The global machine behind the rise of far-right nationalism

Mattias Karlsson, the international secretary of Sweden Democrats, a far-right party that captured nearly 18 percent in elections last year. Source: Loulou d'Aki/The New York Times

Sweden was long seen as a progressive utopia. Then came waves of immigrants — and the forces of populism at home and abroad.

First came a now-infamous comment by US President Donald Trump, suggesting that Sweden’s history of welcoming refugees was at the root of a violent attack in Rinkeby the previous evening, even though nothing had actually happened.

“You look at what’s happening last night in Sweden. Sweden! Who would believe this? Sweden!” Trump told supporters at a rally on Feb. 18, 2017. “They took in large numbers. They’re having problems like they never thought possible.”

The president’s source: Fox News, which had excerpted a short film promoting a dystopian view of Sweden as a victim of its asylum policies, with immigrant neighbourhoods crime-ridden “no-go zones.”

But two days later, as Swedish officials were heaping bemused derision on Trump, something did in fact happen in Rinkeby: Several dozen masked men attacked police officers making a drug arrest, throwing rocks and setting cars ablaze.

US President Donald Trump at CPAC 2019 earlier this year.
US President Donald Trump at CPAC 2019 earlier this year.

And it was right around that time, according to Castillo and four other witnesses, that Russian television crews showed up, offering to pay immigrant youths “to make trouble” in front of the cameras. 

“They wanted to show that President Trump is right about Sweden,” Castillo said, “that people coming to Europe are terrorists and want to disturb society.”

That nativist rhetoric — that immigrants are invading the homeland — has gained ever-greater traction, and political acceptance, across the West amid dislocations wrought by vast waves of migration from the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. In its most extreme form, it is echoed in the online manifesto of the man accused of gunning down 22 people last weekend in El Paso, Texas.

In the nationalists’ message-making, Sweden has become a prime cautionary tale, dripping with schadenfreude.

The square where witnesses said Russian journalists were trying to bribe immigrants into violence
The square where witnesses said Russian journalists were trying to bribe immigrants into violence
Loulou d'Aki/The New York Times

What is even more striking is how many people in Sweden — progressive, egalitarian, welcoming Sweden — seem to be warming to the nationalists’ view: that immigration has brought crime, chaos and a fraying of the cherished social safety net, not to mention a withering away of national culture and tradition.

Fueled by an immigration backlash — Sweden has accepted more refugees per capita than any other European country — right-wing populism has taken hold, reflected most prominently in the steady ascent of a political party with neo-Nazi roots, the Sweden Democrats. In elections last year, they captured nearly 18 per cent of the vote.

To dig beneath the surface of what is happening in Sweden, though, is to uncover the workings of an international disinformation machine, devoted to the cultivation, provocation and amplification of far-right, anti-immigrant passions and political forces. Indeed, that machine, most influentially rooted in Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the American far right, underscores a fundamental irony of this political moment: the globalisation of nationalism.

The central target of these manipulations from abroad — and the chief instrument of the Swedish nationalists’ success — is the country’s increasingly popular, and virulently anti-immigrant, digital echo chamber.

A New York Times examination of its content, personnel and traffic patterns illustrates how foreign state and nonstate actors have helped give viral momentum to a clutch of Swedish far-right websites.

Russian and Western entities that traffic in disinformation, including an Islamaphobic think tank whose former chairman is now Trump’s national security adviser, have been crucial linkers to the Swedish sites, helping to spread their message to susceptible Swedes.

The distorted view of Sweden pumped out by this disinformation machine has been used, in turn, by anti-immigrant parties in Britain, Germany, Italy and elsewhere to stir xenophobia and gin up votes, according to the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based nonprofit that tracks the online spread of far-right extremism.

“I’d put Sweden up there with the anti-Soros campaign,” said Chloe Colliver, a researcher for the institute, referring to anti-Semitic attacks on George Soros, the billionaire benefactor of liberal causes. “It’s become an enduring centerpiece of the far-right conversation.”

