Expanding the nationalist echo-chamber into the mainstream: Swedish anti-immigration activity on Twitter, 2010-2013
First Monday

Expanding the nationalist echo-chamber into the mainstream: Swedish anti-immigration activity on Twitter, 2010-2013 by Piotr Urniaz



Abstract
Blogs, social media, and search engines have democratized information seekers and providers. However, the same affordances of the Internet have also contributed to resurgence and transformation of far-right and racist communities. Despite a growing number of studies of far-right communities, little attention has so far been paid to the mechanisms through which far-right and racist ideologies are presented to the wider public. This paper contributes to this field of research with a longitudinal study of Swedish anti-immigration activity on Twitter between 2010 and 2013. Results are placed in a larger context provided by additional data from blogs and related studies.

Contents

Introduction
Nationalists outside the echo chambers
Related work
Method and procedures
Results
Discussion and conclusion

 


 

Introduction

The Internet has introduced new models of public participation, direct democracy, and ways to hold public actors accountable, but also provided space for hate speech, racist groups, and nationalist movements (Cammaerts, 2009; Daniels, 2009a). The diverse employment of the new public space have led some scholars to interpret the Internet as having moved towards individualization and fragmentation of the public sphere (Youngs, 2009). Downey and Fenton (2003) argue that the new public sphere is occupied by multiple parallel publics and counter-publics that coexist in relation to an abundance of digitalized symbolic material, which lends itself to remodeling a multitude of interpretations. With regard to the anti-immigration movement and nationalist networks, the fragmentation of the public spaces can be interpreted as a creation of isolated echo chambers for voicing and reinforcing socially unacceptable opinions (Hirvonen, 2013). However, the recent growth of far-right activity on the Internet and electoral successes of nationalist populist parties in Europe imply that the echo chamber metaphor should be used carefully. The operating mechanisms of anti-immigration and racist propaganda appear to be successful in producing wider social discourses outside these echo chambers.

The research presented in this paper elucidates the development of propagandistic strategies within immigration-hostile political populism in Sweden, through an analysis of immigration-related activity on Twitter over a period of four years (2010–2013). The collected data suggest a drastic increase of mass-tweeting immigration-hostile accounts in 2011, as well as a more moderate increase in 2012 and 2013. A large part of the tweets on immigration in 2013 comes from anonymous accounts that receive relatively small amounts of retweets. The results imply that the immigration-hostile activists have adapted Twitter, a formerly immigration-friendly space, as a new channel for dissemination of mass-produced propaganda.

 

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Nationalists outside the echo chambers

The ongoing spread of racism and nationalist ideologies in the world is underscored by the fresh figures from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) — one of the leading watchdogs of hate activity in the United States — indicating a staggering spike in the number of organized hate groups across the U.S. The 602 reported cases of active hate organizations, factions, and chapters across the U.S. in 2000 had risen to 939 groups in 2013. This is a 56 percent increase in activity (‘Active U.S. hate groups’, splcenter, n.d.). The Simon Wiesenthal Center, a group which tracks racial extremism worldwide, reported on 1 May 2014 that over 30,000 hate sites, blogs, and social networks are operating across the Web. This is a 30 percent increase since 2013 (‘Simon Wiesenthal Center, Manhattan DA release “troubling” Internet hate and terrorism report’, jpupdates 2014). In the European context, electoral successes of parties centered on the protection of ethnic and cultural values, not to mention racial integrity of nations, are connected to Internet activism and establishment of alternative networking information channels (Hirvonen, 2013; Nikunen and Horsti, 2013). In the recent elections for the European Parliament (May, 2014), nationalist and immigration-hostile parties made very successful campaigns and collected 94 out of 751 mandates.

The mechanisms of opinion building explaining the new rise of nationalistic ideologies are naturally not easily mapped out. Clearly, we have to look at the nationalist communities where the immigration hostility is nourished as consisting of persons traversing different spaces of the Internet, and not as individuals isolated in obscure echo chambers. Such an interpretation is supported by the Webster and Ksiazek (2012) investigation of Internet use among Americans, where large overlaps of visited Web pages are shown.

