It was born of the dark web amongst the Swedish radical right – a meme naming the tiny city of Finspång, in the province of Ostrogothia, as the place where in the fictional future ‘national traitors’ would be executed in large sways once fascists took power. Images have circulated of people hanged on street-lamps and cranes, together with the slogan ‘See you in Finspång’. The largest impact occurred when a group picture of the entire leadership of feminist party Feministiskt Initiativ (FI) was portrayed with the slogan ‘We’re going to Finspång’.
Difficult to trace as the meme was born digitally, it has circulated online since the summer of 2017, surfacing again just before the Swedish annual political get-away week, Almedalsveckan, in 2018 (which convenes the Swedish haute couture of politics, journalism and lobbyism at the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea every first week of July). Cloaking their support for the meme as satire and “simply a joke”, Swedish politicians and influencers on the right have now been caught up in a debate on whether it is acceptable or not to show support for the extrajudicial killing of political antagonists by spreading the meme and its sub-themes (whether consciously or unconsciously). This gristly episode demonstrates not only how successful hyper-medial meaning-making can be when created in the virtual milieu of the European radical right – including the speed of its dissemination, virality and instant evolution – but also how easily the tone of political debate can be manipulated (Madisson 2016). It is possible to observe here how the mainstream is shifted toward extreme positions; in this case, where lethal violence is normalized as a means of political change.
Over recent years, memes have emerged as short-hand tools for political communication online, as emblematic representations of words and images. Like pic-badges or QR-codes, memes do not immediately reveal their sender nor the message clearly. Rather, memes – such as the well-known alt-right icon, Pepe the frog – cloak a host of diffuse ideological positions held by the radical right that are at the core of societal discourse, often encapsulating contentious issues such as migration, integration and discontent with political elites. It is easy to imagine that memes like the Finspång execution are developed as black ops propaganda in Russian troll factories, with the aim to sow discontent within European electorates – particularly when close to important and decisive elections and referenda – with the ultimate goal to undermine liberal democracy. This would explain why the Finspång meme has been circulated in the final spurt ahead of the Swedish national elections this coming September. It is expected that the radical right party Sverigedemokraterna (SD; Swedish Democrats) again will double its electoral results, even possibly emerging as the largest or second-largest party; a nightmare scenario for a country that imagines itself being exceptional in its anti-racism and progressive values, as is steadily placed in the upper right corner of the World Value Survey.
Yet the SD’s success should come as little surprise. The Swedish radical right has perfectly understood the rules of the game, notably the impact of divisive sign language, in the age of the consumption of what Baudrillard termed medial simulacra. One of the most pressing questions ahead of the Swedish elections is whether any of the conventional parties will form a government with SD, or at least an alliance in exchange for more political power for the party of Neo-Nazi origins. The Swedish conservatives, Moderaterna (M), declare that nothing like this will ever occur, but many party officials at the local and regional level are open with collaboration with the radical right SD – and increasingly adopt positions that are in line with SD politics. Moreover, the Swedish radical right is now diffused across three parties, SD, Medborgerlig Samling (MED; Citizens’ Coalition) and Alternativ för Sverige (AfS; Alternative for Sweden). Although MED and AfS are unlikely to pass the electoral threshold of 4% in the national election, their increasing visibility and right-wing extremism (together with the activism of the terrorist organization NMR, Nordiska Motståndsrörelsen, the ‘Nordic Resistance Movement’, alongside a vanguard of bloggers and influencers) only serves to boost the SD’s image of credibility. This tendency is exacerbated by the collapse of the traditional parties in areas of core political concern for the extremely polarized Swedish electorate, particularly migration, integration and cultural identity. Indeed, recent studies have shown that Swedish news consumption as steadily moved toward alternative media on the right-wing fringes of the internet.
It is against this shifting background that the significance of the Finspång meme should be analyzed. In 2017, an ex-member of SD created an internet platform for the Swedish ‘alt-right’, www.altnorden.se. The launch of the website demonstrates not only the liquid permeability between different expressions of the Swedish radical right, but also their shared ideological positions. Among several newsworthy items, www.altnorden.se gathers ‘meme dumps’, assembled by a person calling himself Carl af Finspång, who, “having earlier lived in Finspång, is the designer of altnorden.se”. On a page title “Memdump 14.0” is a meme about two persons dressed in gas-masks and protective gear entering a perfectly green, blue and white world through a door. They read on a signboard: “Finsprång – a white reservation. After the trials in 2022, Finspång turned into a reservation for white Swedes in order to protect their biological exceptionalism. The rest of multi-cultural Sweden was left to its own destiny.” One of the characters then says: “It is so clean here” – and Finspång is tagged with the words “Vitt är fritt”, (“White is free”). In this image, the rest of Sweden (portrayed as collapsing and polluted big cities) is locked up behind a massive grey-brownish wall, under a dome of dirt and dust, suffocating its inhabitants. What the meme thus clearly refers to is the idea that in the near future treason trials will take place in Finspång. These courts, held against the traitors of the people, will “give hope that those who have sold out Sweden to alien people will get their punishment in a future tribunal and held into account for what they have done to the Swedish people”. We furthermore learn that, after the trials in Finspång, many street-lamps along the motorway were turned into sites of memory – where those sentenced were hanged for general inspection and as a deterrent. One of the creators of the meme, Daniel Friberg – a leading alt-right financier and CEO of the radical right publishing house Arktos Media – has called the execution fantasy “a satire about the Nürnberg-trials”, and Finspång a symbolical place of revenge (Expo, 2018).