From margins to mainstream

Mattias Karlsson, the Sweden Democrats’ international secretary and chief ideologist, likes to tell the story of how he became a soldier in what he has described as the “existential battle for our culture’s and our nation’s survival.”

It was the mid-1990s and Karlsson, now 41, was attending high school in the southern city of Vaxjo. Sweden was accepting a record number of refugees from the Balkan War and other conflicts. In Vaxjo and elsewhere, young immigrant men began joining brawling “kicker” gangs, radicalising Karlsson and drawing him toward the local skinhead scene.

He took to wearing a leather jacket with a Swedish flag on the back and was soon introduced to Mats Nilsson, a Swedish National Socialist leader who gave him a copy of “Mein Kampf.” They began to debate: Nilsson argued that the goal should be ethnic purity — the preservation of “Swedish DNA.” Karlsson countered that the focus should be on preserving national culture and identity. That, he said, was when Nilsson conferred on him an epithet of insufficient commitment to the cause — “meatball patriot,” meaning that he “thought that every African or Arab can come to this country as long as they assimilate and eat meatballs.”

The party leader of the far-right Sweden Democrats, Jimmie Akesson, gives a speech during a campaign meeting in Stockholm on Sept. 8, 2018.
The party leader of the far-right Sweden Democrats, Jimmie Akesson, gives a speech during a campaign meeting in Stockholm on Sept. 8, 2018.

It is an account that offers the most benign explanation for an odious association. Whatever the case, in 1999, he joined the Sweden Democrats, a party undeniably rooted in Sweden’s neo-Nazi movement. Indeed, scholars of the far right say that is what sets it apart from most anti-immigration parties in Europe and makes its rise from marginalised to mainstream so remarkable.

While attending university, Karlsson had met Jimmie Akesson, who took over the Sweden Democrats’ youth party in 2000 and became party leader in 2005. Akesson was outspoken in his belief that Muslim refugees posed “the biggest foreign threat to Sweden since the Second World War.” But to make that case effectively, he and Karlsson agreed, they needed to remake the party’s image.

“We needed to really address our past,” Karlsson said.

They purged neo-Nazis who had been exposed by the press. They announced a zero-tolerance policy toward extreme xenophobia and racism, emphasised their youthful leadership and urged members to dress presentably. And while immigration remained at the centre of their platform, they moderated the way they talked about it. 


To what extent the party’s makeover is just window dressing is an open question.

The doubts were highlighted in what became known as “the Iron Pipe Scandal” in 2012. Leaked video showed two Sweden Democrat MPs and the party’s candidate for attorney general hurling racist slurs at a comedian of Kurdish descent, then threatening a drunken witness with iron pipes.

Under Akesson and Karlsson, the party has hosted American white nationalist Richard Spencer. High-ranking party officials have bounced between Sweden and Hungary, ruled by authoritarian nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Karlsson himself has come under fire for calling out an extremist site as neo-fascist while using an alias to recommend posts as “worth reading” to party members.

“There’s a public face and the face they wear behind closed doors,” said Daniel Poohl, who heads Expo, a Stockholm-based foundation that tracks far-right extremism.

A Somali family walking home from Rinkeby Square. More than 91 percent of Rinkeby’s roughly 16,400 residents are immigrants and their children
A Somali family walking home from Rinkeby Square. More than 91 percent of Rinkeby’s roughly 16,400 residents are immigrants and their children
Loulou d'Aki/The New York Times

Still, even detractors admit that strategy has worked. In 2010, the Sweden Democrats captured 5.7 per cent of the vote, enough for the party, and Karlsson, to enter Parliament for the first time. That share has steadily increased along with the growing population of refugees. (Today, roughly 20 per cent of Sweden’s population is foreign born.)

