After Months of Minimal COVID-19 Containment, Sweden Appears to Be Considering a New Approach

 

Better late than never:

Swedish authorities appear to be reconsidering their notoriously lax approach to COVID-19 containment, which has contributed to one of the world’s higher coronavirus death rates.

Starting Oct. 19, regional health authorities may direct citizens to avoid high-risk areas such as gyms, concerts, public transportation and shopping centers, the Telegraph reports. They may also encourage residents to avoid socializing with elderly or other high-risk individuals.

“It’s more of a lockdown situation—but a local lockdown,” Dr. Johan Nojd, who leads the infectious diseases department in the city of Uppsala, told theTelegraph.

In a statement provided to TIME, however, a spokesperson for the Public Health Agency of Sweden rejected that characterization.

“It is not a lockdown but some extra recommendations that could be communicated locally when a need from the regional authorities is communicated and the Public Health Agency so decides,” the spokesperson said.

A legal official from Sweden’s public health agency told the Telegraph the new policy is “something in between regulations and recommendations.” Violating the guidelines, for example, would not result in fines. Still, it’s a significant shift from Sweden’s previous handling of the coronavirus pandemic. While countries around the world implemented lockdowns once the virus began spreading, Swedish authorities largely let life continue as normal.

The Swedish government in March limited public gatherings to 50 people, but the policy left gaping loopholes—it doesn’t apply to private and corporate gatherings, nor to schools, shopping malls and plenty of other locations. Restaurants and bars never closed. Masks are not recommended in most places. There’s little to stop people from going to school or work if they come into contact with an infected person. Sweden’s testing and contact tracing capacitiesare lacking.

As of Oct. 18, Sweden’s per-capita death rate—58.6 per 100,000 people—was among the highest in the world. And from early September to early October, average daily cases nationwide rose by 173%, with particularly dramatic increases in cities such as Stockholm and Uppsala.

These hard-hit areas are the focus of Sweden’s shifting guidance, according to theTelegraph‘s report. Nojd told the outlet he is considering telling people in Uppsala not to visit the elderly and other vulnerable populations, and to avoid making unnecessary trips on public transportation. He also mentioned the possibility of imposing curfews on restaurants.

Representatives from the city of Uppsala did not immediately respond to TIME’s request for further comment.

Swedish authorities appear to be conceding that reaching herd immunity—the threshold at which enough of a population is immune to the virus for it to stop spreading widely—is unlikely to be happen without a vaccine. While officials have avoided explicitly calling herd immunity the goal of their casual containment approach, emails obtained by journalists show high-level Swedish public-health officials discussing that strategy as early as March, apparently motivated by economic concerns.

National studies, however, show that far fewer people have developed natural immunity than officials hoped—as evidenced by the ongoing spike in infections. Sweden’s state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell acknowledged that reality last week.

“I think the obvious conclusion is that the level of immunity in those cities is not at all as high as we have, as maybe some people, have believed,” Tegnell said. “I think what we are seeing is very much a consequence of the very heterogeneous spread that this disease has, which means that even if you feel like there have been a lot of cases in some big cities, there are still huge pockets of people who have not been affected yet.”

Source: After Months of Minimal COVID-19 Containment, Sweden Appears to Be Considering a New Approach

The Swedish COVID-19 Response Is a Disaster. It Shouldn’t Be a Model for the Rest of the World

Good telling analysis. By way of comparison, Quebec death rate is about 71 per 100,000, Ontario 21 per 100,000 and Canada less Quebec 13 per 100,000.

Money quote: “The Swedish way has yielded little but death and misery.”

The Swedish COVID-19 experiment of not implementing early and strong measures to safeguard the population has been hotly debated around the world, but at this point we can predict it is almost certain to result in a net failure in terms of death and suffering. As of Oct. 13, Sweden’s per capita death rate is 58.4 per 100,000 people, according to Johns Hopkins University data, 12th highest in the world (not including tiny Andorra and San Marino). But perhaps more striking are the findings of a study published Oct. 12 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which pointed out that, of the countries the researchers investigated, Sweden and the U.S. essentially make up a category of two: they are the only countries with high overall mortality rates that have failed to rapidly reduce those numbers as the pandemic has progressed.

Yet the architects of the Swedish plan are selling it as a success to the rest of the world. And officials in other countries, including at the top level of the U.S. government, are discussing the strategy as one to emulate—despite the reality that doing so will almost certainly increase the rates of death and misery.

Countries that locked down early and/or used extensive test and tracing—including Denmark, Finland, Norway, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam and New Zealand—saved lives and limited damage to their economies. Countries that locked down late, came out of lock down too early, did not effectively test and quarantine, or only used a partial lockdown—including Brazil, Mexico, Netherlands, Peru, Spain, Sweden, the U.S. and the U.K.—have almost uniformly done worse in rates of infection and death.

Despite this, Sweden’s Public Health Agency director Johan Carlson has claimedthat “the Swedish situation remains favorable,” and that the country’s response has been “consistent and sustainable.” The data, however, show that the case rate in Sweden, as elsewhere in Europe, is currently increasing.

Average daily cases rose 173% nationwide from Sept. 2-8 to Sept. 30-Oct. 6 and in Stockholm that number increased 405% for the same period. Though some have argued that rising case numbers can be attributed to increased testing, a recent study of Stockholm’s wastewater published Oct. 5 by the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) argues otherwise. An increased concentration of the virus in wastewater, the KTH researchers write, shows a rise of the virus in the population of the greater Stockholm area (where a large proportion of the country’s population live) in a way that is entirely independent of testing. Yet even with this rise in cases, the government is easing the few restrictions it had in place.

From early on, the Swedish government seemed to treat it as a foregone conclusion that many people would die. The country’s Prime Minister Stefan Löfven told the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter on April 3, “We will have to count the dead in thousands. It is just as well that we prepare for it.” In July, as the death count reached 5,500, Löfven said that the “strategy is right, I am completely convinced of that.” In September, Dr. Anders Tegnell, the Public Health Agency epidemiologist in charge of the country’s COVID-19 response reiterated the party line that a growing death count did “not mean that the strategy itself has gone wrong.” There has been a lack of written communication between the Prime Minister and the Pubic Health Authority: when the authors requested all emails and documents between the Prime Minister’s office and the Public Health Authority for the period Jan. 1—Sept. 14, the Prime Minister’s Registrar replied on Sept. 17 that none existed.

Despite the Public Health Agency’s insistence to the contrary, the core of this strategy is widely understood to have been about building natural “herd immunity”—essentially, letting enough members of a population (the herd) get infected, recover, and then develop an immune system response to the virus that it would ultimately stop spreading. Both the agency and Prime Minister Löfven have characterized the approach as “common sense“ trust-based recommendations rather than strict measures, such as lockdowns, which they say are unsustainable over an extended period of time—and that herd immunity was just a desirable side effect. However, internal government communications suggest otherwise.

