Headline September 18, 2019/ '' 'SWEDISH VIRAL MOMENTS' ''


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.

Mr. 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.''

FROM MARGINS TO MAINSTREAM : Mattias Karlsson, Sweden Democrats international secretary and chief ideologue, likes to tell the story how -

He became a soldier in what he has described as the ''existential battle for our culture's and our national survival.''

It was the mid-1990s and Mr. Karisson, now 41, was attending high school in the Swedish 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 gangs, radicalizing Mr. Karlsson and drawing him toward the skinhead scene.

In 1999, Mr. Karlsson joined the Sweden Democrats, a party 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 marginalized to mainstream so remarkable.

While attending university, Mr. Karisson had met Jimmie Akesson, who took over the Democrats' youth party in 2000 and became party leader in 2005.

Mr. 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 Mr. Karlsson agreed, they needed to remake the party's image.

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

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

High-ranking party officials have bounced between Sweden and Hungary, governed by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, an authoritarian nationalist. Mr. Karlsson 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.

Still, even detractors admit that strategy has worked. In 2010, Sweden Democrats captured 5.7 percent of the vote, enough for the party, and Mr. Karlsson, to enter Parliament for the first time.

That share has steadily increased along with the growing population of refugees. [Today, roughly 20 percent of Sweden's population is foreign born.]

A RIGHT-WING ECHO CHAMBER : As the 2018 elections approached, Swedish counterintelligence was on high alert for foreign interference. Russia was seen as the main threat. After the Kremlin's meddling in the 2016 American election, Sweden had reason to fear that it could be next.

''Russia's goal to weaken the Western countries by polarizing the debate,'' said Daniel Stenling, the Swedish Services 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 releasing of internal campaign documents, as in the United States. Nor was there an 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.

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 hand in all this is largely hidden from view. But fingerprints abound.   

The Honor and Serving of the latest Global Operational Research on State of the World and nonstate actors, continues.

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