Sweden has a concerning position as a punching bag for American right-wing extremists – often cheered on by Swedes with a shared set of beliefs. But when it suits their agenda, the same forces highlight Sweden as a positive role model, new research at Malmö University reveals.

Tina Askanius, associate professor in media and communication science, studied the image of Sweden among the American extreme right during her time as a Fulbright scholar in Washington DC.

Sweden is both a threat and a beacon, like an empty vessel that can be filled with whatever ideological content suits the moment.

Tina Askanius

“Sweden is portrayed as a totalitarian state where policies promoting multiculturalism, immigration, and feminism have completely failed,” says Askanius.

The story conveyed, Askanius found, is that Sweden is not only on the verge of, or in, the middle of a societal collapse but is also threatened by the annihilation of its "white indigenous population" due to demographic developments. She also found the narrative forwarded the notion that Sweden itself has orchestrated this “downfall”, has been invaded by Muslim forces who wish to Islamise Sweden, and is a country in sexual and moral decay where homosexuality and fluid gender identities are imposed by the state.

Rather than studying established and well-known right-wing media such as Fox News, she has studied the underbelly of more extreme alternative media outlets which, in the USA, is larger and has more funding than in Sweden. Interest in Sweden in the USA has always been great, but according to Askanius it exploded during the Syrian refugee crisis as a symbol that progressive and socialist politics do not work. However, a few years later the Swedish corona strategy suddenly became a celebrated example among right-wing forces and anti-vaxers who opposed government interference in people's lives.

“It awakened the whole freedom rhetoric of the extreme right. The picture is fuzzy, Sweden is both a threat and a beacon, like an empty vessel that can be filled with whatever ideological content suits the moment,” says Askanius.

While Sweden is allowed to represent the aberrations of multiculturalism, it is still promoted as the "cradle of whiteness". The new centre-right government has also "finally brought down the overtly feminist foreign policy". The aim of Askanius' research is to understand: how these conflicting narratives work, and what ideas fuel right-wing mobilisations, and disinformation campaigns; how did these alternative media become part of a larger disinformation campaign against Sweden? And, when did the ideas start to move from an extreme sphere into the digital mainstream?

“Historically, there has been a mutual interest between the countries. There are also many Swedish actors and YouTubers on the far-right who operate in the US and profit from reproducing this image of Sweden,” says Askanius.

Text: Magnus Jando & Adrian Grist