Emails obtained by one of the authors through Freedom of Information laws (called offentlighetsprincipen, or “Openness Principle,” in Swedish) between national and regional government agencies, including the Swedish Public Health Authority, as well as those obtained by other journalists, suggest that the goal was all along in fact to develop herd immunity. We have also received information through sources who made similar requests or who corresponded directly with government agencies that back up this conclusion. For the sake of transparency, we created a website where we’ve posted some of these documents.

One example showing clearly that government officials had been thinking about herd immunity from early on is a March 15 email sent from a retired doctor to Tegnell, the epidemiologist and architect of the Swedish plan, which he forwarded to his Finnish counterpart, Mika Salminen. In it, the retired doctor recommended allowing healthy people to be infected in controlled settings as a way to fight the epidemic. “One point would be to keep schools open to reach herd immunity faster,” Tegnell noted at the top of the forwarded email.

Salminen responded that the Finnish Health Agency had considered this but decided against it, because “over time, the children are still going to spread the infection to other age groups.” Furthermore, the Finnish model showed that closing schools would reduce “the attack rate of the disease on the elderly” by 10%. Tegnell responded:10 percent might be worth it?”

The majority of the rest of Sweden’s policymakers seemed to have agreed: the country never closed daycare or schools for children under the age of 16, and school attendance is mandatory under Swedish law, with no option for distance learning or home schooling, even for family members in high risk groups. Policymakers essentially decided to use children and schools as participants in an experiment to see if herd immunity to a deadly disease could be reached. Multiple outbreaks at schools occurred in both the spring and autumn.

At this point, whether herd immunity was the “goal” or a “byproduct” of the Swedish plan is semantics, because it simply hasn’t worked. In April, the Public Health Agency predicted that 40% of the Stockholm population would have the disease and acquire protective antibodies by May. According to the agency’s ownantibody studies published Sept. 3 for samples collected up until late June, the actual figure for random testing of antibodies is only 11.4% for Stockholm, 6.3% for Gothenburg and 7.1% across Sweden. As of mid-August, herd immunity was still “nowhere in sight,” according to a Journal of the Royal Society of Medicinestudy. That shouldn’t have been a surprise. After all, herd immunity to an infectious disease has never been achieved without a vaccine.

Löfven, his government, and the Public Health Agency all say that the high COVID-19 death rate in Sweden can be attributed to the fact that a large portion of these deaths occurred in nursing homes, due to shortcomings in elderly care.

However, the high infection rate across the country was the underlying factor that led to a high number of those becoming infected in care homes. Many sick elderly were not seen by a doctor because the country’s hospitals were implementing a triage system that, according to a study published July 1 in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, appeared to have factored in age and predicted prognosis. “This likely reduced [intensive care unit] load at the cost of more high-risk patients”—like elderly people with confirmed infection—dying outside the ICU.” Only 13% of the elderly residents who died with COVID-19 during the spring received hospital care, according to preliminary statistics from the National Board of Health and Welfare released Aug.

In one case which seems representative of how seniors were treated, patient Reza Sedghi was not seen by a doctor the day he died from COVID-19 at a care home in Stockholm. A nurse told Sedghi’s daughter Lili Perspolisi that her father was given a shot of morphine before he passed away, that no oxygen was administered and staff did not call an ambulance. “No one was there and he died alone,” Perspolisi says.

In order to be admitted for hospital care, patients needed to have breathing problems and even then, many were reportedly denied care. Regional healthcare managers in each of Sweden’s 21 regions, who are responsible for care at hospitals as well as implementing Public Health Agency guidelines, have claimed that no patients were denied care during the pandemic. But internal local government documents from April from some of Sweden’s regions—including those covering the biggest cities of Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö—also show directives for how some patients including those receiving home care, those living at nursing homes and assisted living facilities, and those with special needs could not receive oxygen or hospitalization in some situations. Dagens Nyheterpublished an investigation on Oct. 13 showing that patients in Stockholm were denied care as a result of these guidelines. Further, a September investigation by Sveriges Radio, Sweden’s national public broadcaster, found that more than 100 people reported to the Swedish Health and Care Inspectorate that their relatives with COVID-19 either did not receive oxygen or nutrient drops or that they were not allowed to come to hospital.

These issues do not only affect the elderly or those who had COVID-19. The National Board of Health and Welfare’s guidelines for intensive care in extraordinary circumstances throughout Sweden state that priority should be given to patients based on biological, not chronological, age. Sörmlands Media, in an investigation published May 13, cited a number of sources saying that, in many parts of the country, the health care system was already operating in a way such that people were being denied the type of inpatient care they would have received in normal times. Regional health agencies were using a Clinical Frailty Scale, an assessment tool designed to predict the need for care in a nursing home or hospital, and the life expectancy of older people by estimating their fragility, to determine whether someone should receive hospital care and was applied to decisions regarding all sorts of treatment, not only for COVID-19. These guidelines led to many people with health care needs unrelated to COVID-19 not getting the care they need, with some even dying as a result—collateral damage of Sweden’s COVID-19 strategy.

Dr. Michael Broomé, the chief physician at Stockholm’s Karolinska Hospital’s Intensive Care Unit, says his department’s patient load tripled during the spring. His staff, he says, “have often felt powerless and inadequate. We have lost several young, previously healthy, patients with particularly serious disease courses. We have also repeatedly been forced to say no to patients we would normally have accepted due to a lack of experienced staff, suitable facilities and equipment.”

In June, Dagens Nyheter reported a story of one case showing how disastrous such a scenario can be. Yanina Lucero had been ill for several weeks in March with severe breathing problems, fever and diarrhea, yet COVID-19 tests were not available at the time except for those returning from high risk areas who displayed symptoms, those admitted to the hospital, and those working in health care. Yanina was only 39 years old and had no underlying illnesses. Her husband Cristian brought her to an unnamed hospital in Stockholm, but were told it was full and sent home, where Lucero’s health deteriorated. After several days when she could barely walk, an ambulance arrived and Lucero was taken to Huddinge hospital, where she was sedated and put on a ventilator. She died on April 15 without receiving a COVID-19 test in hospital.

Sweden did try some things to protect citizens from the pandemic. On March 12 the government restricted public gatherings to 500 people and the next day the Public Health Agency issued a press release telling people with possible COVID-19 symptoms to stay home. On March 17, the Public Health Agency asked employers in the Stockholm area to let employees work from home if they could. The government further limited public gatherings to 50 people on March 29. Yet there were no recommendations on private events and the 50-person limit doesn’t apply to schools, libraries, corporate events, swimming pools, shopping malls or many other situations. Starting April 1, the government restricted visitsto retirement homes (which reopened to visitors on Oct. 1 without masksrecommended for visitors or staff). But all these recommendations came later than in the other Nordic countries. In the interim, institutions were forced to make their own decisions; some high schools and universities changed to on-line teaching and restaurants and bars went to table seating with distance, and some companies instituted rules about wearing masks on site and encouraging employees to work from home.

Meanwhile Sweden built neither the testing nor the contact-tracing capacity that other wealthy European countries did. Until the end of May (and again in August), Sweden tested 20% the number of people per capita compared with Denmark, and less than both Norway and Finland; Sweden has often had among the lowest test rates in Europe. Even with increased testing in the fall, Sweden still only tests only about one-fourth that of Denmark.

