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Swedengate Was a Lesson in How Easily Misinformation Spreads

One person’s anecdote became a false lesson in national character.

Braw-Elisabeth-foreign-policy-columnist3
Elisabeth Braw
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
A Syrian refugee has coffee and cake in Sweden.
A Syrian refugee has coffee and cake in Sweden.
Mikhail Zuhir (center), a Syrian refugee who came to Sweden 10 months earlier, has coffee and cake after a dinner at Jenny Sigurs (right) and her husband, Urban Soederman’s, house at a suburb outside Stockholm on Oct. 28, 2014. Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images

There are a lot of Sweden-haters out there. Or rather, a lot of people with time on their hands and possibly a bit of help from people and groups wishing to harm Sweden. Within just a couple of days, a bizarre Reddit post about Swedes not feeding their guests dinner became an internet phenomenon—even though there’s no research backing it up. Other countries can learn lessons from the mysterious Swedengate and how easily misinformation can spread, even when there’s no malign actor behind it, just simple gullibility.

“What is the weirdest thing you had to do at someone else’s house because of their culture/religion?” a recent Reddit poster asked in May. Another user responded that “I remember going to my swedish friends house. And while we were playing in his room, his mom yelled that dinner was ready. And check this. He told me to WAIT in his room while they ate. That shit was fucking wild.” In no time, the comment was going viral on Reddit, then on Twitter, then on Instagram. People begin writing in with comments about how weird and inhospitable Swedes are. One Instagram post added a map that illustrated how stingy Northern Europeans are, with Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and parts of northern Germany marked a frightening dark red.

“Swedengate” quickly became a topic and migrated to traditional media, with newspapers eagerly reporting on this previously unknown aspect of Swedish culture. “A Swedish child sits at a dinner table while his friend and the friend’s parents dine on meatballs, mashed potatoes and lingonberry sauce. The delicious aroma wafts below the child’s nose, but there is no plate for him,” the New York Times reported. “This setting, while quite normal in Sweden and other Nordic countries, has horrified people around the world, shocked to learn that some Swedish families do not invite their children’s visiting friends to eat with them at mealtime.”

There are a lot of Sweden-haters out there. Or rather, a lot of people with time on their hands and possibly a bit of help from people and groups wishing to harm Sweden. Within just a couple of days, a bizarre Reddit post about Swedes not feeding their guests dinner became an internet phenomenon—even though there’s no research backing it up. Other countries can learn lessons from the mysterious Swedengate and how easily misinformation can spread, even when there’s no malign actor behind it, just simple gullibility.

“What is the weirdest thing you had to do at someone else’s house because of their culture/religion?” a recent Reddit poster asked in May. Another user responded that “I remember going to my swedish friends house. And while we were playing in his room, his mom yelled that dinner was ready. And check this. He told me to WAIT in his room while they ate. That shit was fucking wild.” In no time, the comment was going viral on Reddit, then on Twitter, then on Instagram. People begin writing in with comments about how weird and inhospitable Swedes are. One Instagram post added a map that illustrated how stingy Northern Europeans are, with Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and parts of northern Germany marked a frightening dark red.

“Swedengate” quickly became a topic and migrated to traditional media, with newspapers eagerly reporting on this previously unknown aspect of Swedish culture. “A Swedish child sits at a dinner table while his friend and the friend’s parents dine on meatballs, mashed potatoes and lingonberry sauce. The delicious aroma wafts below the child’s nose, but there is no plate for him,” the New York Times reported. “This setting, while quite normal in Sweden and other Nordic countries, has horrified people around the world, shocked to learn that some Swedish families do not invite their children’s visiting friends to eat with them at mealtime.”

The case provided opportunities for op-ed contributions too. In Britain’s the Independent, a Swede named Linda Johansson, who is neither a reporter nor a sociologist but runs an Etsy shop, weighed in to say: “I’m Swedish—it’s true that we don’t serve food to guests. What’s the problem?” She presented no data documenting this alleged habit.