At its peak in 2015, Sweden accepted 163,000 asylum-seekers, mostly from Afghanistan, Somalia and Syria. Though border controls and tighter rules have eased that flow, Ardalan Shekarabi, the country’s public administration minister, acknowledged that his government had been slow to act.

Shekarabi, an immigrant from Iran, said the sheer number of refugees had overwhelmed the government’s efforts to integrate them.

“I absolutely don’t think that the majority of Swedes have racist or xenophobic views, but they had questions about this migration policy and the other parties didn’t have any answers,” he said. “Which is one of the reasons why Sweden Democrats had a case.”

A right-wing echo chamber

As the 2018 elections approached, Swedish counterintelligence was on high alert for foreign interference. Russia, the hulking neighbour to the east, was seen as the main threat. After the Kremlin’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, Sweden had reason to fear it could be next.

“Russia’s goal is to weaken Western countries by polarising the debate,” said Daniel Stenling, the Swedish Security Service’s counterintelligence chief. “For the last five years, we have seen more and more aggressive intelligence work against our nation.”

But as it turned out, there was no hacking and dumping of internal campaign documents, as in the United States. Nor was there an overt effort to swing the election to the Sweden Democrats, perhaps because the party, in keeping with Swedish popular opinion, has become more critical of the Kremlin than some of its far-right European counterparts.

Instead, security officials say, the foreign influence campaign took a different, more subtle form: helping nurture Sweden’s rapidly evolving far-right digital ecosystem.

For years, the Sweden Democrats had struggled to make their case to the public. Many mainstream media outlets declined their ads. The party even had difficulty getting the postal service to deliver its mailers. So it built a network of closed Facebook pages whose reach would ultimately exceed that of any other party.

But to thrive in the viral sense, that network required fresh, alluring content. It drew on a clutch of relatively new websites whose popularity was exploding.

Members of the Sweden Democrats helped create two of them: Samhallsnytt (News in Society) and Nyheter Idag (News Today). By the 2018 election year, they, along with a site called Fria Tider (Free Times), were among Sweden’s 10 most shared news sites.

Russia’s hand in all of this is largely hidden from view. But fingerprints abound.

The audience listens to Jimmie Akesson, leader of the right wing party Sverigedemokraterna (Sweden Democrats), in Motala, Sweden, 06 September 2018.
The audience listens to Jimmie Akesson, leader of the right wing party Sverigedemokraterna (Sweden Democrats), in Motala, Sweden, 06 September 2018.

For instance, one writer for Samhallsnytt, who previously worked for the Sweden Democrats, was recently declined parliamentary press accreditation after the security police determined he had been in contact with Russian intelligence.

Fria Tider is considered not only one of the most extreme sites, but also among the most Kremlin-friendly. It frequently swaps material with the Russian propaganda outlet Sputnik. The site is linked, via domain ownership records, to Granskning Sverige, called the Swedish “troll factory” for its efforts to entrap and embarrass mainstream journalists. Among its frequent targets: journalists who write negatively about Russia.

“We’ve had death threats, spam attacks, emails — this year has been totally crazy,” said Eva Burman, editor of Eskilstuna-Kuriren, a newspaper that found itself in the cross hairs after criticising the Russian annexation of Crimea and investigating Granskning Sverige itself.

At the magazine Nya Tider, the editor, Vavra Suk, has travelled to Moscow as an election observer and to Syria, where he produced Kremlin-friendly accounts of the civil war. Nya Tider has published work by Alexander Dugin, an ultranationalist Russian philosopher who has been called “Putin’s Rasputin”; Suk’s writings for Dugin’s think tank include one titled “Donald Trump Can Make Europe Great Again.”