Sweden never quarantined those arriving from high-risk areas abroad nor did it close most businesses, including restaurants and bars. Family members of those who test positive for COVID-19 must attend school in person, unlike in many other countries where if one person in a household tests positive the entire family quarantines, usually for 14 days. Employees must also report to work as usual unless they also have symptoms of COVID-19, an agreement with their employer for a leave of absence or a doctor recommends that they isolate at home.

On Oct. 1, the Public Health Authority issued non-binding “rules of conduct” that open the possibility for doctors to be able to recommend that certain individuals stay home for seven days if a household member tests positive for COVID-19. But there are major holes in these rules: they do not apply to children (of all ages, from birth to age 16, the year one starts high school), people in the household who previously have a positive PCR or antibody test or, people with socially important professions, such as health care staff (under certain circumstances).

There is also no date for when the rule would go into effect. “It may not happen right away, Stockholm will start quickly but some regions may need more time to get it all in place,” Tegnell said at a Oct. 1 press conference. Meanwhile, according to current Public Health Agency guidelines issued May 15 and still in place, those who test positive for COVID-19 are expected to attend work and school with mild symptoms so long as they are seven days post-onset of symptoms and fever free for 48 hours.

Sweden actually recommends against masks everywhere except in places where health care workers are treating COVID-19 patients (some regions expand that to health care workers treating suspected patients as well). Autumn corona outbreaks in Dalarna, Jönköping, Luleå, Malmö, Stockholm and Uppsalahospitals are affecting both hospital staff and patients. In an email on April 5, Tegnell wrote to Mike Catchpole, the chief scientist at the European Center for Disease Control and Prevention (ECDC): “We are quite worried about the statement ECDC has been preparing about masks.” Tegnell attached a documentin which he expresses concern that ECDC recommending facemasks would “imply that the spread is airborne which would seriously harm further communication and trust among the population and health care workers” and concludes “we would like to warn against the publication of this advice.” Despite this, on April 8 ECDC recommended masks and on June 8 the World Health Organization updated its stance to recommend masks.

Sweden’s government officials stuck to their party line. Karin Tegmark Wisell of the Public Health Agency said at a press conference on July 14 that “we see around the world that masks are used in a way so that you rather increase the spread of infection.” Two weeks later, Lena Hallengren, the Minister of Health and Social Affairs, spoke about masks at a press conference on July 29 and said, “We don’t have that tradition or culture” and that the government “would not review the Public Health Agency’s decision not to recommend masks.”

All of this creates a situation which leaves teachers, bus drivers, medical workers and care home staff more exposed, without face masks at a time when the rest of the world is clearly endorsing widespread mask wearing.

On Aug. 13, Tegnell said that to recommend masks to the public “quite a lot of resources are required. There is quite a lot of money that would be spent if you are going to have masks.” Indeed, emails between Tegnell and colleagues at the Public Health Agency and Andreas Johansson of the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs show that the policy concerns of the health authority were influenced by financial interests, including the commercial concerns of Sweden’s airports.

Swedavia, the owner of the country’s largest airport, Stockholm Arlanda, told employees during the spring and early summer they could not wear masks or gloves to work. One employee told Upsala Nya Tidning newspaper on Aug. 24 “Many of us were sick during the beginning of the pandemic and two colleagues have died due to the virus. I would estimate that 60%-80% of the staff at the security checks have had the infection.”

“Our union representatives fought for us to have masks at work,” the employee said, “but the airport’s response was that we were an authority that would not spread fear, but we would show that the virus was not so dangerous.” Swedavia’s reply was that they had introduced the infection control measures recommended by the authorities. On July 1, the company changed its policy, recommending masks for everyone who comes to Arlanda—that, according to a Swedavia spokesperson, was not as a result of “an infection control measure advocated by Swedish authorities,” but rather, due to a joint European Union Aviation Safety Agency and ECDC recommendation for all of Europe.

As early as January, the Public Health Agency was warning the government about costs. In a Jan. 31 communique, Public Health Agency Director Johan Carlsson (appointed by Löfven) and General Counsel Bitte Bråstad wrote to the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs, cautioning the government about costs associated with classifying COVID-19 as a socially dangerous disease: “After a decision on quarantine, costs for it [include] compensation which according to the Act, must be paid to those who, due to the quarantine decision, must refrain from gainful employment. The uncertainty factors are many even when calculating these costs. Society can also suffer a loss of production due to being quarantined [and] prevented from performing gainful employment which they would otherwise have performed.” Sweden never implemented quarantine in society, not even for those returning from travel abroad or family members of those who test positive for COVID-19.

Not only did these lack of measures likely result in more infections and deaths, but it didn’t even help the economy: Sweden has fared worse economically than other Nordic countries throughout the pandemic.

The Swedish way has yielded little but death and misery. And, this situation has not been honestly portrayed to the Swedish people or to the rest of the world.

A Public Health Agency report published July 7 included data for teachers in primary schools working on-site as well as for secondary school teachers who switched to distance instruction online. In the report, they combined the two data sources and compared the result to the general population, stating that teachers were not at greater risk and implying that schools were safe. But in fact, the infection rate of those teaching in classrooms was 60% higher than those teaching online—completely undermining the conclusion of the report.

The report also compares Sweden to Finland for March through the end of May and wrongly concludes that the ”closing of schools had no measurable effect on the number of cases of COVID-19 among children.” As testing among children in Sweden was almost non-existent at that time compared to Finland, these data were misrepresented; a better way to look at it would be to consider the fact that Sweden had seven times as many children per capita treated in the ICU during that time period.

When pressed about discrepancies in the report, Public Health Agency epidemiologist Jerker Jonsson replied on Aug. 21 via email: “The title is a bit misleading. It is not a direct comparison of the situation in Finland to the situation in Sweden. This is just a report and not a peer-reviewed scientific study. This was just a quick situation report and nothing more.” However the Public Health Agency and Minister of Education continue to reference this report as justification to keep schools open, and other countries cite it as an example.

This is not the only case where Swedish officials have misrepresented data in an effort to make the situation seem more under control than it really is. In April, a group of 22 scientists and physicians criticized Sweden’s government for the 105 deaths per day the country was seeing at the time, and Tegnell and the Public Health Agency responded by saying the true number was just 60 deaths per day. Revised government figures now show Tegnell was incorrect and the critics were right. The Public Health Agency says the discrepancy was due to a backlog in accounting for deaths, but they have backlogged deaths throughout the pandemic, making it difficult to track and gauge the actual death toll in real time.

Sweden never went into an official lockdown but an estimated 1.5 million have self-isolated, largely the elderly and those in risk groups. This was probably the largest factor in slowing the spread of the virus in the country in the summer. However, recent data suggest that cases are yet again spiking in the country, and there’s no indication that government policies will adapt.

