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Meet the Swedish internet vigilantes fighting hate online

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Meet the Swedish internet vigilantes fighting hate online
File photo of a person and their computer. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT
11:45 CET+01:00
A group launched to fight trolls, fake news and racism in social media has more than 60,000 members less than a year after its launch. The Local speaks to one of the people behind the project.

"It's time for a new campaign," one of the posts on the Facebook group #JagÄrHär (I am Here) reads. "We can't let racist and hateful comments go unchallenged. That's why we don't use hateful comments, abuse, insults or condescending comments ourselves."

This post, like many others, links to a newspaper's comment section or social media page where insults and racism have begun to take hold. Soon hundreds of the group's net activists will flood the section to promote balanced comments, reasoned discussion and spread love in the face of hatred.

"We're noticing a big change, especially in the established media's comments fields. The more the masses dare to speak up, the less space the voices of hatred get," Magnus Dennert, one of the administrators of #JagÄrHär, tells The Local about the impact they have had since their launch in May last year.

"Partly because they are less visible when there are so many more reasoned voices, and partly because they get tired and don't seek out these comment fields when they know that a large majority will argue against them and ask them to calm down."

Dennert's wife, Gothenburg-based journalist Mina Dennert, was the one who started #JagÄrHär.

"She noticed that there were people around us who had been frightened into believing all these images painted by 'alternative media' of people of foreign backgrounds as violent criminals. They could be raising money for 'Save the Children' while sharing terrible and grossly racist Facebook posts. I think it's a lot to do with our fears and filter bubbles. We have to talk to each other and we have to be able to do it in a civilized way," he argues.

One of their biggest campaigns came in December when an advert for Sweden's Åhléns department store featuring a dark-skinned boy dressed up as Saint Lucia sparked a wave of racism and abuse, but also love and support.

"Online comment fields are essentially a very good democratic instrument. They give us the opportunity to react and discuss what's happening around us," says Dennert.

"But they also have, with the help of anonymity, become a kind of free zone for the haters. Without having to look anyone in the eye they believe they're allowed to say and express anything. Many voices are frightened into silence and others do not want to be part of forums where the issues are neglected and racism, sexism and hate dominate. We are a counterforce."

High-profile Swedish equality group Equalisters ('Rättviseförmedlingen') awarded them their annual prize, naming them the group that had done the most for equality in 2016. Today, they have almost 65,000 members and have inspired similar projects in other countries, such as #IchBinHier in Germany.

Dennert says that he believes things have improved in comment fields where #JagÄrHär members have made their mark, but also argues that there is still a lot of work to do.

"Expressions like 'Fake News' and 'Alternative Truths' have gained a foothold in Sweden too," he says, referring to an investigative report by Swedish newspaper Eskilstuna-kuriren which earlier this month exposed a so-called "fake news factory" as a far-right anti-migrant propaganda machine.

"There are people who earn money on spreading disinformation and uncertainty. These are well-organized campaigns. It is very difficult to sort everything in the flow of information offered today and we need to raise awareness of what is serious, fact-checked journalism and what is not. Today everything tends to be treated as opinions in the eyes of the readers and then the false image is worth as much as the true image," says Dennert.

READ ALSO: Why Trump's false claims are bad news for Sweden

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