to revive the docks area along the river, which was destroyed by a global shipping crisis in the 1970s. The great rusting cranes opposite the opera house and the disused Eriksberg gantry are an important aspect of Gothenburg’s skyline and self-image. The areas on the north bank were also home to many recent immigrants and a byword for poverty. The city’s mayor famously, and shamefully, referred to it as “the Gaza strip”.

So in 2012 the city launched an ambitious plan. Christened Älvstaden, the RiverCity, municipal investment aimed to build an attractive, modern waterfront while creating tens of thousands of homes and jobs. It is by far the Nordic region’s biggest urban regeneration project. A YouTube video commissioned by the city authorities a few years later neatly sums up both the breathtaking scope of this vision and the exciting / brutal (choose your own adjective here) nature of the transformation it would bring: 

The RiverCity revolved around two flagship projects: a new bridge over the river, the Hisingsbron (Hisingen Bridge), combined with major new office developments right in the centre; and Karlatornet, Sweden’s tallest skyscraper, which would literally tower over Gothenburg like a beacon of modernity in a city that traditionally has had strict rules against high-rise buildings. 

Add to all this a proposed high-speed rail link with Stockholm, and you have a recipe for quite spectacular urban upheaval involving billions of tons of steel and concrete. Visit Gothenburg today and much of the city seems to have been turned into a building site. There is a forest of cranes, while smart new office blocks puncture the skyline – a genuine metamorphosis is under way.

But many Gothenburgers are either uneasy or downright unhappy. The RiverCity is a vanity project to gentrify the docklands, they say. Karlatornet’s 73 stories of luxury apartments will be a scar on the landscape and a symbol of Gothenburg’s new love affair with finance and real estate, a slap in the face for the city’s proud industrial values. Västlänken is a vit elefant, a costly project that will deliver questionable benefits, many believe.  

Opposition to Västlänken was such that a new political party, the Democrats, took 17 percent of the vote in 2018 with its headline demand to stop the project immediately. This caused a revolution in local politics, overturning decades of Social Democrat rule. 

And now the gloss on these big-ticket construction projects is starting to fade. Karlatornet was the first to run into trouble. For most of 2020 building work was at a standstill, raising the threat that this flagship of regeneration would be nothing more than an unfinished stump, after American financiers pulled out of the project. The new Hisingen Bridge is open to traffic, but its construction was fraught with setbacks and the final cost to the taxpayer is still unknown. “There has been an awareness from the start that this was a high-risk project,” one of the project’s bosses said ominously this spring.

RiverCity is more than two billion kronor over budget, and facing accusations of mismanagement that evoke Gothenburg’s old nickname of Muteborg, or Bribetown, after a proliferation of municipal companies in the 1970s led to conflicts of interest, with politicians sitting on company boards. Opponents of the scheme argue that in any case it is unlikely to solve any of the city’s fundamental problems, such as the ethnic segregation that has created immigrant ghettos in outlying suburbs.  

In May, Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter published leaked minutes from Västlänken management meetings in which one of the main contractors on the project said it would be delivered billions over budget and four years later than its official 2026 deadline – in other words, four more years of earth-shattering explosions, roadblocks and associated upheaval. With local elections only months away, the Democrats have taken out advertisements on billboards and in local media demanding that top politicians tell the truth about what is going on. For opponents of the scheme, this is exactly what they have warned of all along

Next June, Gothenburg will officially celebrate its 400th anniversary, postponed from 2021 because of the pandemic. Visitors will experience a city on the move, with pristine new motorways and sparkling office blocks. So for Gothenburg’s urban planners, there is light at the end of the development tunnel. In the case of Västlänken, however, they will be hoping that the light is indeed that of an oncoming train. 

David Crouch has lived in Gothenburg for nine years. He is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It, a freelance journalist and lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.