Meet the man who caused the resignation of thirty racist Swedish politicians.
Among politically-invested journalists like myself, there’s this almost secret, but commonly-held belief that the best journalists don’t come from journalism school; they come from activist movements. This is because the best stories don’t emanate from a perfect understanding of journalistic standards, AP Style, interview techniques, or source critique – these are things anyone can learn. The real skill comes from a deep curiosity about and investment in how the world works beyond the motivation that comes with a paycheck.
This is a controversial idea, of course, not least because the right wing so often characterizes “all media” as “leftist”. But even though I hold most journalistic principles in a very high regard, I think it is naïve to maintain that journalism is ever completely unbiased. An honest journalist is open about their values and holds them up for scrutiny, instead of claiming complete non-partisanship.
One journalism initiative that perfectly captures this ethic is the Swedish collective Researchgruppen (“The Research Group”). Coming from a radical left background and moving between the fields of journalism and political activism, the group has during the past years made quite the name for itself not only in Sweden but also abroad, as evidenced by Adrian Chen’s excellent feature last December. Only in the past year, the group has made thirty racist politicians resign and forced the commenting platform Disqus to reform their e-mail verification system.
Mathias Wåg, a founding member of the Research Group with years of both antifascist organizing and data-driven journalism behind him, embodies the dual nature of the group perfectly. Wåg has for more than two decades been one of the driving forces of the Swedish autonomous left and continues to occupy this role, while simultaneously making a name for himself as a journalist. In Sweden, investigating the neo-Nazi movement is no joke, as the far right has since the 1980s stabbed and shot several political opponents and critics, often with lethal consequences. Wåg himself has for years lived under a protected identity, which means that most of his personal information is a secret even to the majority of state officials.
I first came into contact with Mathias Wåg some eight years ago when I was visiting Stockholm to learn about the local squatting movement. Squatting was going through a resurgence in Northern Europe at the time, following the 2007 eviction of Ungdomshuset (“The Youth House”), an influential anarchist social center in Copenhagen since the early 80s. Many of us who were interested in the regeneration of squatting built cross-border friendships and alliances that last to this day by visiting each other’s social centers and squats. This was the situation under which Wåg and I first met.
But we had another thing in common. Around the same time, my own home country Finland saw the sudden rise of new far right movements – from organized neo-Nazi thugs to the suit-and-tie parliamentary racists of the so-called Finns Party. After the attacks by far right terrorist Anders Behring Breivik, which claimed 77 lives in Oslo at the summer camp of the Norwegian Social Democratic party in July 2011, I started investigating the organizing principles and ideological roots of some of these groups together with two friends. At this time, Mathias Wåg was frequently at the top of my chat windows, as he was constantly helping us on the international context of the groups we were investigating.
What we learned from Wåg as well as other researchers abroad would have been hard to learn on our own. The Research Group has created its own clever approach to journalism, co-operating on large-scale investigations and selling them to the mainstream press. In their biggest data scoop so far, they used a technical flaw in the commenting platform Disqus to retrieve almost 3 million comments from 55,000 users of the racist websites Fria Tider and Avpixlat. Together with the tabloid newspaper Expressen, the Research Group connected much of this data to reveal offline identities of thousands of people, many of them elected officials.
This research sent reverbations throughout the Swedish far right. To this day, thirty members of the major far right party Sweden Democrats have resigned over stories connected to data retrieved from Disqus. Recently, Expressen also began targeting judges and jurors who have written racists comments while participating in decision-making on immigration issues. Some of the latest research by the Research Group has also included a data dump of users of Flashback, a Swedish forum which in size and spirit could be compared to bigot nest 4chan.
Wåg and other members of the group came up in the militant anti-fascist movement, which has given them unique insight into the subject matter of their work. This has not gone unnoticed by the Research Group’s critics, however, and has sparked quite a lot of controversy. Their critics have pointed out that one – now former – member was convicted of beating up fascists fifteen years ago, while others lament the privacy concerns that come with the huge databases the group has created.
But these are not facts the Research Group tries to hide or debates they shun. To the disgruntlement of their critics, the group has received a lot of praise and was awarded the biggest Swedish award for investigative journalism last year for their investigation on Avpixlat and Fria Tider.
The Research Group does so much more than merely exposing racist morons on the internet. Wåg himself is often one of the first people to produce comprehensive and lucid analyses of new tendencies within the European far right. Over the years, Wåg has covered everything from the German and French ‘identitarian movements’ and the islamophobic Counterjihadist movement to CasaPound in Italy and the Russian New Right of Alexander Dugin, which seems to have gained a foothold in Kremlin.
This combination of a genuine curiosity for the ideology and tactics of their political adversaries as well as a very strong knowledge of new data-driven methods has given the Research Group a powerful if often questioned platform. As I, too, often find myself straddling the worlds of activism or politics and journalism, I’ve long been curious about how the Research Group navigates the issues that come with it. I decided to query Wåg about the ethics and practices guiding their work.
How would you describe your political upbringing and how did it lead you to where you are today?
My background is in the environmental movement, but in the late 80s I became active in the autonomous movement. I worked on several media and communications projects, like the anarchist publication Brand (founded in 1898!) and radical left platform Motkraft (founded in 1997). I was active in Antifascistisk aktion (Antifascist Action) for several years, a research group that mapped the extreme right in Sweden. In 2000, I studied journalism and since then I’ve combined activism, working in healthcare, and freelancing as a journalist. The last few years I’ve tried to sustain myself on writing alone.
How and why did you make the transition from activism to journalism? To what extent do you think they should or can be separated? What remains of the same ethos?
The texts I wrote as an activist always emanated from a political project and aspired to articulate collective experiences and conversations. In such cases the goal was never “objective” or “neutral” journalism. But I’m also not interested in writing political propaganda. Political analysis and documentation should be an accessible tool in political organizing, and should therefore be self-critical and source-critical, distinguishing it it from propaganda, which resembles advertisements in that they are trying to sell something. The texts I’ve written have been for and by a movement rather than for some vague, external target group.
When I started studying journalism I had to learn another way of writing, to write texts from an outsider’s perspective rather than an insider’s. I have always appreciated Hemingway’s fundamental rule for writing – “show, don’t tell” – and found it equally useful for political writing. The strength of journalism is the imperative to include several perspectives to provide a holistic overview. Activist journalism has a different goal, in that those who are doing something are also supposed to communicate why they are doing it, what their motivations are. Every journalistic text is an interpretation, while activist texts come straight from the source. My writing moves between these two worlds, depending on who I’m writing for. I’ve utilized the journalistic methods when I’m investigating others, while I’ve used activist journalism and media activism when writing about things I’m a participant in. It’s not always easy to separate the two roles.
Your group has adopted an interesting model for working within the field of journalism, which can be quite precarious. Instead of working for established newspapers you formed your own group, write feature-length articles and analyses which you then sell to mainstream media institutions. How did you get this idea and how common is this model of working in Sweden? How does this work in practice? Are you able to make a decent living?
The Research Group is primarily a nonprofit project. We work collectively on the different investigations that interest us at any given moment. Only once we’ve collected some basic information do we start thinking about what to do with it. Either we use it to write articles ourselves or we sell the material to leftist publications. Sometimes we produce information packets and sell it to tabloids and TV stations. The former does not generate much money, while the latter does substantially. If we sell articles, the money goes to whoever wrote or worked on the piece. With collective investigations, the money goes to the group. In some cases we hire people from within the group to work full-time on a larger investigation for a month or so. As individuals, we have also been able to get media jobs via contacts we’ve developed through our work with the group. But only two people in the group actually sustain themselves that way. I’ve been able to freelance on a part-time basis through the group.
What skills did you and your group have to learn to adapt to the environment of journalism? What skills and resources did you bring with you from the activist milieu?
