The last week or so, the big news in my country has been the reporting in daily tabloid Expressen of the result of the independent Research Group's unmasking of the most active and organized online "net-haters" on various racist or semi-racist or "nationalist" internet fora – a phenomenon I discussed from a moral psychological point of view in a former post. The messages of the haters convey a rich collection of completely unrestrained, inconsiderate or even mildly civil language, open blatant racism, many statements about the need for using fire arms as a reaction to current Swedish immigration policy. And, of course, countless attacks of a similar sort on people who openly question their views or those of our own little new-racist party, the Sweden Democrats (for my take on the European new-racist political movement se the series of posts linked to here), inciting to violence and, in the case of a 16-year old girl who dared express opposition, organized rape. All under the prescious protection of a perceived online anonymity.
English coverage of this news is here and here. The Swedish reports of Expressen are here, here and here (with many further links to comments, particular analyses, debate and so on) and further comments can be found here, here and here, just to mention an extreme few of a lot of domestic news reporting. The analyses from the Research Group itself can be accessed via their webpage "Avkodat", i.e. Decoded. The unmasking itself was apparently done without any sort of illegal hacking, it is reported. Rather, the Research Group used modern, smart approaches to effectively assemble and analyze publicly available information, albeit apparently some of this information was public due to a security flaw of the Disqus online community service. I'm unsure, however, of how significant that particular aspect was in facilitating the unmasking.
The exposure of the identity of the net-haters first demonstrated a number of elected or otherwise public representatives of the Sweden Democrats, most of which immediately resigned or were forced out in accordance with the zero tolerance for racism policy that was proclaimed by the party's central leadership some years back and has resulted in the resignation or disappearance from public view of a great many people at all levels of the party. Further analysis has revealed that these and a rather small number of other people have been extremely active in various online debate fora in a way that can only be described as a consciously coordinated campaign, going on since many years, to the effect of creating the false impression of a change of public attitudes to immigration, etc. and to consistently and repeatedly terrorize and scare people who hold other views to keep them from voicing them publicly. Thus creating the false impression of the new-racist agenda as being in fashion, more widely accepted, and so on. In effect, the alleged "silent majority" that these sort of people love to hold themselves out as speaking for has turned out to be a cowardly and not even minimally civil or morally decent extremely small minority of loudmouthed extremists, lacking any sort of support among ordinary people and when exposed conveying loving character traits such as blaming their own children to have hijacked their computers. This, to me, is the most important result of the unmasking done by the Research Group and Expressen – this whole sense of a "nationalist", "racist" ideological wind having gotten hold of large portions of the population does not hold up to scrutiny. It's a marketing lie created by a very, very minor group of very unusual and extreme people under cover of supposed anonymity, but as all trolls exposed to the sun, when brought up in the daylight from their murky, foul dwellings, they burst just as well as that empty balloon of the image of public opinion they have been trying to create.
Now, Expressen choose to expose not only people holding public or political office, but also some of the other most active of the haters without any such formal ties to any party or organization. This created a small burst of criticism on press-ethical grounds. It's one thing, the argument went (expressed for instance by Ulf Bjereld, a professor of political science at my university) to expose public figures in this way, that's like catching officials taking bribes, or criticising political representatives for furthering a double agenda. But to expose "ordinary persons" who are not formally representing a political party or holding a public office is more problematic. The editor in chief of Expressen, Thomas Mattsson, has replied in a way making it obvious that he is aware of the press-ethical problem as such, but has made another judgement than Bjereld.
In this debate, in spite of being generally rather critical of what I see as an often much too eager willingness of the press to identify individuals, I side with Mattsson. Bjereld's argument rests solely on the assumption that being a public figure has to be defined in rigid, formalistic terms such as being an elected politician. I rather hold that the relevant questions are, first, if the person is a public figure and, second, to what extent the dissemination of the information is in the public interest. These two criteria together, due to the circumstances described earlier mean: (a) that the most active of the net-haters have, by their own conscious actions and fully aware of acting in the public domain, made themselves into public figures (these are not your average Joe shooting of an ill-considered comment in a forum or discussion thread now and then), (b) the result of the totality of their coordinated (I'm not saying planned, I don't assume a conspiracy here) actions are of the utmost importance from a public perspective by creating widespread false impressions influencing democratic and public discourse. Observe, also, that Expressen's exposure in no way curtails these people's freedom of speech or opinion or expression or somehow punishes or condemns them or in any other way undermines what may be seen as democratically important values. It simply reports about an issue of large national and principal democratic importance, in which said people have by their own free actions chosen to implicate themselves. Now, what this means is, of course, that I also agree with Bjereld that there is a limit to what level of identification of those active under anonymity in these fora would be press-ethically justified. But just as in the case of other publication decisions, the determination of that boundary is not done by assuming an arbitrarily chosen rigid formalist criterion of the sort suggested by Bjereld.