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OPINION: Is Sweden complacent about social media influence of the radical-right?

Richard Orange
Richard Orange - [email protected]
OPINION: Is Sweden complacent about social media influence of the radical-right?
The radical right thinktank Oikos held a conference at the Sundbyholms Slott castle outside Eskilstuna. Photo: Pierre Pocs/Visit Eskilstuna

With the think tank linked to the Sweden Democrats openly recruiting the next generation of far-right social media 'influencers', why is Sweden so complacent about moves to shift public opinion to the radical right, asks The Local's Nordic editor Richard Orange.

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The radical right in Sweden is at least open about what it's trying to do.

The homepage of Oikos, the think tank set up by Mattias Karlsson, the former right-hand man of Jimmie Åkesson, leader of the Sweden Democrats, is currently recruiting the first 15 of "a new generation" of "conservative" online propagandists. 

The think tank – whose controlling foundation has been criticised for refusing to reveal the true origin of 5 million kronor in funding – this week launched its new Illustra Academy, which aims to train an army of young, far-right "creators" to help win over minds on YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok. 

Successful applicants, it promises, will get the chance "to meet leading actors in social media and digital political influencing".

They will get "mentorship from established political influencers", build "valuable contacts with influencers, digital opinion-makers, creatives, politicians and possible future employers", and meet "businesses, political organisations, communications agencies and media actors". 

This programme is being set up by Andreas Palmlöv, one of the many top Sweden Democrats who went to the US after Donald Trump was elected president to work for an increasingly radicalised Republican Party, serving as an intern for the former Speaker of Congress Kevin McCarthy.

After his return to Sweden, Palmlöv was photographed meeting Gregg Keller, a US lobbyist he says he met through the Leadership Institute, an organisation backed by a who's who of US billionaire donors which has over the past ten years spent 8 million kronor training up young "conservatives" in Europe.

Karlsson, Åkesson's former right-hand man, has even closer links to the US, holding at least one meeting with Steve Bannon, Trump's former strategist, and attending the wedding of the pro-Trump US conservative media profile Candace Owens in 2019.   

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As a British citizen, I'm perhaps overly sensitive about the influence of conservative, libertarian donors and their think tanks, and of the efforts to use social media to push public opinion towards the radical right. 

Vote Leave, which led the campaign for the UK to leave the European Union, started its life at 55 Tufton Street, the townhouse near the UK Parliament where the country's most powerful "dark money" think tanks are based, while Matthew Elliot, its chief executive, was a Tufton Street veteran. 

Since the UK left the EU, the ruling Conservative Party has been increasingly captured by these think tanks and their wealthy backers.   

Ministers, former ministers and Conservative MPs now happily speak alongside radical right figures at lavish conferences like the National Conservatism UK conference part-funded by Christian pro-Trump US foundations, or the Alliance for Responsible Citizenship conference part-funded by Paul Marshall and Christopher Chandler, the two billionaires who are the most open and prominent funders of attempts to shift the UK to the radical, libertarian right. 

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Conservative MPs and former ministers have over the past two years been paid a total of £600,000 (8 million kronor) to appear on GB News, the Fox News clone jointly owned by Marshall and Chandler.

The Legatum Institute, Chandler's own think tank, pretty much dictated the UK's Brexit policy while Boris Johnson was prime minister, while during Liz Truss's brief premiership, the Tufton Street think tanks supplied much of her team.

When her attempt to drive through their radical libertarian economic programme blew up spectacularly, she was forced to resign. But they haven't given up, with Truss returning in February with the new Popular Conservatism group. 

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I had always believed that the UK politics was immune to US levels of big donor influence, that the Conservative Party could never go the way of the Republican Party in the US, and it turns out I was wrong. 

So is that same naivety playing out in Sweden? 

The Oikos think tank has already started hosting international conservative conferences along the lines of ARC, with a conference at the Sundbyholms Slott castle outside Eskilstuna last year. 