All members of the Research Group come from different backgrounds. My background is within activism, some of the others have worked with women’s shelters or unions. Half of us have journalism degrees, the other half have other skills: computer programmers, lawyers, librarians. This has made it possible for us to work in borderland journalism, with investigations that have required computer skills, network analysis, data scraping, research of individuals and ideological analysis. We also have a wide network of information through our activist backgrounds; this distinguishes us from traditional media. We are able to get hold of information they would never get, do interviews with people that would not speak to more mainstream journalists. We are often contacted by people who are interested in leaving the extreme right and have read our texts. Our background in activism has also been an advantage when investigating “näthat”, hate speech on the internet, and the extreme right, since such investigations are associated with a risk to become target of threats and attacks. Journalists unfamiliar with living under threat might be deterred by such investigations, but we are long accustomed to occupying an exposed position and know how to deal with those kinds of situations.
What is it like to exist as a journalist who openly maintains strong political commitments? How do readers and colleagues relate to that?
The media often portrays us as “left wing journalists,” but the way we do investigations does not differ from how other journalists do it, except maybe the collective aspect. There are often attempts to use our past experiences against us, especially my background in Antifa. But we don’t think our journalism suffers from these scrutinies of our material – it forces us to be extra careful about the material being correct and verifiable. It also forces us to be very clear about our role as a group before each investigation – are we doing it as activists or journalists?
Journalists and commentators on the right have claimed that a lot of papers got played by you, since “you aren’t really journalists, but activists.” How do you relate to that accusation? What kind of people outside the far-right have been upset by your work and where do you think their anger comes from?
We have done investigations about the police, upset the neoliberal think tanks and right-wing leader-writers, criticized the government’s anti-extremism investments (and associated journalists), had run-ins with hacker collectives, right-wing populists, and Neo-Nazi groups. We’ve had many controversies. Large parts of the right are very concerned that a journalist collective (that they see as located on the left) possesses such large quantities of information and has such immense surveilling capacity. They regard us as the “little brother from the left.” Our investigations often boil down to mapping the “infowars” of the police or the extreme right, how they skew or re-contextualize events to reach a certain propaganda effect. To respond to such “infowars” you can’t just “infowar” back, since the purpose of “infowars” is to create confusion. Therefore, our information has to be critical, be based on clear sources, be verifiable and not falsifiable. That is, classical journalism is the best way to expose misinformation campaigns.
Antifascists are often accused for being conspiracy theorists and for seeing Nazism everywhere, so speaking of the future can be tricky. Bearing this in mind, can you, as a thought exercise, try to legitimize your own work from a worst-possible-future and a best-possible future point of view?
The hard part right now is that we’ve transitioned from an information society to a misinformation society. With the proliferation of social media and State-affiliated propaganda channels like Russia Today, information has been weaponized, become a battlefield. The media activism of the 90s, strategies like detournement or guerrilla communication worked in the same way: the public space was something you could occupy or short-circuit by filling it with misinformation, pranks, spectacle. It worked in the 90s, but now that method has been recuperated and is used throughout the whole media apparatus, in a policing and militarized way. From extreme-right blogs to Russia Today or CNN’s broadcasts. Strangely, our role has therefore become to use the foundations of journalism and once again emphasize source criticism, verifiability, clarity, and thorough investigations.
The worst-case scenario is a complete relativization of information, where very fact or article is regarded as a subjective choice – “you choose to trust that source, I choose to trust this one” – or produces uncertainty – “you say New York is located on the West Coast, I say it’s on the East Coast. The truth must be somewhere in the middle.” Information is completely politicized and is construed solely based on intention, position, or objective. This development is extremely apparent in politics, where spin doctors, ad agencies, and political think tanks are increasingly influential in politics and everything becomes a question of how a message should be packaged and sold.
In the best-case scenario, we once again develop verifiable and source critical forms of communication that make the misinformation fall apart – but this requires a lot of resources. It won’t happen by recreating public service or “neutral” State media. Instead, it requires new, independent media channels, and grassroots citizen journalism that tirelessly picks propaganda to pieces and confronts both politics and the media with the gap between the packaged message and the material reality behind it. But the future of both media activism and journalism lies in the ability to manipulate data, network analysis, and addressing large patterns and tendencies – so that corporate giants like Google, Facebook, and so on don’t become the only ones capable of massive information gathering.