Unfortunately, the New York Times forgot to investigate whether the social media posters’ allegations were in fact true, instead relying on unconfirmed information, such as a tweet by pop star Zara Larsson. (The piece’s reporter is a general assignment reporter based in New York City and has no Sweden expertise.). There are, in fact, no studies that show that Swedes fail to feed guests dinner more frequently than any other people.

Although lots of social media posters claimed to have experienced being left out of dinner, countless Swedes were baffled at the allegations. (As ought to be well known by now, just because an allegation exists on social media doesn’t mean it has to be true.) Like other Swedes, I have never not been fed when visiting friends or acquaintances. And without scientific documentation of the practice, concluding from various social media allegations that a failure to feed guests is a national habit is as credible as, say, arguing that former U.S. President Donald Trump won the 2020 election because somebody said so on YouTube.

Many Swedes tried to take the baffling campaign on the chin. “I enjoyed the thread in r/AskBalkans where Greeks and Bulgarians and Turks put their genocidal dreams aside to conclude that Swedes are damn weird,” one Reddit user said. Another reported that “tonight we had the neighbor’s five-year-old here, who had dinner with us after having played with my five-year-old. Now I understand that it was a mistake. Next time he’ll have to stay in my child’s room.” Another asked: “Is [Russian President Vladimir] Putin going to use this as a pretense for an invasion? ‘Everything started with the buddy who wasn’t given dinner…’”

Then the odd food post took a darker turn, as social media accounts seemingly belonging to real people began complaining that Swedes don’t just fail to feed their guests but are racist too. That was when some analysts started to worry. Sweden had, after all, just begun the process of joining NATO, frustrating a country with a history of turning domestic tensions into information warfare fodder—or of inventing them entirely.

“A seemingly innocuous thread on Reddit rapidly going viral and turning into a campaign of hatred and threats, with Sweden being called racist,” summarized Anton Lif, a Swedish communications consultant who specializes in disinformation and misinformation. “This can be a part of the general public discourse, and it can be entertaining to some, but a hostile group or country can also take advantage [of] a viral phenomenon. And this type of media phenomenon can benefit different actors.” Sweden’s new Psychological Defence Agency examined the case and determined that the campaign had not been instigated by a hostile state. (The agency only has responsibility for countering foreign malign influence campaigns.)

Swedengate is only the latest example of defamation campaigns targeting Sweden. The Reddit post may have begun as innocuous fun, but it was quickly taken over by people who had no compunction about spreading rumors and inflating them by adding new unverified information and outright falsehoods. Strategists in Moscow, Beijing, and beyond could sit back and let social media users’ stupidity and laziness do their work for them. As I highlighted in a recent piece for Foreign Policy, Sweden was targeted by a disinformation campaign alleging that Swedish social services kidnap Muslim children. Like Swedengate, it did considerable damage to the country’s reputation—and like Swedengate, it presented no evidence to back up the allegations. “Even if Swedengate is not instigated or coordinated by a hostile country, Sweden’s image could take a hit,” Lif noted.

But even if it was more likely to be the result of random nonsense than targeted vitriol, Swedengate should prompt some self-examination among those who shared the content. One of the first viral spreaders of the original post turned out to be a repeat sharer of propaganda and general junk. Although Beijing or Moscow likely does not pay the poster, he or she is certainly not a reliable source of information. (In the allegations of Swedish social service kidnappings, the original spreader was found by the Psychological Defence Agency to be linked to the Islamic State.) As for the map that documented Northern Europe’s lack of hospitality, the poster sheepishly admitted, “I do admit the research that was done wasn’t extremely professional and that the meaning of the colors may have been exaggerated to the point it almost looks like as if northerners never give food which is of course not always true.”

Although the people posting various complaints about Sweden clearly have the right to do so, Swedengate is a sorry tale of the damage that unverified allegations can cause. Which country, organization, or person will be targeted next? It could be any country, any organization, any person. Think and verify. Odd tales are not just innocuous fun.

Elisabeth Braw is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and gray-zone threats. She is also a member of the U.K. National Preparedness Commission. Twitter: @elisabethbraw

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