Health care workers, scientists and private citizens have all voiced concerns about the Swedish approach. But Sweden is a small country, proud of its humanitarian image—so much so that we cannot seem to understand when we have violated it. There is simply no way to justify the magnitude of lost lives, poorer health and putting risk groups into long-term isolation, especially not in an effort to reach an unachievable herd immunity. Countries need to take care before adopting the “Swedish way.” It could have tragic consequences for this pandemic or the next.

Source: The Swedish COVID-19 Response Is a Disaster. It Shouldn’t Be a Model for the Rest of the World

Coronavirus takes a toll in Sweden’s immigrant community

Like elsewhere:

The flight from Italy was one of the last arrivals that day at the Stockholm airport. A Swedish couple in their 50s walked up and loaded their skis into Razzak Khalaf’s taxi.

It was early March and concerns over the coronavirus were already present, but the couple, both coughing for the entire 45-minute journey, assured Khalaf they were healthy and just suffering from a change in the weather. Four days later, the Iraqi immigrant got seriously ill with COVID-19.

Still not able to return to work, Khalaf is part of the growing evidence that those in immigrant communities in the Nordic nations are being hit harder by the pandemic than the general population.

Sweden took a relatively soft approach to fighting the coronavirus, one that attracted international attention. Large gatherings were banned but restaurants and schools for younger children have stayed open. The government has urged social distancing, and Swedes have largely complied.

The country has paid a heavy price, with 2,769 fatalities from COVID-19. That’s more than 26 deaths per 100,000 population, compared with about 8 per 100,000 in neighboring Denmark, which imposed a strict lockdown early on that is only now being slowly lifted.

Inside Sweden’s immigrant communities, anecdotal evidence emerged early in the outbreak that suggested that some — particularly those from Somalia and Iraq — were hit harder than others. Last month, data from Sweden’s Public Health Agency confirmed that Somali Swedes made up almost 5 percent of the country’s COVID-19 cases, yet represented less than 1 percent of its 10 million people.

Many in these communities are more likely to live in crowded, multigeneration households and are unable to work remotely.

“No one cares for taxi drivers in Sweden,” said Khalaf, who tested positive and was admitted to a hospital when his condition deteriorated. Despite difficulties breathing, the 49-year-old says he was sent home after six hours and told his body was strong enough to “fight it off.”

In Finland, Helsinki authorities warned of a similar over-representation among Somali immigrants in the capital — some 200 cases, or about 14%, of all confirmed infections. In Norway, where immigrants make up nearly 15% of the general population, they represent about 25% of confirmed coronavirus cases.

“I think a pandemic like this one, or any crisis will hit the most vulnerable people in society the most wherever in the world, and we see this in many many countries,” said Isabella Lovin, Sweden’s deputy prime minister, in an interview with The Associated Press.

Noting that the virus was spreading faster in some crowded Stockholm suburbs, Lovin said said the city is providing short-term accommodation to some people whose relatives are vulnerable.

Sweden, Norway and Finland recognized early failings in community outreach in minority languages and are seeking to fix this. The town of Jarfalla, outside Stockholm, has had high school students hand out leaflets in Somali, Persian, French and other languages, urging people to wash their hands and stay home if sick.

With Sweden’s relatively low-key approach to fighting the virus that relies mainly on voluntary social distancing, there are concerns the message has not reached everyone in immigrant neighborhoods.

“It’s important that everyone living here who has a different mother tongue gets the right information,” said Warda Addallah, a 17-year-old Somali Swede.

Anders Wallensten, Sweden’s deputy state epidemiologist, said officials have worked harder on communicating with such groups “to make sure they have the knowledge to protect themselves and avoid spreading the disease to others.”

But teacher and community activist Rashid Musa says the problem runs much deeper.

“I wish it were that easy — that you needed to just translate a few papers,” he said. “We need to look at the more fundamental issue, which is class, which is racism, which is social status, which is income.”

“The rich have the opportunity to put themselves into quarantine, they can go to their summer houses,” Musa said.

A key government recommendation for individuals to work from home if possible is harder in marginalized areas where many have jobs in the service sector.

“How can a bus driver or a taxi driver work from home?” Musa asked.

Evidence of this disparity can be found in anonymous data aggregated by mobile phone operator Telia, which has given the Swedish Health Authority information about population mobility. By comparing the number of people in an area early in the morning with those who traveled to another area for at least an hour later in the day, Telia estimates how many go to work and how many stay home.

“We do see certain areas that are maybe more affluent with a bigger number of people working from home,” said Kristofer Agren, the head of data insights for Telia. Data shows a 12 percentage point difference between Danderyd, one of Stockholm’s most affluent suburbs, and Botkryka, one with the highest percentage of first- and second-generation immigrants.

“Many of our members have contracted the coronavirus,” said Akil Zahiri, who helps administer the mosque on the outskirts of Stockholm. “But you do the best you can.”

Zahiri spoke to the AP as he sat alone in Sweden’s largest Shiite mosque coordinating a video call with the congregation to pray for a member who died of COVID-19. The sound of prayer crackled through the computer, breaking the silence in the empty hall.

During Ramadan, the month when Muslims fast during the day, the mosque canceled all public events. Zahiri reminded the congregation to take part in social distancing, urging them to stay home for the Iftar, the daily breaking of the fast after sunset, and to avoid sharing food with friends.

Source: Coronavirus takes a toll in Sweden’s immigrant community

Citizenship in Scandinavia – What are reasonable demands for full membership?

Interesting comparison, showing despite the different approaches, the underlying views on citizenship requirements in all three countries were very similar:

In 2018, together with our colleagues in the other Scandinavian countries, we undertook a representative survey in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. Young people from ages 20 to 36 were interviewed – just over 7500 in total. Individuals from the majority populations, descendants of immigrants from Iraq, Pakistan, Poland, Somalia, Turkey, and Vietnam, were included. Immigrants from Iraq and Somalia also participated in the survey in all three countries, while immigrants from Pakistan, Poland and Turkey were included, in addition, in the Norwegian sample. All respondents were asked what they considered reasonable requirements for citizenship, what they thought of the existing rules in their respective countries, and to what extent they felt they were recognized as members of the national community.

Citizenship is the last stop on the way to formal membership in a new homeland. Before this, immigrants with legal status already enjoy many rights. New members of Scandinavian societies have access to some civil and social rights, from day one in the country. Still, citizenship is regarded as important and attractive, especially among those who come from countries with greater legal, economic, and political uncertainty. Citizenship in Scandinavia protects them from deportation, in principle at least. It bestows help overseas, grants the right to vote in parliamentary elections – and not least, gives access to a Scandinavian passport, with all the rights to travel freely and work in the entire EU region.

In the last few years there has been a trend to implement stricter requirements for citizenship in many European countries, such as knowledge tests (language, history, and society), proof of self-sufficiency, and longer waiting times.

Among researchers, these stricter requirements are often interpreted from either a control or an integration perspective: Recent increases in immigration have made authorities keen on finding legal ways to control access to citizenship. On the other hand, concerns over integration have raised the bar for competence in language and knowledge about society, and those who are permanent residents and seek citizenship are required to meet this higher bar in order to become full members.