This tasteless execution fantasy might have remained a perverted alt-right product, if other actors of the Swedish radical right (presumably with much greater credibility) had not picked up the meme from the fringes and moved it toward mainstream consumption. This happened at the latest when Erik van der Heeg, one of the masterminds behind the right-wing alternative news site www.ledarsidorna.se (which reaches out to no less than 8% of the Swedish news readership) was caught sharing the meme on his personal Facebook-page, alongside with the words “God bless Finspång” and the image of a street-lamp. He received a large number of likes from his followers when he posted a meme about the Fi-leadership being executed in Finspång. The episode throws a dark shadow on the radical right news platform www.ledarsidorna.se, the funding and editorial status of which remains obscure, to say the least.
Revealingly, Ann Heberlein (married to van der Heeg), a controversial radical right candidate for the party Moderaterna, uses www.ledarsidorna.se as a platform for her personal campaign ahead of the national elections. As a former senior lecturer in ethics as well as a popular speaker and writer on abuse of women, she has recently converted into a virulent anti-Muslim and anti-Roma hardliner, who now apparently believes that sexual violence is programmed culturally. Like others on Sweden’s radical right, she has defended her husband with the explanation that the Finspång-meme is only a joke (and that people sharing it unaware of its origin). Interviewed by the radical right news outlet Nyheter Idag, Heberlein as usual, blamed other people for their “hysteria”, claiming: “I think this has gone beyond all limits. This is a joke, not Nazi propaganda. Do you know what the largest problem of the left is? It is its complete lack of humor. The left lacks humor, fantasy, creativity and is totally irrational – and all these things belong together, since an intelligent human understands humor” (Nyheter Idag, 2018).
But as Sofia Nerbrand, a columnist for the liberal newspaper Dagens Nyheter, puts it: “words can lead to murder” (“ord kan leda till mord”). She knows by personal experience, for the terrorists of NMR have threatened to take her life; and moreover, that such fantasies cannot be dismissed as mere fun (Dagens Nyheter, 2018). Due to her weak understanding of the seriousness of the issue, Heberlein was disinvited from a discussion of her new book on rape and culture at Almedalsveckan by the political editor of the conservative newspaper Svenska Dagbladet, Tove Lifvendal. The latter stated: “[Heberlein] has publicly expressed a trivializing attitude towards propaganda which not is compatible with our core values […] we do not find that this is an acceptable level of the debate […] We have no duty to open up our arenas […] to those who are of the opinion that this just represents harmless humor.” (Svenska Dagbladet, 2018). The left-wing newspaper ETCasked whether the Heberlein-episode is representative of humor in the conservative party, which constantly demands the political debate to assume a more mature tone: “[Or is the leadership] perhaps to occupied with to find creative ways of convincing SD to support a center-right government?” (ETC, 2018).
As a consequence (and in a typical reaction by the radical right in Sweden), Heberlein asserted that her freedom of speech is under threat, rather than reflecting upon her and her followers’ naked advocacy of murder fantasies. Björn Wiman, also of the liberal newspaper Dagens Nyheter, noted in connection with the recent assassination of Capital Gazettejournalists in Annapolis, Maryland, that “institutions of democracy are weakened once hate and rage are sanctioned from supreme positions” (Dagens Nyheter, 2018). All the radical right talk about ‘Lügenpresse’ (the lying press) and portraying the media as enemies of the people opens the gates towards lethal hate, Wiman argues. Reinforcing this point, only a day before the shooting in Annapolis, the radical right provocateur Milo Yannopolis expressed his hopes that militias soon would shoot journalists, later defending his words with that they only were meant as a joke. Yet as the deaths of 5 American journalists at the end of June 2018 shows, there is a risk that so-called humor, systematically abused for political purposes and as a cloak for a rhetoric of hate, all too often melts down the last moral barriers of the democratic discourse.
Dr. Andreas Önnerfors is a Senior Fellow at CARR, and Associate Professor in History of Ideas at the University of Gothenburg. Andreas would like to thank Leif Jansson and Tobias Hübinette for discussion of this issue. See his profile here.
© Andreas Önnerfors. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors’ and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).
Mari-Liis Madisson, The Semiotic Construction of Identities in Hypermedia Environments: The Analysis of Online Communication of the Estonian Extreme Right (Tartu, 2016)
Expo, 21 June 2018, ”Så sprids nazisternas mordfantasier”
Dagens Nyheter, 28 June 2018, ”Mordhot är inget roligt skämt”
Svenska Dagbladet, 28 June 2018, ”Kommentar om Ann Heberleins inställda medverkan”
Nyheter Idag, 28 June 2018: ”Efter Expos nazistdrev – Ann Heberlein funderar på att dra sig undan offentligheten”
Dagens Nyheter, 29 June 2018, ”Tro inte på dem som säger att de bara ’skämtar’ ”
ETC, 30 June 2018, ”Humorn är speciell i högerns ytterkant”