Eva Burman, center, is the editor of Eva Burman, Eskilstuna-Kuriren, which found itself under attack after criticizing Russia
Eva Burman, center, is the editor of Eva Burman, Eskilstuna-Kuriren, which found itself under attack after criticizing Russia
Loulou d'Aki/The New York Times

Nya Tider’s contributors include Manuel Ochsenreiter, editor of Zuerst!, a German far-right newspaper. Ochsenreiter — who has appeared regularly on RT, the Kremlin propaganda channel — worked until recently for Markus Frohnmaier, a member of the German Bundestag representing the far-right Alternative for Germany party. Documents leaked to a consortium of European media outlets — documents that Frohnmaier has called fake — have suggested that Moscow aided his election campaign in order to have an “absolutely controlled MP.”

Ochsenreiter, for his part, has been implicated in Polish court in the financing of a 2018 firebombing attack on a Hungarian cultural centre in Ukraine. The plot, according to testimony from a Polish extremist charged with carrying it out, was designed to pin responsibility on Ukrainian nationalists and stoke ethnic tensions, to Russia’s benefit. Ochsenreiter has not been charged in Poland, but prosecutors in Berlin said they had begun a preliminary investigation. He has denied involvement.

Suk declined to comment.

Then there is Nyheter Idag. Its founder, Chang Frick — a former Sweden Democrat official who takes a maverick’s glee in his defiance of orthodoxy — readily admits to being a paid contributor to RT. At a pizza shop near his home one afternoon, he pointedly noted that his girlfriend was Russian and, with a flourish, pulled out a wad of rubles from a recent trip.

“Here is my real boss! It’s Putin!” he laughed. 

Chang Frick, founder of Nyheter Idag, said that by writing about what the mainstream press won’t, he’s “kicking where it hurts
Chang Frick, founder of Nyheter Idag, said that by writing about what the mainstream press won’t, he’s “kicking where it hurts
Loulou d'Aki/The New York Times

There is another curious Russian common denominator: Six of Sweden’s alt-right sites have drawn advertising revenue from a network of online auto-parts stores based in Germany and owned by four businessmen from Russia and Ukraine, three of whom have adopted German-sounding surnames.

The ads were first noticed by Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter, which discovered that while they appeared to be for a variety of outlets, all traced back to the same Berlin address and were owned by a parent company, Autodoc GmbH.

The Times found that the company had also placed ads on anti-Semitic and other extremist sites in Germany, Hungary, Austria and elsewhere in Europe.

Which raised a question: Was the auto-parts dealer simply trying to drum up business, or was it also trying to support the far-right cause?

Rikard Lindholm, co-founder of a data-driven marketing firm who has worked with Swedish authorities to combat disinformation, dug deeper into the Autodoc network.

Hidden beneath the user-friendly interface of some of the earliest Autodoc sites lay what Lindholm, an expert in the forensic analysis of online traffic, described as “icebergs” of blog-like content completely unrelated to auto parts, translated into a variety of languages. A visitor to one of the car-parts sites could not simply access this content from the home page; instead, one had to know and type in the full URL.

Thomas Casper, a spokesman for Autodoc, said the company had no “interest at all in supporting alt-right media,” and added, “We vehemently oppose racism and far-right principles.”

He said the company’s digital advertising team worked with third parties to place ads on “trusted websites with substantial traffic.” Autodoc, he said, had instituted controls to try to ensure that it no longer advertised on far-right sites.

As for the icebergs, after receiving The Times’ inquiry, the company removed what Casper called the “obviously dubious and outdated content.” It had originally been placed there, he said, to improve search engine optimisation.

But Lindholm said that made no sense. “By linking to irrelevant content, it actually hurts their business because Google frowns on that,” he said.

Links abroad

Another way to look inside the explosive growth of Sweden’s alt-right outlets is to see who is linking to them. The more links, especially from well-trafficked outlets, the more likely Google is to rank the sites as authoritative. That, in turn, means that Swedes are more likely to see them when they search for, say, immigration and crime.

The Times analysed more than 12 million available links from over 18,000 domains to four prominent far-right sites — Nyheter Idag, Samhallsnytt, Fria Tider and Nya Tider. The data was culled by Lindholm from two search engine optimisation tools and represents a snapshot of all known links through July 2.