When Social Democrat opposition leader Magdalena Andersson raised questions earlier this year about the funding of Henrik Jönsson, a popular YouTube debater, she was sharply criticised by commentators of both left and right for seeking to smear a critic without providing evidence

But in the US, there are billionaire-funded 'educational' YouTube channels like PragerU that follow a very similar format to Jönsson's. Jönsson's videos reliably follow the same talking points, questioning whether global warming is really causing extreme weather, spread disinformation about wind farms, call for Sweden's public broadcasters to be abolished, and claim migrants have trashed the economy. 

And when a donor last year asked Gunnar Strömmer, now Sweden's Justice Minister, how to give 350,000 kronor to the Moderates without having to identify himself under party financing laws, in part of a sting by TV4's Kalla Fakta programme, Strömmer advised him to give it directly to right-wing "opinion-makers", meaning, presumably, people like Jönsson. 

Despite the uproar, Jönsson has never explicitly denied receiving funding from outside organisations, only that such funding does not influence his output. 

"I am quite open about the fact that I willingly take money from all decent organisations and private individuals," he told the Dagens ETC newspaper, while declining to give any further details. "But no one controls what I say," he added. 

He has admitted that the website for his Energiupproret campaign, which blamed green policy and the shutdown of nuclear power stations for high power prices in the run-up to the 2022 election, was built by Näringslivets Mediaservice, a right wing social media outfit the precise funding of which was always unclear, although it was linked to Stiftelsen Svenskt Näringsliv, a foundation set up partly by the Confederation of Swedish Industry. 

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The founders of Oikos' new influencer education programme would probably argue that nothing is stopping the political left and centre from raising funds to train up young social media influencers in exactly the same way. 

Left-wing parties are not above taking donations. Approached by the same donor as part of the Kalla Fakta undercover report, representatives of the centre-left Social Democrats – as well as the Christian Democrats, Liberals, and Sweden Democrats on the right – also recommended ways around party finance laws.

But do we really want the UK or Sweden to follow the path the US has taken in recent decades, where a handful of billionaires with radical right opinions have aggressively pumped money into think tanks and media outfits and so succeeded in pushing one of the main parties towards previously fringe political opinions? 

It didn't need to be this way.

When Sweden was developing its new party financing laws back in 2016, experts warned the then government must not to allow the identity of donors to be hidden behind foundations, the key method used by so-called dark money in the US, but the loophole was left open by the law.

It's not just Oikos, which is funded by an opaque foundation, Insamlingsstiftelsen för Svensk Konservatism (The Fundraising Foundation for Swedish Conservatism), which uses this loophole. 

When caught in the sting by the Kalla Fakta programme, a Social Democrat also suggested that the donor set up a foundation to hide their identity. 

It may be that money from US billionaires, big companies, or indeed from other states, is not yet being spent in Sweden in a way that can alter the political landscape, but because neither think tanks nor influencers need to give much information about who funds them, it's impossible to know. 

In the UK, the danger may soon be averted. No one seems to take the new outfit fronted by Liz Truss too seriously, and the general election later this year should offer the chance to clean up the country's politics.  

Nonetheless, I feel like I've come very close to losing my original homeland to the kind of political developments seen in the US. I don't want to lose my adopted country too.

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Uk 2024/03/27 08:49
"...serving as an intern for Senator Kevin McCarthy." Don't you mean former Speaker Kevin McCarthy? There's no Senator Kevin McCarthy. Also, McCarthy has always been a vanilla Republican from California. Nothing more, nothing less.
  • Richard Orange 2024/03/27 08:58
    Thanks for pointing out that mistake. It's been corrected.
Anonymous 2024/03/26 08:06
What I can't read is any problem you have with left and extrem left influencer, which cpounting the damage they cause - you se3 that with the current German governement are by far more dangerous than any so called right influencer
Anonymous 2024/03/25 22:07
"As a British citizen, I'm perhaps overly sensitive about the influence of conservative, libertarian donors and their think tanks, and of the efforts to use social media to push public opinion towards the radical right. " Funny how the Radical Left doesn't bother you in the least. Get used to it mate, the times are changing. I, for one, am thankful, as we've seen the mess your team has given us to clean up. - BGAndersson, New York City

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