Regardless of how one interprets the politics, these laws create indisputably higher barriers. There has been an (implicit) assumption among researchers that the stricter requirements are not in immigrants’ interest, but no empirical research has been done. This new survey is the first to investigate these issues empirically.

The three Scandinavian countries are interesting to compare because they cover the entire scale when it comes to citizenship requirements. Denmark is one of the strictest countries in Europe when it comes to citizenship. Sweden is on the liberal outer edge, while Norway – as is often the case with immigration and integration policies – finds itself somewhere in the middle.

We began our study with the assumption that these marked political differences would be mirrored in the immigrant groups and descendants’ attitudes in the three countries – that immigrants and descendants in Denmark would be more critical of the country’s rules, than corresponding groups would be to Swedish policies in Sweden, for example. We also thought the majority populations would want stricter requirements than the minorities would, especially in Denmark. The results did not meet our expectations though, and in many ways were very surprising.

Overall the survey does not show big differences between the three countries, and when it comes to attitudes toward how the rules are and should be, there are barely differences between the three groups (majority, immigrants, and descendants). The prevailing attitude is that it is legitimate to set requirements for new members of society who become citizens – the majority across groups believe these requirements should include five years of residence, a simple language and society test, an oath, and being part of the work force. At the same time, they think it should be legal to keep one’s original citizenship when naturalizing. In other words, there should be clear requirements to become a full member of a Scandinavian society, but these should be reasonable and possible to meet. The results paint a picture of consensus on what “reasonable” means – a framework that lies somewhere between the extremes represented by Denmark and Sweden.

Other institutions, like the education system, labor market, and health care system are probably more important as a basis for attitudes toward membership in society than citizenship.

How should we interpret these findings? The alignment in attitudes across our survey respondents is a pointer to the fact that life in Scandinavia is not so different across the three countries, despite the respective states’ different policies on immigration. In fact, other institutions, like the education system, labor market, and health care system are probably more important as a basis for attitudes toward membership in society than citizenship.

The survey does not tell us anything about emphasis placed on different institutions’ importance for feelings of membership, acceptance, and belonging. But we do see indications of experiences of both discrimination and of lower levels of trust among minority groups.

The consensus on requirements, nevertheless, suggests that the citizenship institution continues to matter as a framework for togetherness. The survey also indicates that minority members of society are reflected actors, alongside majority society members, when it comes to guarding the last ticket into society – and what should be demanded, in order to ensure the functioning of an increasingly diverse society.

Source: Citizenship in Scandinavia – What are reasonable demands for full membership?

The Global Machine Behind the Rise of Far-Right Nationalism

Sweden sees drastic rise in waiting time for citizenship applications

Of note. Combination of increased demand and reduced resources:
Over the course of just a few years, average waiting times for Swedish citizenship applications have increased dramatically, and currently stand at over two and a half years, new data reveals.

There were 86,853 citizenship applications in processing at the end of June this year, according to the Migration Agency’s figures.

On Monday, the agency’s website showed that applications for citizenship could expect a 30-month (or 913-day) waiting time, adding that this did not necessarily mean all applicants would get a decision within that time. This is two months longer than the estimated waiting time as shown back in January this year, and much longer than was the case a few years ago.

Although the website states that this number “shows how long it has taken for people with similar applications to receive a decision”, a press officer for the Migration Agency told The Local that it represented “the longest expected time if you apply for citizenship today”.

Press officer Mardin Baban told The Local in an email that people receiving their decision on citizenship in July 2019 would have waited an average 284 days, well below the expected 913-day waiting time for those submitting their application in July 2019.

The average processing time for citizenship applications which have already been concluded in 2019 is 292 days, according to Migration Agency figures. This is up from 230 days in 2018, 185 in 2017, 176 in 2016, and 177 in 2015.

Two key factors behind the long wait are, as expected, a rise in the number of citizenship applications, and reductions in the Migration Agency’s staff numbers.

“Since the refugee situation in 2014-2016, many of those who were granted asylum in Sweden have now reached the criteria to be granted Swedish citizenship. Between 2014 and 2016, 131,109 people were granted asylum in Sweden, which is the most ever in such a short time,” said Baban.

“So the easy answer to the question is that there are very many at the moment who want to apply for citizenship in Sweden, which is why the processing time has almost doubled.”

The number of people becoming Swedish citizens has soared over the past decade. In 2010, a total of 28,100 people were granted citizenship, a figure which reached a peak of 65,562 in 2017 and was 61,312 last year.

The Migration Agency’s general director Mikael Ribbenvik has said that cuts to resources have also been an issue, telling the TT news agency: “If you have limited resources, you have to invest in certain areas. You can’t invest in all areas if there aren’t sufficient resources.”

However, he added that citizenship cases were now being prioritized, saying that the agency had allocated more staff to work on these cases as well as digitalizing parts of the process. The Local has contacted the Migration Agency for comment.

Earlier this year, the agency began prioritizing applications from British citizens in order to avoid additional paperwork and delays in the event of Brexit.

People of over 170 different nationalities became Swedish in 2018, with Syria the most common country of origin. Syrians, Somalians, stateless people, Iraqis, and Afghans accounted for almost a third of the total number of new citizens, and the next most common nationalities were Eritrean, Polish, Iranian, Thai, and British.

Source: Sweden sees drastic rise in waiting time for citizenship applications

Swedish youth politician defends anti-Zionist chant

One can only wonder at the sophistry involved. Just because something has been sung for ages doesn’t mean one should continue signing it:
“You can’t take anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism and stick an equal sign between them,” Electra Ververidis, the new chair of the local district of the Social Democrat youth wing SSU, told Sweden’s state broadcaster SVT.
“This song has been sung within the labour movement for ages past. It is about taking a political position against the occupation of the Palestine, and is not about being against Israel or the Jewish people.”
The performance of the chant-like song, which is repeats the words ‘Long Live Palestine, Crush Zionism” was condemned on Wednesday by Svante Weyler, Chair of the Swedish Committee against Anti-Semitism.
“The idea that you want to abolish the state of Israel is an antisemitic idea,” he told SVT.
Ververidis’s defence of the song reversed a rapid apology given earlier in the week by the youth movement’s national chair Philip Botström.
“I understand and take seriously all the criticism against our local unit in Malmö,” he wrote on Twitter after a recording of the song being sung was circulated on Wednesday.
“There should be no doubt over where SSU stands on this question. We distance ourselves from all forms of antisemitism.”
He asserted that the youth movement would not sing the song in future.
But Ververidis said no such decision had been taken, explaining that SSU’s Malmö branch had yet to discuss whether singing the song would be appropriate during future demonstrations. “We have not yet had time to consider that,” she said.
She criticised Botström’s condemnation of the song.
“It is very unfortunate that Philip Botström is now mixing up apples and pears. This chant has been sung for ages and is about criticism of Israel’s occupation policies and nothing else. This is something Botström himself well knows.”

Source: Swedish youth politician defends anti-Zionist chant

Sweden’s Decades-Long Failure to Integrate: Leonid Bershidsky

Excerpt from a good long and balanced read, along with the reminder of the links between integration and economic outcomes:

Media Vs. Reality

Having walked around Tensta after dark, I must admit it’s far nicer than any other bad neighborhood I’ve ever seen (I grew up in a concrete wasteland on the edge of Moscow). There’s no trash on footpaths between the boxy but well-maintained three- and six-story apartment blocks, built in the 1960s as part of Sweden’s “Million Homes Program” to provide affordable housing to workers. Socialist urban planning is often an underlying reason for the emergence of problem neighborhoods, but Tensta is fetchingly human-scale with a lot of small parks and footbridges spanning lanes of traffic. The absence of graffiti gave this Berlin resident an eerie feeling, and the lack of bars on ground-floor windows made me recall the complex gridwork necessary to keep out burglars in my country of birth.

From what I’d read in media accounts, I’d expected to see drug deals in progress, a common sight in some areas of Berlin. But no one lounged around Tensta looking like a dealer or offering illicit substances for sale. The area around the subway station used to have a lively scene, I’m told, but surveillance cameras, which are generally rare in privacy-minded Sweden, drove it to someplace I couldn’t find.

This isn’t just my impression or a situation unique to Tensta. The 176-page report of the National Council for Crime Prevention is based on a door-to-door survey of two “particularly disadvantaged” areas that yielded 1,176 completed questionnaires, a massive exercise conducted by young female field researchers. Johanna Skinnari, the project manager, told me that team members received strict instructions not to walk alone and not to knock on doors in the late evening, but learned to ignore these precautions because they never felt threatened. “These places are a long way from the banlieues,” Skinnari said, referring to the notorious Paris suburbs.

The “vulnerable areas” aren’t no-go zones in the sense that police and other emergency services avoid going there. “I’d have no problem going to Tensta with my daughter,” said Erik Akerlund, chief police superintendent for the Botkyrka municipality outside Stockholm, which includes a “particularly vulnerable” area of its own. The neighborhoods are, however, no-go zones in a different sense. Locals in Tensta complain of a shortage of government services and doctors’ offices. The neighborhood of 19,000 people doesn’t have a police station of its own, the nearest one is about four kilometers away in Sollentuna. The shopping center at the center of the area was nearly deserted at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, and the few shops open there looked like they were hanging by a thread. The area’s reputation doesn’t make it a desirable place of business or posting for a civil servant or, say, a tax-funded dentist.

The violence and insecurity are real, too. Skinnari’s survey showed that a greater share of people in the vulnerable areas are exposed to crimes, especially property ones, than the residents of other Swedish neighborhoods. Protection rackets are common, and teachers often face the threat of violence at school. Street gangs can be visible and abusive. As a result, 55 percent of the women and 24 percent of men in the disadvantaged areas reported feeling unsafe going outside, compared with 27 percent of women and 8 percent of men in other neighborhoods. After 7 p.m., there are barely any women on the streets of Tensta.

The oppressive atmosphere can be easily linked to the neighborhoods’ economic profile. The employment level in the ghettos was 47 percent last year compared with 67 percent nationwide; between 40 and 67 percent, depending on the neighborhood, make less than 100,000 kronor ($11,000) a year.

That’s an integration failure. According to official data, 50 to 60 percent of residents in vulnerable areas are immigrants or children of immigrants, compared with 17 percent nationwide. In hours of wandering around Tensta, I didn’t meet a single person who looked like a Swede.

The Swedish government has tried to get more ghetto residents into the labor market, even subsidizing employers who gave newcomers their first job. But the program backfired as the foreigners lost the jobs as soon as the subsidy period ran out.

“The government has often just thrown money at the problems — with good intentions, but now there’s a degree of project fatigue,” Skinnari said.

There are constant attempts to improve schooling in the vulnerable neighborhoods, but official statistics say that 40 percent of young people in the disadvantaged areas leave school before graduating.

The Sources of Gang Violence

No wonder the ghetto kids end up in gangs. Though Tensta is visibly segregated — you won’t see any Kurds sitting in the Somali cafe, and vice versa — researchers, locals and police officers told me that the modern Swedish gang is surprisingly multiethnic.

Earlier this month, Rostami published a report for the Stockholm-based Institute for Futures Studies in which he attempted to quantify Swedish organized crime and extremism by combining information from several government databases. He found “business” links spanning seemingly vast cultural divides, including between Islamic extremists and the Swedish nationalist far right. Of the 15,244 people who are part of the gang scene, according to Rostami’s data, 67 percent were born in Sweden. But many of them are second generation immigrant kids who grew up together in disadvantaged areas. They went into the drug business together, too.

This new generation is more violent than its predecessors. Rostami, an Iranian refugee who lived in a ghetto-like area in Gothenburg and worked as a cop before he became a researcher, told me that in recent years, competition from the new generation of gangsters has wreaked havoc with the self-policing of the traditional mafias — the Russians, the Italians, the Bosnians.

“They didn’t see the new generation coming up,” Rostami said. “There’s a cultural shift: For the new kids, violence is the language they speak. They don’t dream of becoming godfather, they want to be king for one day. They don’t care if they’re killed tomorrow, next week or next month.”

Akerlund, the police superintendent, has noticed the shift, too. “When I talk to older criminals,” he said, “I see they’re sometimes afraid of the younger members of their own gangs. They have a different mindset, more violent.”

This change has been brewing for years. Akerlund remembers how he started as an officer patrolling a difficult neighborhood in 2005; almost the first thing he remembers is a riot. The police made an arrest and stones were soon flying at the officers. Car burnings and rock-throwing, often in retaliation for a drug bust, were a frequent occurrence until the middle of the current decade. Now, they’re relatively rare: Akerlund says the police have a better idea of how to counteract rumors and inform the neighborhood what’s really going on.

But violence hasn’t gone away; it’s made a comeback in the shootings. The cutthroat gangland competition is a new phenomenon and researchers and police officials struggle to explain its roots or figure out why firearm use is growing despite restrictive gun laws. They all say, however, that the recent wave of immigration has nothing to do with it: The newcomers haven’t had time to integrate into the gang culture.

Trapped by Decades of Bad Policy

Although Skinnari’s report indicates some statistical improvement in the vulnerable areas — slightly less exposure to crime, more feeling of safety compared with a few years back —the prospects for residents may actually be getting worse. For decades, the bad neighborhoods were gateways for immigrants into the rest of Sweden. People settled in them for the ethnic support networks, learned the language, got better jobs and moved out in a few years, always replaced by more immigrants.

Now, people get stuck. Everyone I talked to named the Swedish real estate market as the reason. It’s almost impossible to rent an apartment in Stockholm or other big urban centers, and few can afford to buy one. Swedish housing prices were up 44 percent last year compared with 2012, and they’ve almost tripled since 2000.

“I remember, 20 years ago one could save, borrow and move out,” said Rostami, who’s done just that. “Now that’s a challenge: You need a very stable job and a high income.”