As expected, given the relative paucity of Swedish speakers worldwide, most of the links came from Swedish-language sites.

But the analysis turned up a surprising number of links from well-trafficked foreign-language sites — which suggests that the Swedish sites’ rapid growth has been driven to a significant degree from abroad.

The Times identified 356 domains that linked to all four Swedish sites.

Many are well known in American far-right circles. Among them is the Gatestone Institute, a think tank whose site regularly stokes fears about Muslims in the United States and Europe. Its chairman until last year was John Bolton, now Trump’s national security adviser, and its funders have included Rebekah Mercer, a prominent wealthy Trump supporter.

Bjorn Palmertz, a disinformation specialist at the Swedish Defense University, said this “information laundry” had resulted in globally viral stories like the one about the Swedish town that allowed a mosque to issue calls to prayer while denying a church’s application to ring its bells — never mind that the church had not applied.

“Sweden is portrayed either as a heaven or a hell,” said Annika Rembe, Sweden’s consul general in New York. “But conservative value-based politicians in Hungary, Poland, the United States and elsewhere would use Sweden as an example of a failed state: If you follow this path, your society will look like Sweden’s.”

The ‘Village of the World’

The auditorium at Rinkebyskolan, a middle school across the street from Rinkeby’s town square, filled rapidly. Women wearing hijabs and burqas spilled in, taking their seats on the left. Men sat to the right. From the speakers came the voice of an imam reading from the Quran.

Developed as part of a 1960s-era government initiative to build 1 million affordable dwellings, Rinkeby was originally home to a mix of Swedes and labourers from southern Europe. Over time it became known as Sweden’s “Village of the World,” with people from more than 100 countries living in drab, low-slung apartment blocks. Today, more than 91 per cent of Rinkeby’s roughly 16,400 residents are immigrants and their children.

At a long table in front of the auditorium sat Niclas Andersson, a towering man who serves as Rinkeby’s police chief. Once prayers concluded, the audience began peppering him with questions.

Some worried about drug trafficking inside the apartment complexes, others about the prevalence of guns. Could the police install more cameras?

Children play on the courtyards in the Rinkeby district of Stockholm, Sweden, Aug. 7, 2019.
Children play on the courtyards in the Rinkeby district of Stockholm, Sweden, Aug. 7, 2019.
Loulou d'Aki/The New York Times

To be sure, Andersson said in an interview afterwards, there were problems in Rinkeby, his posting for 18 years. But it is hardly the hellscape that nationalists bent on painting Sweden as a failed state hold it out to be.

Many newcomers still struggle to get a foothold in the job market, so unemployment is relatively high, at 8.8 per cent. And in the larger Rinkeby-Kista borough, there were 825 reported episodes of violent crime last year, a rate 36 per cent higher per capita than Stockholm as a whole.

But Andersson does not recognise the Rinkeby portrayed in the movie — directed by a filmmaker who has shot political ads for Republicans in Congress — that led Trump to make his “last night in Sweden” remarks. Rinkeby is not a no-go zone, Andersson said, an assertion supported by the film’s chief cameraman, who has acknowledged that officers who seemed to suggest otherwise had been edited out of context.

In fact, the number of police officers in Rinkeby has more than quadrupled since 2015. Assaults and robberies are down, Andersson said. Fatal shootings are down, too — of 11 in Stockholm last year, one was in Rinkeby. Nationally, the violent crime rate is one-fifth that of the United States.

“It was a heavily slanted picture,” Andersson said. “You zero in on a couple of incidents, then use that to describe the whole area.”

Niclas Andersson, Rinkeby's police chief, has said that fears of crime in the district are overblown.
Niclas Andersson, Rinkeby's police chief, has said that fears of crime in the district are overblown.
Loulou d'Aki/The New York Times

By the time Trump zeroed in on Rinkeby, “the government was tackling the problems,” said Amela Mahovic, a local reporter for Swedish public television. When the actual clash broke out soon after, she said, community elders spread the word to local youths: “You need to stop this.”

