ITL #325 Sweden: where polarisation is the new normal1 year, 10 months ago
A longstanding consensus culture has been replaced by people taking sides. What opportunities does the polarised discourse offer brands? By Deeped Niclas Strandh.
Sweden has suffered a severe polarisation of the public discourse. There are now only two standpoints: right or wrong. The classic right-left scale, or the newer Gal-Tan matrix, affects viewpoints more than the actual matter of fact. Community is defined by collective distance from those who hold opposing views.
This affects the political discussion, but it also affects brands. Progressive PR work needs to understand and be able to navigate through a fragmented and polarised media landscape.
This development is not particularly surprising as you can see the same things happening across the western world. But when it comes to Sweden, it perhaps hits a little harder.
Swedish politics and social debate have historically been based on reaching a kind of consensus in the end. There has been a fairly stable political landscape, with two big blocks and established rules for discussion. The pursuit of consensus has also fostered a culture in which people have been happy to avoid heated discussions and clashing views in their everyday lives.
Up until the 21st century, Sweden in many ways had a consensus culture, both in a public and private context. The so-called Jante Law – that dictates that, as an individual, one shouldn’t boast – has in many ways vaccinated society from polarisation. The traditional Swedish approach in a discussion has been that experts and politicians probably know best, and that we should just agree to disagree on some issues.
Weakening of consensus culture
All this has changed. Today we see many more people explicitly taking a political stand and choosing sides. Discussion, across the same battle lines, is constant. In the past, people rarely shared their political affiliations. Today it’s common to share it on social media. And this doesn’t just apply to traditional political issues.
How could this change happen? We can see a number of fundamental points where the Swedish consensus culture was challenged and lost its hegemony.
- Sweden is very secular country, with a strong democratic state, and liberal society based on knowledge and information. Education has been viewed as something valuable. In the social democratic people’s home (“folkhemmet”), the class journey, i.e. getting a better job than your parents, has been an important element. Schooling and education have been highly valued and a given. Religion has been private. Knowledge has always been more important than faith, and facts stronger than opinions. This has created an elite in the form of academics and experts, who have often been connected to public society. Today expertise is perceived as something you can choose to believe or not to believe in. Facts are an opinion among many others. The authority of experts is questioned, and what feels right trumps what is “politically correct”. A single opposing opinion is put forth as evidence against the viewpoint of experts and the majority. There is a repudiation of the elite and statistics are brandished as weapons instead of being used as a basis for consensus. It contributes to exclusion and an “us and them” mindset.
- Sweden and the Swedes have always been quick to adopt new technology. As a country with a history of innovation, new digital technology has quickly won a place in a majority of the population’s pockets, bringing with it access to new channels for information and communication. In Sweden, people are online and mobile. Use of the Internet, and not least Facebook and YouTube is very large – over 70% of those who are online use the platforms. Twitter has become a political platform for the polarised debate. With a high degree of fake news, bots and organised troll accounts also in Sweden, from both left and right. The development has entailed access to opinions, and various movements are born quickly and fuel the fire of polarisation. The speed of social media rewards emotional news that can be decoded quickly based on strong polarised beliefs. Unlike before, when editors chose what could be read, Facebook has become one of the most important news sources for a large part of the population. And with it, an opportunity to aggregate a viral spread that challenges traditional media and the public debate.
- The web, and not least social media, have fragmented a once stable media landscape. Previously there were two national morning newspapers, two national evening newspapers, and a large number of local newspapers which delivered the news, plus a strongly regulated public service offering for both radio and TV. They set the agenda. The web’s progress in the 1990s quickly eroded that order and competition changed. Social media subsequently came to fundamentally alter the Swedish media landscape. Today we see a shift where the privately-owned media houses are consolidating to meet lower demand, building paywall-systems and trying to find their place in the new media landscape. The local media houses are merging, newspapers are folding. Opinion journalists are becoming stars at the expense of news journalists, which contributes to the polarisation of public conversation. At the same time, new forms of journalism, or rather opinion forming, are developing, based on donations (like Patreon). With no-cost publication and ease of sharing, and with significantly lower overhead costs than traditional media, these opinion-makers can quickly achieve broad reach. Since they are usually focused on opinions rather than on thorough investigative journalism, they become strong competitors in the race to present a worldview to the Swedish people.
- The personalisation of both the media and of the political debate has created a movement wherein both opinion-makers and celebrities are choosing to become politicians, or at least to take a political stand. They often have strong social media accounts and become megaphones in the noisy discussion climate. For their part, influencers are becoming important media placements for political parties who wish to reach young voters. Party leaders try on makeup, make meatballs and clean to be perceived as more personal. Important issues do not get a lot of airtime, but the person who seems nicest gets a lot of visibility. One of Sweden’s biggest influencers chose to lend their Instagram account to a party leader a few weeks before the last national election. At the same time, we have a number of individual politicians who have managed to build personal accounts bigger than their mother parties’, thereby becoming a kind of political influencer for their followers.
This is what we see as the four most important explanations why polarisation is the new normal in Sweden. The development may seem frightening, and many analysts see big risks with a tendency like this in a small country like Sweden.
In the midst of this development, there are also a lot of brands that are meant to be present on the same platforms, to create visibility and to safeguard their business. That which used to be structured and easy to plan, is today a difficult-to-grasp and fragmented marketing landscape. Many brands see the public discussion as so risky that they retreat from it completely to only focus on activation and traditional sales messages.
But in the middle of this, brands have an opportunity to become someone worth listening to, someone who chooses to take a stand, but also maintains a measured tone. The polarisation creates demand for something else: credibility, security, and something to believe in.
We see four important strategic standpoints for brands in a polarised discourse.
- Dare to take a stand, but stay true to your brand’s core values.
- Prepare for the discussion and see it as an opportunity.
- Be relevant and engage those who like you.
- Work with an omnichannel PR strategy.
We believe that it’s possible to do progressive and effective PR work even in a polarised discourse. Together with our clients, we can create effective, credible, and trustworthy marketing communications if we do it right.
Deeped Niclas Strandh is digital planner at JMWGolin and has been a planner since 2005. He focuses on digital communication and social media, with experience extending from major international companies, across municipalities and government agencies to public companies and startups. Deeped’s background is in behavioral science and theology, and almost 15 years ago finished as a priest in the church of Sweden. JMWGolin is part of the international Golin network, representing the Golin brand in the Nordic market.
Deeped Niclas Strandh is digital planner at JMWGolin and has been a planner since 2005. He focuses on digital communication and social media, with experience extending from major international companies, across municipalities and government agencies to public companies and startups. Deeped’s background is in behavioral science and theology, and almost 15 years ago finished as a priest in the church of Sweden. JMWGolin is part of the international Golin network, representing the Golin brand in the Nordic market.mail the author
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