Re:branding the Swedish image

Lately a fierce debate regarding the negative international representation/depiction of Sweden has dominated Swedish media. The negative reports on Sweden in international media started long before Trump´s “you look at what’s happening last night in Sweden” speech in Florida two weeks ago (the latest news that put Sweden on the international spotlight again occurred just last week when a fake expert on Swedish national security was interviewed on Fox News to warn about immigration threat). Of course users on Twitter were quick to crack jokes about the apparent miscue using the hashtag #LastNightInSweden.

For decades Sweden has been seen as a role model, a utopia in many countries, but the picture has changed drastically in recent years. Sections of international media has singled out Sweden as the rape capital of the world, and there have been various international media coverage on no-go zones, unsafe neighborhoods and uncontrolled immigration in Sweden.

And for the Swedish government (as well as for the Swedes who are used to being portrayed in more flattering contexts), the sudden rise in negative reports has come as somewhat of a shock. Besides, additional criticism coming from individuals within the country has added fuel to the fire. One such case is the famous author Katerina Janouch´s participation in a Czech tv programme where she spoke negatively on integration and immigration in Sweden.

The prime minister of Sweden, Stefan Löfven, later criticized Ms Janouch for her “very strange” depiction of Sweden.

In a recent op-ed article published in a major Swedish newspaper, Jens Stilhoff Sörensen, lecturer in Peace and Development Studies at Gothenburg University, points out that the government has kept itself busy criticizing Swedish individuals for spreading a negative image of Sweden in media. Sörensen questions why the representatives of the government do not regard these criticisms as part of a healthy public critical debate and accuses the government of being more concerned about the representation of the Swedish image abroad, rather than discussing real issues. He explains that one way to understand this phenomenon is to see it as an expression of a new political culture in which precisely the representation, presentation and image have become more important than substance and reality. The representation of the problems in the suburbs is more important than what is actually going on in the suburbs. In other words, the image of politics has become more important than the content of policies. Sörensen concludes that the government is managing Sweden as a company, focusing on protecting the brand Sweden, to the detriment of fostering a democratic culture of free speech.

This, if I may be so bold, “obsession” with image, branding and self-representation is a trend that we can also observe among individuals in the digital space. Social media has become a vital part of society and our daily lives, not only for connecting with others in our personal lives but it is also being used as a tool for developing our professional network or looking for a job. With the increased use of social media, the act of self-representation is becoming a common element in online behaviour. The majority of social media users are, be it consciously or unconsciously, constructing a particular image of the self through the photos, articles and links they share online. And what is the result of this? Well, with the growing importance attached to self-representation in today’s (digital) society, social media encourages users to promote themselves as brands.

In a time when the international image of the Swedish brand has been painted black, the government needs to convince the whole world (including itself) that it is an unfair/incorrect representation. As Jill Walker Rettberg notes in Self-Representation in Social Media (1,2):

Self-representations are rarely about trying to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth about ourselves. They are as much about constructing a truth about who we are and could be.

While we can reprimand the Swedish government for neglecting the real issues and being more preoccupied with how the Swedish story is being told, or depicted, one might find that it is no more strange than that people want to put their best selves forward on social media, meaning the edited version of their picture perfect lives. However,since the government carries responsibilities towards its citizens in terms of ensuring a well-governed country it cannot afford indulging itself in “shallow vapidity”; an expression of narcissism that comes with every new form of self-representation. (3)  

What to make out of this? It is time for the government to make evident that it can stand tall to its task; to demonstrate that the deeply flawed reality behind the perfect scenes is manageable and that it really can live up to an image that corresponds to its constructed self-representation.

PS Being as concerned with its public image, the government could really work on its poor digital representation on social media as has been written about here

(Photo credit: Håkan Dahlström/”Flag countryside” via Flickr (CC image) )

(1) Rettberg, J.W. 2017: Self-­Representation in Social Media, in: Burgess, J., Marwick, A. & Poell, T. (eds): SAGE Handbook of Social Media. London: Sage, forthcoming.

(2) Rettberg, 2017:23

(3) Rettberg, 2017:22

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