But soon, they said, they found that outside forces wanted the world to see a different picture.

Hani Al Saleh, a Syrian who came to Sweden as a teenager, was working as a guard in Rinkeby. Tall and muscular with a sculpted beard, Saleh is known as “Amo,” or uncle, by the local youths. He said three young immigrants he knew told him that Russian journalists had tried to bribe them with 400 kronor (about $43) apiece.

“Boys, do you want to do some action in front of the camera?” they said the Russian journalists asked them.

Al Saleh later took a Danish journalist to meet two of the young men. After searching online, they recognised the logo of the Russian state-owned news channel NTV, along with the Russians who had made the offer.

The journalist contacted NTV, which denied the whole thing. But besides Castillo, the night watchman, The Times found other witnesses who backed up Al Saleh’s account.

Hani Al Saleh, a guard in Rinkeby known as Amo, or uncle, by local youth, throwing his niece up in the air.
Hani Al Saleh, a guard in Rinkeby known as Amo, or uncle, by local youth, throwing his niece up in the air.
Loulou d'Aki/The New York Times

Elvir Kazinic and Mustafa Zatara said they were in the square a couple of days after the clash when they overheard another group of young men talking about Russian journalists and a 400 krona bribe to fight.

“To stoop to that level and offer kids money,” said Kazinic, a Bosnian émigré who serves on Rinkeby’s district council, “that is low.”

Zatara, a poet, knows well the consequences of stirring up anti-immigrant racism. His father, Hasan Zatara, a Palestinian, came to Sweden in 1969, earned a high school diploma and opened a convenience store.

Standing behind the cash register on a January afternoon 27 years ago, he became the final victim of John Ausonius, a serial shooter who terrorised immigrant communities, killing one person and wounding 10 others. Hasan Zatara was paralysed.

Ausonius later said he was inspired by the anti-immigrant party of the day, New Democracy.

“When my father was shot in 1992, we had New Democracy,” Mustafa Zatara said. “Today we have the Sweden Democrats. Then, they wore bomber jackets and boots. Today, they wear bow ties and suits. It’s normalised now in the Swedish political corridor.”

A police station under construction in the Rinkeby district of Stockholm, Sweden, Aug. 7, 2019.
A police station under construction in the Rinkeby district of Stockholm, Sweden, Aug. 7, 2019.
Loulou d'Aki/The New York Times

Building a coalition 

In February, the Sweden Democrats’ Karlsson strode into a Washington-area hotel where leaders of the American and European right were gathering for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. As he settled in at the lobby bar, straightening his navy three-piece suit, he was clearly very much at home.

At the conference — where political boot-camp training mixed with speeches by luminaries like Trump and British populist leader Nigel Farage — Karlsson hoped to learn about the infrastructure of the American conservative movement, particularly its funding and use of the media and think tanks to broaden its appeal. But in a measure of how nationalism and conservatism have merged in Trump’s Washington, many of the Americans with whom he wanted to network were just as eager to network with him.

Karlsson had flown in from Colorado, where he had given a speech at the Steamboat Institute, a conservative think tank. That morning, Tobias Andersson, 23, the Sweden Democrats’ youngest member of Parliament and a contributor to Breitbart, had spoken to Americans for Tax Reform, a bastion of tax-cut orthodoxy.

Now, they found themselves encircled by admirers like Matthew Hurtt, director for external relationships at Americans for Prosperity, part of the billionaire Koch brothers’ political operation, and Matthew Tyrmand, a board member of Project Veritas, a conservative group that uses undercover filming to sting its targets.

Tyrmand, who is also an adviser to a senator from Poland’s anti-immigration ruling Law and Justice party, was particularly eager. “You are taking your country back!” he exclaimed.

Karlsson smiled.

By Jo Becker © 2019 The New York Times

Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch