In the six-page report by the university's Oxford Internet Institute, “Mapping the 2018 Swedish General Election on Twitter”, researchers concluded that as many as one in three articles recently shared on Twitter and relating to Swedish politics were “junk news” as the authors described the “articles”.
The researchers said that the sources behind the fake news stories were “deliberately publishing misleading, deceptive or incorrect information purporting to be real news about politics, economics or culture”, and that they contained “various forms of extremist, sensationalist and conspiratorial material.”
They also said the proportion of fake news stories circulating in the Swedish twittersphere in the midst of the election campaign was “higher than any other European country studied – and second only to the US in recent major elections”.
The group studied some 275,000 tweets between August 8th and 17th – with just weeks to go to the Swedish election and with the country's political campaigning entering fever-pitch mode.
The Reuters news agency reported that the top three sites identified in the report as spreading misleading information – Samhällsnytt, Nyheter Idag and Fria Tider – were operated by former members of Sweden's far-right party, the Sweden Democrats (SD). In all, these three websites accounted for more than 85 percent of the false information being spread and involved issues like immigration and Islam.
Fabian Sinvert, of the Oxford Internet Institute and Freja Hedman of Lund University in Sweden, led the research and said that those three sites also mimicked the look and sound of major news networks. “This may make it harder to identify them as junk news for uncritical readers.”
In contrast to the US election campaign, however, where Russia in particular was accused of meddling by spreading fake news in order to garner support for now President Donald Trump, the researchers said very little of the Swedish fake news seemed to involve foreign actors.
“Of particular interest was the finding that of the 10 most-shared junk news sources during the Swedish election, eight were domestic.”
According to the report, Russian sources comprised less than one percent of the URLs shared.
Fake news has become an increasing threat to democratic election practices in the past few years and has prompted both social media networks, such as Twitter and Facebook, to try to filter such information out, and governments to legislate against it.
French President Emmanuel Macron, for example, who claims to have been subject to both hackers and fake news activists during his election campaign, earlier this year announced a string of legal measures to prevent his country from such “deceitful propaganda”.
Germany has also stepped up its fight against fake news, installing fines of up to 50 million euros for social networks that do not remove such posts promptly.
Thursday's report did not establish whether the fake news stories had influenced the Swedish voters in any way.