A failed 'Swedish flag' hoax shows the decline of the extremist 4chan message board

fake Swedish flag
Image caption This mock up of a 'crescent and star' Swedish flag was produced by alt-right activists- but their hoax failed to take off

Internet pranksters tried to start a hoax campaign to change the cross on the Swedish flag to a Turkish-style crescent and star. Although a few people were tricked, the lacklustre response to the campaign co-ordinated on 4chan could be a sign that the extreme message board's influence on internet culture is starting to wane.

The petition on campaigning site Avaaz.org was written in strident, over-the-top language by someone trying to mimic a hard-left activist: "The Swedish flag is a constant reminder of our dark and oppressive past. Refugees and migrants are forced to live under its Christian Cross; a symbol of the Crusades and the slaughter of millions of innocent Islamic lives in Sweden's past that makes them feel unwelcome and unsafe. Sweden should be a safe space for everyone."

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But there are several clues pointing to the fact that the campaign was not an authentic drive to swap the Christian imagery on the Swedish flag for a symbol associated with Islam. The petition was started not by a Swede but by "Elsa N." whose location is listed on Avaaz as "United Kingdom".

And chat on 4chan's "Politically Incorrect" (or "/pol/") message board shows that the idea was born not on the far left but on a corner of the internet known as a breeding ground for the white nationalist alt-right.

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Since Monday, posts on the board have been pushing "Operation Swedistan". One of the original threads outlined the aims of the effort, starting with: "Create significant traction in a movement to replace Sweden's Christian flag with an Islamic crescent."

The thread went on to speculate that "A movement will organically form defending the Christian flag of Sweden" and lead to rising nationalism. In response, the 4chan activists planned to: "Protest online against these movements defending the existing flag. Claim that all those that wish to defend it are racist and xenophobic cretins that don't wish for Sweden to be 'Inclusive' and 'A safe space for everyone.'"

Image copyright Avaaz.org
Image caption The petition that 4channers hoped would go viral attracted a few thousand signatures before it was taken down

The /pol/ board was famously a huge source of alt-right memes and internet propaganda during the 2016 US presidential election.

And the Swedish flag hoax was just the latest in a stream of 4chan plots designed to discredit leftist activists, call attention to the alt-right or poke fun at the mainstream media. Recently /pol/ users were urged to distribute leaflets saying "It's OK to be white". The pranksters hoped the posters, which were spotted in various locations around the world, would prompt a backlash by media outlets and (somehow) a counter-backlash which would convert people to white nationalism. The poster incidents were widely reported but the campaign's origins were quickly revealed.

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Prior to the rise of the alt-right, the most notable political movement to emerge from 4chan was the anti-establishment hacker collective Anonymous. The loosely organised movement holds annual anti-capitalist, anti-government protests in London and other major cities on Guy Fawkes Day. The number of marchers at this year's event in the UK capital was down on previous years.

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Despite slickly produced fake adverts, slogans posted in Swedish and English, fake Photoshopped news stories and a huge amount of chat over multiple threads on the /pol/ board, the flag hoax failed to really take off.

Image caption One of the fake propaganda posters produced by alt-righters and posted on 4chan

The flag campaign was reported by right-wing conspiracy sites and also prompted a story - which made clear the whole thing was a hoax - on the Swedish Metro newspaper website. But the Avaaz petition meant to attract liberal-minded activists gained fewer than 4,000 signatures over the course of the week. A Twitter hashtag invented by the hoaxers - #ForBetterSweden - was used around 1,000 times, mostly by fake accounts and far-right Twitter users who had been drawn in by the hoax.

The petition was removed after BBC Trending contacted Avaaz.

"This small petition is one of thousands started by individuals on the Avaaz platform," the organisation said in a statement. "We've polled our members on it, and the overwhelming majority voted to take it down, so it's now been removed from our site."

According to internet statistics company comScore, traffic to 4chan has declined substantially this year, from more than 850,000 unique online users a month in January to fewer than 500,000 in August. Google Trends, which tracks Google search stats, shows a more gentle decline in queries over the course of the year, but searches are definitely down from a high point in March - coinciding with the tech giant's hiring of 4chan's founder.

Jessica Beyer, a research scientist at the University of Washington and author of the book Expect Us: Online Communities and Political Mobilization, says that the influence of 4chan is linked to the ability of its users to connect with broader social trends.

"If this particular operation is having limited success, then I would say it is because the societal division they are attempting to exploit is not big enough to mobilise enough other people," she told Trending. "Essentially, they failed to plug into a societal conflict that will mobilise earnest participants, and so the operation remains confined to them."

But Beyer said it's too early to tell whether 4chan's time in the spotlight is over.

"It might just be that they just don't understand Sweden," she said. "Or, that this operation failed, but the next might not."

As for the channers, as their Swedish flag effort petered out by the end of the week, some claimed not to be too disappointed.

"Its always worth a try but [I don't care]," one told Trending. "Would be funny if it worked."

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