Fixing the housing market requires investment, political will and planning so skillful that I doubt it exists anywhere. Last year in the Netherlands, often touted as a model when it comes to creating neighborhoods for people with different income levels, residents of these mixed neighborhoods told me of powerful class and ethnic tensions. Sweden has even less experience with such projects.

Inadequate policing is at the core of the problem. Despite safety gains made in the past four years, Rostami said there aren’t enough officers to “shrink the space that organized crime occupies.” According to him, Germany has twice Sweden’s number of police officers per 100,000 residents.

Skinnari’s survey showed that in the vulnerable areas, the police and the court system often are mistrusted because they’re perceived as too soft: Known gang members are let out quickly and prisons lack space to accommodate everyone who’s sentenced, giving convicted gangsters a chance to keep terrorizing neighborhoods.

More prison cells — and, yes, a tougher deportation policy, as the Sweden Democrats suggest, could help.

Not even the nationalists propose going as far as neighboring Denmark with its infamous ghetto laws aimed at assimilating the immigrant population. The Sweden Democrat Bieler said she’d balk at the Danish idea of increasing punishment for crimes committed in problem areas. But it’s not unreasonable for a country to deport foreign nationals who have committed serious offenses. Though it offends liberal sensibilities, it’s also reasonable for a receiving country to try to instill some unifying values in newcomers, especially children. Not doing that has led to the emergence of parallel societies in the vulnerable areas, in which it’s normal to collect funds to refurbish a school in Baghdad but local schools are left to the Swedish government to worry about.

Interestingly, some of the younger immigrants, who yearn to become Swedes, don’t mind adopting a new identity as much as the previous generations of immigrants have done.

Ahmed Abdirahman, a 32-year-old integration policy expert at the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce and the founder of a non-governmental organization called the Global Village, was born in Somalia and lives in Tensta. He believes the immigrant areas, with a much higher proportion of children and young people, “are producing the future of Sweden,” a country with a low fertility rate. So the civil society in these areas shouldn’t aim simply to maintain the culture of the old home country, as has often been the case.

“We are the next generation, and for us it’s about being Swedes: we want to be part of the political conversation,” Abdirahman says.

Even if the Sweden Democrats ever become part of the establishment and succeed in restricting immigration, Sweden is stuck with a large, segregated immigrant population that both its high achievers and its criminals won’t let the rest of the country ignore.

Sweden has lived for decades with a blissful sense that a wealthy, tolerant society can iron out all its kinks. Now, there’s a widespread sense that the country’s social and law enforcement infrastructure is overburdened because too many immigrants are coming in, and time is needed to assimilate the earlier arrivals. But time isn’t the best doctor here: Problems with previous generations of immigrants and their kids were swept under the rug for too long.

What’s needed now is clearer awareness of where the problems really are. The police and researchers affiliated with them lead the way here with their attempts to pinpoint and study the problem neighborhoods and the gangs that operate in them. Superintendent Akerlund firmly believes that in 10 to 15 years, there won’t be any vulnerable areas in his district. But he understands that dream can only become reality with constant effort and learning.

The rest of Swedish society should concentrate on the real problem, too: It’s not the recent refugee wave, it’s decades of complacency and half-hearted integration policies. For Sweden, proud of its world-leading social policies, that’s a bitter pill to swallow, but better late than never.

Source: Sweden’s Decades-Long Failure to Integrate

In Sweden, Populist Nationalists Won on Policy, but Lost on Politics

Geert Wilders had a similar effect on Dutch politics, shifting the consensus to the right and anti-immigration.
If Bernier succeeds in creating a new party, and if that party gains some support, it could have a similar effect but, IMO, much smaller effect given Canadian demographic and political realities:
Never mind the headlines: Sunday’s election in Sweden was a major setback for the far right. The populist-nationalist Sweden Democrats may have seen their percentage of the vote increase from 13 percent in 2014 to just shy of 18 percent this year, but they and many experts anticipated a much higher share; some even predicted that they would become the largest party in the country. Such an outcome would have been in keeping with their history of rapid growth, of more than doubling their previous tally in every election since 1998. Instead, they posted unexpectedly meager gains, which will do little to strengthen their influence in a deadlocked parliament where all other parties, center-right as well as left, refuse to negotiate with them.And yet, this conclusion is the result of what some may consider a troubling bargain. In past contests, the Sweden Democrats’ keystone political cause of reducing immigration had been used to stigmatize the party. This year, multiple parties —including the center-left Social Democrats and center-right Moderates—included calls for reduction in their platform.

The anti-immigration position was normalized even as it was neutralized.

At the center of this drama is an unusually complicated political party. When compared to other nationalist forces in Europe, the Sweden Democrats appear relatively moderate. They expel members who make explicitly racist or anti-Semitic statements, claim to reject ethno-nationalism, endorse a pathway toward full civic and cultural membership for Sweden’s minorities, have shown little love for global strongmen such as Russian President Vladimir Putin or President Donald Trump, and are headed by Jimmie Åkesson—a blushing mother-in-law’s dream with gentle mannerisms. But if style and policy place the Sweden Democrats on the softer side of global anti-immigrant movements, their history does not: They were born in 1988 from the merger of a tax-populist party and a white-nationalist organization.

Despite the Sweden Democrats’ internal reform campaigns aimed at repelling radicalism, most Swedes were horrified when the party first entered parliament in 2010 with 5.7 percent of the vote. In their eyes, homegrown neo-Nazis had marched into government, thrashing a global reputation of exceptional tolerance and progressivism in the process. For existing parties, dialogue with the newcomers was out of the question: It was acquiescence to extremism. Moral consensus and political logic seemed to dictate the repudiation of the Sweden Democrats and all they stood for, first and foremost their agenda to restrict immigration. Commitment to Sweden’s generous refugee policy became dogma.It was a righteous stand, perhaps, but also a short-sighted one. Sizable minorities of Swedes since the late 1990s have wanted reductions in the number of immigrants admitted to the country as well as more emphasis on assimilation rather than multiculturalism. Those sentiments had no outlet in establishment politics, creating an opportunity for the Sweden Democrats. Scandal after scandal—including those revealing that its lower ranks included racist ideologues and anti-Semites—could not stop the party’s growth so long as it held the monopoly on immigration skepticism. Whether motivated by economics, cultural concerns, or racism, voters seeking cuts in immigration had only one option. That remained true even after the Sweden Democrats climbed to a 12.9 percent share of the vote in 2014.

But an unprecedented shift in Swedish politics came the following year. War, poverty, and political strife across North Africa and the Middle East sparked a massive wave of immigration to Europe, and Sweden was one of the prime destinations. By the end of 2015, Sweden had received upwards of 160,000 asylum seekers, more per capita than any other country in Europe.

Prime Minister Stefan Löfven initially said there was theoretically no limit to the number of immigrants Sweden could embrace. But it soon became clear that a limit had in fact been reached. Sweden’s schools, hospitals, and law enforcement could not handle such numbers. In late November 2015, the center-left government, headed by the Social Democrats and the Green Party, initiated restrictions on refugee immigration. And the center-right Moderate Party, whose leader just a year before had called on Swedes to “open their hearts” and allow large-scale immigration to continue, called for closed borders.

It was a U-turn on Swedish politics’ definitive issue. (American readers looking for a comparison might imagine the Democratic Party ending Social Security, or Republicans annulling the Second Amendment.) And its implicit message was bitter for the political establishment. The Sweden Democrats had been right: Refugee migration was destabilizing the country.

Forced by circumstance, with great reluctance and occasional pain—the Green Party leader sobbed as she announced cuts to refugee migration during a press conference—Sweden’s politicians moved toward a new political consensus. The country’s largest parties, the Social Democrats and the Moderates, as well as the center-right Christian Democrats, adopted platforms calling for reduced immigration, and they carried those positions into elections this year.The parties differed on how much of a reduction they sought and how to achieve it. There was enough cross-party agreement, however, to make immigration a somewhat boring topic of debate in this year’s election. Immigration was just one subject among many, sharing space with youth unemployment, health care, and gender equality.

In a sense, then, the Sweden Democrats succeeded beyond their wildest dreams: Parties espousing restrictions to immigration received a combined three-quarters of the vote, and ideas once confined to the far right spread into the establishment. Yet if the Sweden Democrats won on policy, they lost their political cudgel. The far-right party will not have the opportunity to implement its long-desired reductions in immigration, or any other policy for that matter. Future border restrictions will be pursued by centrists, and in the eyes of many Swedes, this will mean more thoughtful and compassionate policy.

Source: In Sweden, Populist Nationalists Won on Policy, but Lost on Politics

Exclusive: Right-wing sites swamp Sweden with ‘junk news’ in tight election race

Possible factor contributing to the shift in Swedish politics (scheduled before results known):

One in three news articles shared online about the upcoming Swedish election come from websites publishing deliberately misleading information, most with a right-wing focus on immigration and Islam, Oxford University researchers say.

Their study, published on Thursday, points to widespread online disinformation in the final stages of a tightly-contested campaign which could mark a lurch to the right in one of Europe’s most prominent liberal democracies.

The authors, from the Oxford Internet Institute, labeled certain websites “junk news”, based on a range of detailed criteria. Reuters found the three most popular sites they identified have employed former members of the Sweden Democrats party; one has a former MP listed among its staff.

It was not clear whether the sharing of “junk news” had affected voting intentions in Sweden, but the study helps show the impact platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have on elections, and how domestic or foreign groups can use them to exacerbate sensitive social and political issues.

Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, whose center-left Social Democrats have dominated politics since 1914 but are now unlikely to secure a ruling majority, told Reuters the spread of false or distorted information online risked shaking “the foundations of democracy” if left unchecked.

The Institute, a department of Oxford University, analyzed 275,000 tweets about the Swedish election from a 10-day period in August. It counted articles shared from websites it identified as “junk news” sources, defined as outlets which “deliberately publish misleading, deceptive or incorrect information purporting to be real news”.

“Roughly speaking, for every two professional content articles shared, one junk news article was shared. Junk news therefore constituted a significant part of the conversation around the Swedish general election,” it said.

A Twitter spokesman declined to comment on the results of the study.

Facebook, where interactions between users are harder to track, said it was working with Swedish officials to help voters spot disinformation. It has also partnered with Viralgranskaren – an arm of Sweden’s Metro newspaper – to identify, demote and counterbalance “false news” on its site.

Joakim Wallerstein, head of communications for the Sweden Democrats, said he had no knowledge of or interest in the party sympathies of media outlets. Asked to comment on his party’s relationship with the sites identified by the study, he said he had been interviewed by one of them once.

“I think it is strange that a foreign institute is trying to label various news outlets in Sweden as ‘junk news’ and release such a report in connection to an election,” he said.

“DECEPTIVE TOOLS”

Swedish security officials say there is currently no evidence of a coordinated online attempt by foreign powers to sway the Sept. 9 vote, despite repeated government warnings about the threat.

But Mikael Tofvesson, head of the counter influence team at the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB), a government agency tasked with safeguarding the election, said the widespread sharing of false or distorted information makes countries more vulnerable to hostile influence operations.

“Incorrect and biased reporting promotes a harder, harsher tone in the debate, which makes it easier to throw in disinformation and other deceptive tools,” he said.

Lisa-Maria Neudert, a researcher from the Oxford Internet Institute’s Project on Computational Propaganda, said most of the “junk news” in Sweden supported right-wing policies, and was largely focused on issues around immigration and Islam.

The top three “junk news” sources identified by the study – right-wing websites Samhallsnytt, Nyheter Idag and Fria Tider – accounted for more than 85 percent of the “junk news” content.

Samhallsnytt received donations through the personal bank account of a Sweden Democrat member between 2011-2013 when it operated under the name Avpixlat. A former Sweden Democrat member of parliament, who also previously ran the party’s youth wing, is listed on the Samhallsnytt website as a columnist.

Samhallsnytt often publishes articles saying Sweden is under threat from Islam. In June, for example, it said a youth soccer tournament in the second-biggest city had banned pork as “haram” – or forbidden under Islamic law. The article is still online with the headline: “Islam is the new foundation of the Gothia Cup – pork proclaimed ‘haram’”.

A tournament organizer told the Dagens Nyheter newspaper that caterers had not served pork for more than 10 years for practical reasons, and there was no ban against eating or selling pork at the event.

Samhallsnytt and Fria Tider did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Commenting before the Oxford study was published, Nyheter Idag founder Chang Frick disputed the “junk news” label and said his website followed ethical journalistic practices, citing its membership of Sweden’s self-regulated Press Council body.

“Yes, we put our editorial perspective on news, of course, like everyone else,” he said. “If you are doing a tabloid you cannot have dry, boring headlines, it should have some punch to it. But we do not lie, we do not make false accusations.”

FACT CHECKERS AND BOTS

Social media companies have come under increasing pressure to tackle disinformation on their platforms following accusations that Russia and Iran tried to meddle in domestic politics in the United States, Europe and elsewhere. Moscow and Tehran deny the allegations.A report by the Swedish Defence Research Institute last week said the number of automated Twitter accounts discussing the upcoming election almost doubled in July from the previous month. Such so-called “bot” accounts shared articles from Samhallsnytt and Fria Tider more frequently than real people, the report said, and were 40 percent more likely to express support for the Sweden Democrats.

Facebook said its work with Viralgranskaren to fact check content on its sites helped it quickly identify “false news.”

The company declined to give specific figures about the amount or sources of false news it had recorded around the Swedish election, but said any flagged content is given a lower position on its site, a practice known as “downranking” which it says cuts views by 80 percent. Users who see disputed articles are also shown other sources of verified information, it said.

In a blog post on its website, Twitter says it “should not be the arbiter of truth”.

But the MSB’s counter influence team’s head Tofvesson said there had been a “positive increase” in the work of Facebook, Twitter and other social media companies to help safeguard the election, largely via better communication and coordination with local authorities.

Source: Right-wing sites swamp Sweden with “junk news” in tight election race