Sweden is rightly famous for many things — its natural beauty, its health care, its wealth, Ikea — but one of the country’s most public achievements, its Twitter, doesn’t always come up in those conversations. Since 2011, the Swedish Institute has handed over the keys to the country’s official Twitter account to a new Swede every week, letting them tweet anything they want. The goal was to show the country as it really existed through the eyes of its various citizens.
“Through the stories of the various curators, not one Sweden is conveyed, but several,” the government wrote on its official project website. “In an age of mass communication and increasing globalisation, a country depends largely on how it is perceived abroad,” it continued. “Sweden’s development and future prosperity depend on strong relations with the outside world and a more active exchange with other countries in many areas.”
As of this month, however, the project is dead. After 365 curators, 119,000 new followers, and more than 200,000 tweets, the current host of the account, Erik, will be the last average citizen to hold the reins.
When the Swedish Institute began its Twitter public relations project seven years ago, the internet was a totally different place. The age of relentless personal branding hadn’t quite kicked into gear, and the Arab Spring was afoot. Twitter had just passed its fifth birthday, and it was only starting to grow into its role as the global clearinghouse for opinions and news. The first curator for the project, Jack Werner, was launched into this rarified space; he promptly tweeted a masturbation joke that earned him the moniker “the masturbating Swede.” Ever since, the account has been off to the races.
Subsequently, curators got into trouble by asking “whats the fuzz with jews,” starting a war of words with their Danish rivals, and even squaring up with President Donald Trump. It was a rollicking time, and the project spawned a cadre of imitators, most notably in Ireland; in 2012, the country’s official account was given over to its citizens in much the same way.
But a lot has changed on Twitter during the intervening years, much of it not for the better. What used to be a home for funny, irreverent comedy and harmless gags gradually transformed into an unaccountable cesspool of toxic actors and bad-faith harassers. The shift was both crystallized and accelerated by Gamergate, a coordinated campaign of abuse directed at women in games journalism. The collaborative, insidious tactics of harassment and disinformation created a playbook that could subsequently be deployed to intimidate and bully specific targets, attack their friends and family, threaten their jobs, and often drive them off of social media entirely.
“It seems like this kind of abuse tends to be targeted at women.”
In 2016, the @Sweden account began to receive its share of online hate. “It seems like this kind of abuse tends to be targeted at women. We’re not quite sure yet if that’s a key pattern, but it is mainly women who have received it over the summer,” said Henrik Selin, the Swedish Institute’s head of intercultural dialogue, to a local paper. “It often seems to be new followers of the account who send the abuse, but we’re looking at it just now to try and get a better picture. On other sites you can see a pattern in how trolls organize themselves, so it’s possible that’s the case.”
Soon, the Swedish Institute made a key change in how it handled blocked accounts. Instead of unblocking everyone one curator had blocked after their shift was up, the blocked accounts would stay blocked for the safety of the curators. “If it doesn’t work and in the end the account becomes flooded with this kind of stuff then maybe we’ll start to think about whether we should continue [the project],” Selin said.
Online harassment is about as old as the internet itself. In the beginning, the architects of the internet decided that this was a utopian place, a place that didn’t need rules because everyone shared the same Elysian vision. While the ensuing decades have proved this idealistic notion to be both irresponsible and obviously untrue, @Sweden succeeded by recognizing the opposite: that countries and the internet are not made up of the same kind of person. They are fragmented, heterogeneous, and beautiful because of it.
In its announcement of the closure, the Swedish Institute didn’t exactly say why it was choosing to shutter the curators of Sweden project, but it gestured at the reason being just how the internet has changed. “It was a groundbreaking initiative when it was launched,” one of the project’s founders said. “The internet and social media have since developed at an unprecedented rate. Every project has an end, and it is time for us to move on.”