During the night of 13 – 14 August 2018, gangs of masked youths rampaged in towns across Sweden setting vehicles alight. According to some reports, more than 100 cars were burned in the country’s four major cities: Stockholm, Malmö, Gothenburg and Uppsala.
By the following morning the police were already commenting on the role social media had played in promoting the attacks.
That support for such actions can be gathered quickly and easily via Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp or other media resources is hardly a new observation. These platforms all facilitate the exchange of information. What is perhaps more interesting to consider, however, is how they can also be used to enhance or even somehow endorse an individual’s sense of belonging to a particular group or movement.
Young people, such as the minors who were involved in the arson attacks in Sweden, are particularly likely to be susceptible to messages that may validate any number of issues, including social group identification, emotions such as anger, and perhaps political or economic problems: poverty, racism, social exclusion, to name just a few. And even that rather simplistic analysis can be applied to other groups within society.
At a broader level, the use of social media has been widely cited as contributing greatly to some of the more important political protests seen around the world in recent years: in Turkey in 2016, for example, there were reports that there had been efforts to block social networks while a military coup was being attempted. Somewhat ironically, President Erdogan – a vociferous critic of social media – then used it himself to gather support and to warn the perpetrators of the coup of the punishment that awaited them on their defeat.
Protests against the shooting of black people by police in the USA have been organised quickly and easily on social media in the last couple of years, with hashtags such as #OpFerguson being used both for advertising physical demonstrations and for cyber operations attacking associated law enforcement or government websites.
These days, all protests have their own hashtag: think #Euromaidan (protests in Ukraine), or #5November (the annual anti-capitalism event held around the world).
In the case of the crime spree across Sweden, however, it would seem much more likely that the actions were not organised on open platforms which could have tipped off the authorities – Twitter or Facebook – but rather by using encrypted apps such as WhatsApp, ICQ or Telegram: these are fast becoming the communication channels of choice for both cyber criminals and others intent on breaking the law in some way.
What was the motivation behind the car-burning rampage? A police spokesman for the western region noted that such attacks frequently take place in Sweden just before the schools reopen after the summer holidays; however, the damage seen this week was described as “unprecedented”.
The attacks also typically occur in areas of high unemployment and poor school attendance; in this they show predictable similarities with arson sprees in cities such as Berlin or Paris, even though the stated rationale behind such actions may differ.
Even Sweden’s prime minister was quoted on Swedish radio this morning as asking the youths: “What the f*** are you doing?” He added that the violence seemed to be "very organised, almost like a military operation". (source)
He is right to be concerned: Sweden’s national election takes place on 9 September, and crime and violence are key issues occupying the minds of politicians.
Looking at the incident from a different angle, it might be speculated that these young attackers carried out the attacks specifically for the benefit of their own social media status: it would seem unlikely that any videos and images taken as firebombs were launched at the vehicles will make their way onto open channels such as Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, which would make it easy for the police to apprehend the perpetrators. On the other hand, it is certainly possible that the youths involved are enjoying their moment of ‘fame’ among like-minded individuals, and are distributing their material via encrypted apps, thus utilising their social media or instant messaging accounts both for organising their criminal actions, and for publicising them either in real-time or later. Could this present a new ‘selfie’ trend?