‘All-in-all, there is very little evidence that the typical user spends long periods of time in niches or enclaves of like-minded speech. Alternatively, there is also little evidence that the typical user only consumes hits. Rather, most range widely across the media landscape, a pattern confirmed by the low network centralization score. They may appear in the audience of specialized outlets, but they do not stay long.’ [1]

Accordingly, the Internet does not seem to produce ‘millions of microcultures’ [2]. At least it is safe to conclude that the fragmented publics of such cultures quite often seem to reunite in mainstream places.

Support for the overlapping of Internet publics can also be found in studies of ideological segmentations of Internet publics (Garrett, 2009; Gentzkow and Shapiro, 2011). Gentzkow and Shapiro noted that the audiences following American white power sites used news sites more often than the audiences that did not frequently visit white power sites. Elberse (2008) makes similar observations and found that even publics of very obscure sites tend to spend most of their Internet time on mainstream sites.

In a Swedish context, one particular Web community stands out as especially important to the popularization of anti-immigration views and the parliamentary success of the nationalist party called Sweden Democrats: http://avpixlat.info. A closer examination of this site provides support not only to the overlapping publics thesis, but also makes it very clear that the whole enterprise is dependent on a community traversing the Internet, scanning and collecting national and international news. Supporters were encouraged to inform the editorial staff about potential immigration-related stories and to send drafts of articles (‘http://avpixlat.info/kontakt-tips/’, Avpixlat, n.d.). Avpixlat.info also provided a toolbar ‘Tipsa Avpixlat!’ that can be installed on a Web browser and used to inform the editorial staff of interesting sites that a member may discover. Besides this, there is an automated news desk function where a contributor can prepare rewrites and quotes of news materials from different sources. A special column is devoted to testimonies of those happily ‘converted’ to the Sweden Democrats. Furthermore, individuals occupying positions that give insight into crime investigations, handling of immigration appeals, and negotiations surrounding polity making were encouraged to leak information (‘MigiLeaks’, Avpixlat, n.d.). The forum of the site could be called a racist echo chamber that in some cases encouraged extremist acts (Hirvonen, 2013). However, the site as a whole should be compared to a newsroom or indymedia network, operating in close connection with the parliamentary branch of the movement.

From the Finnish perspective, a similar story of nationalist anti-immigration propaganda network was reported by Nikunen and Horsti (2013). The staggering parliamentary success of the True Finns party (19 percent of votes in the 2011 elections) was closely connected to the network surrounding the Jussi Halla-aho blog Scripta: Writings from the Drowning West (at http://www.halla-aho.com/scripta/). The blog functioned as a creative spring for the True Finns. It laid the foundation for the Hommaforum Web site (http://cms.hommaforum.org/), an alternative information outlet for True Finns and public space for the expression of ‘politically incorrect’ views on immigration.

The information gathering of nationalist and immigrant-hostile communities does not in itself breach the echo chamber, but the networks efforts do not end here. The Avpixlat.info asked its community to use collected information and post arguments outside the native forums. For instance, the ‘Avpixlat newsdesk’ contained the following instructions: ‘Please comment on the native comment boards of the news sites (where that is possible) rather than only here’ [Author’s translation] (‘OBS 1!’, Avpixlat, n.d.). The Avpixlat community leaders were aware of the risk that the commenting utility developed by the network ‘Avpixlade kommentarer’ [3] expanded the echo chamber rather than engaging new publics. They therefore seemed to allow it only on Web pages where native commenting tools were not suitable for dissemination of anti-immigration views: ‘For newspapers whose commenting spaces are less censored, Avpixlade kommentarer will only be provided as an exception, that is when commenting boards are withdrawn or have been closed’ [Author’s translation] (‘Avpixlade kommentarer’, Avpixlat, n.d.).

In this context of struggle to spread accumulated anti-immigration propaganda outside the homegrown echo chamber, Twitter became an important tool for anti-immigration activists and nationalists. One could perhaps say that sharing utilities and linking of articles to social media opened a new opportunities for spreading hateful rhetoric to millions of readers of mainstream news outlets. Thus, it was a backdoor that, at least to certain degree, re-established anonymous commentary that caused news sites to close open discussion forums and Internet analytics to bitterly conclude: a ‘classic tragedy of the common dilemma in which flamers, bullies, bigots, charlatans, know-nothings and nuts in online discourse take advantage of open access to other people’s attention’ [4].

 

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Related work

In her 2013 review of research on Internet and racism, Jessie Daniels (2013) observed an absence of literature on Twitter-based extremist activity. A notable change to that state was O’Callaghan, et al.’s (2013) analysis of far-right groups on Twitter. Reciprocal follower and interaction analysis were performed in addition to topic analysis of corresponding tweets in eight countries (France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Spain, Sweden, U.K., and the U.S.). The results suggested the existence of stable communities and topics within local interaction networks and across geopolitical boundaries. Media accounts associated with extreme right news Web sites and radio stations, along with external music or video hosting sites, were reported as popular mechanisms for the dissemination of racist tweets.

In the wider field of social media, the body of work on race and hate groups is growing. For instance, racially motivated participation decisions have been studied by Watkins (2009). Racialized language was found to be used to differentiate between safe and unsafe individuals and communities on Facebook and MySpace. Racially grounded decision-making was also studied by Wimmer and Lewis (2010). Quantitative analyses of friendship networks among a sample of college students who posted pictures of themselves on Facebook suggest that friend selection was not solely attributable to race, but complicated by other variables, such as ethnicity, region, and membership in elite institutions.

Various studies of Twitter activity have contributed to the wider field of research on social media and racism, especially examining new far-right populism and its propagandistic strategies. In this field, substantial contributions were made by Daniels (2009a, 2009b), who studied adaptations of racist organizations to new propagandistic capacities of the Internet. The findings were mixed, but suggested that old forms of racism moved to the Internet, existing with newer forms, such as cloaked Web sites that seek to disguise racist propaganda. The threats were less one of potential recruitment to social movement organizations, but rather the shifting epistemological ground on which politically hard-won ideals of racial equality were based. Daniels (2009a) wrote: ‘The least recognized — and, hence, most insidious — threat posed by white supremacy online is the epistemological menace to our accumulation and production of knowledge about race, racism, and civil rights in the digital era’ [5].

Pertinent to propagandistic capacities of the Internet was also the newly developed notion of information laundering (Klein, 2012), a process by which racial hate speech was legitimized through a borrowed network of online associations. According to Klein, information laundering involved not only ‘academic and techno ethos’ [6], that disguised hate content and transformed the perceived negative character of today’s racist organizations, but also the exploitation of search engines, relevance protocols, and validation rules employed by leading Internet service providers, in order to create pathways to content.

Although the quality of common — Internet-based and searchable — knowledge could be endangered by hateful rhetorics and pure lies, Johnson-Cartee and Copeland (2004) pointed our that hate material spread over the Internet was not necessary based on fabrications. The authors argued that propagandists frequently provided reliable and accurate information to their intended audiences [7]. In other words, besides black propaganda and outright fabrications, information was the chosen weapon of purveyors of hate speech in the network society. For example, large amounts of information — thousands of tweets on immigrant-related crimes — certainly led to a factually supported position on immigration as a problem. However, such enlightenment leaves large shadowed spots and no guidance at all to descry human contours of ‘mass-immigration’; it justified hate, rather than encouraging empathy.

Immigration-hostile, nationalistic movements today are not constrained to just hate rhetoric. According to Dutton (2009), the Internet constituted a ‘fifth estate’ that enabled networked individuals to move across, undermine, and go beyond the boundaries of existing institutions, thereby opening new ways of increasing the accountability of politicians, press, experts and other loci of power and influence. This function, however, was performed without the centralized institutional foundations and codes of ethics of old media institutions, but instead by the distributed activities of many individuals acting largely on their own in a more decentralized, networked fashion. In fact, holding old institutions accountable has been observed as a common element of nationalist anti-immigration rhetoric in Sweden (Hirvonen, 2013) and Finland (Nikunen and Horsti, 2013). The mainstream media’s almost univocal unwillingness to host discussion forums on heated subjects, such as immigration, terrorism, and cultural clashes, could, in this context, be seen as propulsion for immigration-hostile networks to exert this kind of criticism. The very names of some of the Web sites connected to Swedish anti-immigration movement: ‘Avpixlat’ [de-pixelated], ‘Politiskt Inkorrekt’ [politically incorrect], ’Exponerat‘ [exposed], indicate an exposition of ‘false’ representations of immigration made by the mainstream media, acting as a driving force uniting the publics of those alternative Web sites.

According to Nikunen and Horsti (2013) mainstream media’s omitting of immigration-hostile voices, as well as the sarcastic treating of immigration-hostile political parties, were not signs of a democratic success, but rather a failure to accommodate different debates and views. Drawing on Silverstone’s (2007; see also Cammaerts, 2009) concepts of hospitality, the authors proposes an ‘ethics of hospitality’ as a necessary principle of media justice in a cosmopolitan world. The mainstream media was, according to this view, obliged to treat various voices seriously and avoid shaming and silencing tactics (Cammaerts, 2009). Nikunen and Horsti used Finland as an example where such strategies have failed, and had the opposite effect of making the leading figures of the anti-immigration movement popular heroes of free speech.

In the following section research on the development in Swedish anti-immigration activity on Twitter, 2010–2013, will be presented. This analysis will contribute to our understanding of anti-immigration populism on the Internet (Nikunen and Horsti, 2013), and the role of Twitter in disseminating nationalist ideologies (Daniels, 2013).

 

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Method and procedures

This study is based on data from the Twitter network retrieved by the Topsy™ utility (An external search engine that provides access to old tweets, no longer accessible by ‘Twitter search’). The 400 most retweeted Swedish accounts taking part in discourses on immigration were singled out for the years 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013. The search query that was used to define accounts within the immigration topic consisted of terms that refer to the process of immigration, the nationality of large immigrant groups in Sweden, terms referring to the immigration-hostile Sweden Democrats, and pejoratives used to refer to immigrants, culture blending, and mainstream media defending culture blending. Altogether the query consisted of 62 terms, among them: ‘utlänning’ [immigrant], ‘invandrare’, [expatriate] ‘flykting’ [refugee], ‘zigenare’ [Gypsy], ‘massinvandring’ [mass-immigration], ‘mörkhyade’ [darkies], ‘neger’, ‘arab’, ‘muslimer’, ‘somalier’ [Somali people], ‘kulturberikare’ [culture- enricher], ‘mångkultur’ [multiculture], ‘multikulturalism’ [multiculturalism], ‘7-klövern’ [the seven-leaved clover [8]], ‘PK-media’ [Politically Correct Media].

Because of the ongoing withdrawal of published tweets by users, the results of the present analysis must be interpreted with caution, as an indication of a trend rather than precise numbers on the described development. It may also be suspected that tweets and retweets expressing immigration hostility could be erased to a larger extent — due to the lesser social acceptance of this view — than pro-immigration tweets, making the sample slightly skewed. Nevertheless, the results still show a convincing pattern of growth of the anti-immigration side among the top 400 accounts taking part in the immigration discourse.

Altogether, 1,600 Twitter accounts (400 accounts/year) were categorized manually into three types: ‘immigration-hostile’, ‘non-immigration-hostile’, and ‘undecided’. Altogether, 20,468 tweets produced by those accounts were used in the analysis. An account was considered as ‘immigration-hostile’ if one or more tweets stated 1) negative attitude to Swedish immigration policy or immigrants; 2) and/or pointed to negative consequences of culture blending or immigration; 3) and/or expressed sympathy for Sweden Democrats or criticized the ‘seven-leaved clover’ (Sweden Democrats’ own term referring to parties that support current immigration policies). In cases where none of the tweets were interpreted according to those guidelines, a given account was considered as ‘non-immigration-hostile’. On a few occasions, interpretation of accounts was not possible due to lack of necessary context for available tweets. In those cases, the accounts were categorized as ‘undecided’.

Another variable depending on the coders’ evaluation was the level of anonymity of a given account. The accounts were coded as ‘externally identifiable’, ‘inner circle identifiable’, or ‘anonymous’. The categorization depended on the ability to search and identify a person based on provided information. If a surname was provided with a depiction of a face, then the account was labeled ‘externally identifiable’. If the account was not searchable by surname, but the profile revealed the face of a person, the ‘inner circle identifiable’ label was applied. ‘Anonymous’ meant that no identification was possible based on profile information. The categorization ignored the possibility of accounts being created with false names or fake depictions. The coders’ evaluative tasks consisted of deciding on the quality of depictions.

An intercoder reliability test was performed on a subset of 200 Twitter accounts that were coded by an additional non-researcher coder. Cohen’s kappa was used to estimate intercoder reliability (Cohen, 1968). These statistics are a more conservative measure of reliability than some other measures, including percent of agreement, because they do not give credit for chance agreement. Thus, a kappa value of 0.80 represents very high intercoder reliability and a value of 0.60 represents acceptable intercoder reliability (Viera and Garrett, 2005). The reliability estimates for the variables used in the analyses are: ‘immigration-hostile’, 0.88; ‘not-immigration-hostile’, 0.76; ‘undecidable’, 0.78; ‘externally identifiable’, 0.78; ‘inner-circle-identifiable’, 0.67; ‘anonymous’, 0.87.

Additional variables, not dependent on the coder’s evaluation are: number of tweets and retweets within the topic of immigration; tweet to retweet ratio; and, the starting year and month of the account.

 

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Results

Over the period 2010–2013 the number of immigration-hostile accounts, among the Swedish top 400 retweeted accounts on immigration, increased. Only 18 immigration-hostile accounts were observed in the 2010 top 400 accounts. This number increased to 74 in 2011, 82 in 2012, and 127 in 2013.

 

Immigration hostility among the top 400 retweeted accounts within the topic of immigration 2010-2013
 
Figure 1: Immigration hostility among the top 400 retweeted accounts within the topic of immigration 2010–2013.

 

The immigration-hostile side increased its ranks, but was also very active in terms of producing tweets, reaching 49,700 tweets in 2013 and surpassing 25,700 tweets on the non-immigration-hostile side. As shown in the Figure 2, the majority of immigration-hostile tweets were sent from anonymous accounts. Non-immigration-hostile tweets were derived from identifiable accounts.

 

Tweet production among the top 400 retweeted accounts on the topic of immigration 2010-2013
 
Figure 2: Tweet production among the top 400 retweeted accounts on the topic of immigration 2010–2013.

 

The top 10 most tweeting accounts among the top 400 retweeted in 2013 were all immigration-hostile; only two non-immigration-hostile accounts made the top 20 of the most productive accounts. The leading 10 most productive accounts were responsible for about 15,000 tweets on this topic. All of the 10 most productive accounts were anonymous or, in two cases, inner-circle recognizable.

In 2011, tweet production was more evenly distributed between the camps. Four out of the 10 most productive accounts were non-immigration-hostile, and eight made the top 20. The top 10 most productive accounts were responsible for 6,500 tweets that year. The figures for 2010 underscored the ongoing change. The situation was exactly reversed compared to the 2013 results; only two accounts were then immigration-hostile among the top 20 most productive.

However, the mass production of anonymous immigration-hostile tweets did not lead to a great amount of retweets. The 127 immigration-hostile accounts, in 2013, created altogether 49,700 tweets on the subject but reached ‘only’ 44,300 retweets. This compares to 65,900 retweets from 25,700 tweets of the non-immigration-hostile accounts. The retweeting ratio increased for both camps over the period, which could be explained by the fact that the total Swedish Twitter community grew from 91,000 (‘How many twitter users in Sweden?’, Bean tin, 2011) to 475,000 accounts (‘How many Twitter users in Sweden 2013?’ Bean tin, 2013). In 2010, one immigration-hostile tweet created on average 0.35 retweets, whereas in 2013, the ratio had risen to 0.89. On the non-hostile side, one tweet had on average 1.14 retweets in 2010, and 2.56 in 2013. Those figures suggested that the proportion of increase was slightly in favor of the immigration-hostile retweets, 2.54 to 2.25.

 

Retweets produced by the top 400 retweeted accounts within the topic of immigration 2010-2013
 
Figure 3: Retweets produced by the top 400 retweeted accounts within the topic of immigration 2010–2013.

 

It is notable that the retweet ratio of anonymous accounts was inferior in both camps and that the most prominent of the immigration-hostile twitterers — Sweden Democrats leaders — have retweet rates high above the average of 2013, notably Erik Almqvist (84tw/283rtw), Kenth Ekeroth (339tw/1900rtw), and the party leader Jimmie Åkesson (3tw/223rtw).

 

Start dates for the top 400 accounts in 2013
 
Figure 4: Start dates for the top 400 accounts in 2013.

 

The changing face of Twitter’s immigration discourse was also reflected in the account start dates. Figure 4 illustrates the account start months of the 2013 top 400. The immigration-hostile accounts seemed to, with few exceptions, arrive on the scene later, with a registration peak in 2011. The non-immigration-hostile accounts had among their ranks few Twitter veterans and a large group that joined in 2009.

 

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Discussion and conclusion

The research presented in this paper examined Swedish Twitter activity concerning immigration, and contributing to our understanding of the ways in which anti-immigration rhetoric reached outside nationalist echo chambers. The Swedish Twitter scene seemed to morph in 2011, from a rather immigration-friendly zone to a place where immigration-hostile voices themselves became more prominent.

One should however be careful in interpreting this change as a reflection of Swedish society and a general turn in attitudes toward immigration. The increase in immigration-hostile activity of 2011 was certainly dramatic, concentrated in the second half of the year (compare Figure 4), and therefore better explained as mobilization of a smaller community of interconnected accounts (that provided good retweet rates). It should also be noted that the 2011 rise of activity followed the electoral success of the Sweden Democrats in the autumn of 2010 (5.7 percent of votes), when the party, for the first time, entered the Swedish Parliament, and coincided with the launching [9] of the Avpixlat blog in November 2011. As noted earlier, Avpixlat.info functioned as a network-based newsroom, ideal as a hub for production large quantities of propaganda.

Further investigation will be required to confirm the connections between mass-sending Twitter accounts and networking propaganda hubs like Avpixlat.info. Such research could, for instance, test collaboration between the content of prominent accounts and the content on propaganda hubs, relating it to a timeline. This could help in describing the procedures and workflow within the network. Basic content analyses of different tweet flows are also needed in order to establish rhetorical strategies of various communities. Content and network analyses could further elucidate exchanges between mass-sending accounts and the content of debate with ideological opponents.

Despite its limitations, this study provides a unique insight into the recent history of the Swedish Twitter community and changes in debates on immigration. As such, this study illustrates how social media is being adapted and exploited by nationalist activists that disseminate their material under the cover of anonymous accounts. It also implies that these changes coincide with the rise of networking information hubs for gathering, processing, and disseminating anti-immigration propaganda. End of article

 

About the author

Piotr Urniaz obtained his Ph.D. in media and communication at Umeå University in 2013. He is currently affiliated with Lund University. This study was made possible by a scholarship from the Wahlgrenska Foundation.
E-mail: piotr [dot] urniaz [at] kom [dot] lu [dot] se

 

Notes

1. Webster and Ksiazek, 2012, p. 51.

2. Anderson, 2006, p. 183; See also Gitlin, 1998; Iyengar and Hahn, 2009; Sunstein, 2007; Van Alstyne and Brynjolfsson, 2005.

3. Avpixlat.info has introduced an ad on program called “Avpixlade kommentarer’ [de-pixellated comments] which creates a parallel (but invisible for non-members) forum for commenting on mainstream media outlets (Hirvonen, 2013).

4. Daniels, 2013, p. 701, following Rheingold, 2002, p. 121.

5. Daniels, 2009a, p. 8.

6. Klein, 2012, p. 435.

7. Johnson-Cartee and Copeland, 2004, p. 155.

8. 7-klövern [seven-leaved clover] is a term coined by the Sweden Democrats referring to all Swedish parties represented in the Parliament that support generous immigration policies, as an alliance. The term creates a twofold division of the Swedish political arena between the Sweden Democrats and the rest, ultimately giving immigration policy an overshadowing status of importance.

9. The Avpixlat.info blog is a successor of another Sweden Democrat-friendly Web outlet that is PI.info [Politically Incorrect]. According to Wikipedia (‘Politiskt Inkorrekt (blog),’ 2014), the site ceased to exist in October 2011, due to lack of staff.

 

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Editorial history

Received 27 June 2014; accepted 22 February 2016.


Copyright © 2016, First Monday.
Copyright © 2016, Piotr Urniaz.

Expanding the nationalist echo-chamber into the mainstream: Swedish anti-immigration activity on Twitter, 2010-2013
by Piotr Urniaz.
First Monday, Volume 21, Number 3 - 7 March 2016
http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/5426/5222
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v21i3.5426





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