A week ago, few outside (and many inside) of Sweden had ever heard of Sonja Abrahamsson -- this week's controversial curator of @Sweden, the country's official Twitter account. Since she began her social media reign last Sunday, the 27-year-old self-described holy mother of two with classic Aryan looks has captured the attention of thousands of social media users -- at certain points, generating new Twitter followers at a rate of 1,000 an hour -- and offended just as many with some egregiously politically incorrect tweets.
Since December 2011, a new Swedish citizen has commandeered the @Sweden Twitter feed thought the Curators of Sweden project -- a collaboration between The Swedish Institute, a state-run cultural agency, and Visit Sweden, a partially government-owned tourism outfit.
Most of the previous @Sweden curators have been relatively innocuous -- at least compared to Sonja -- though the very first, 22-year-old Jack Werner, attracted some attention when he casually listed masturbation as one of his favorite hobbies. Ranging in age from 18 to 60, Sonja's predecessors have included a lesbian truck driver, a high school student and a female minister. The project has enlisted 24 curators thus far, and all have been given nearly unlimited editorial freedom.
Visit Sweden's Marketing Director Maria Ziv explained that the goal of the project is to engender trust through transparency, and to showcase Sweden's core values -- freedom of speech being paramount among them.
“Sweden is a country where there is an openness in allowing freedom of speech -- for real," Ziv said. "People can actually say completely politically incorrect things and not get shut down."
The tourist group's internal research found that travelers don't want to have the tour bus experience -- they want to immerse themselves in a culture by getting to know the people inside it.
"We thought, maybe we can give them that before they come here," Ziv said. "With Twitter being such a fantastic channel for dialogue and questions, we decided, 'Let's try it. Let's hand out the account to a different Swede every week and let that person be themselves.'" That way, people who follow the account get to see Sweden from different perspectives every week.
And Sonja certainly has offered a different perspective in spades -- whether she's tweeting about eating a uterus for dinner, folding her breasts in half, or sharing a doctored photo of Elin Nordegren carrying the decapitated head of Tiger Woods.
While most of Sonja's tweets have been outrageous in an amusing (and sometimes hilarious) sense of the word, a handful have crossed way over the line. On Tuesday, apropos of nothing, Sonja sent out a series of Tweets that earned her countless accusations of anti-Semitism and prompted the Council of Swedish Jewish Communities to call for her removal from the curator position.
"Whats the fuzz with jews. You can't even see if a person is a jew, unless you see their penises, and even if you do, you can't be sure!? [sic]," Sonja tweeted on Tuesday. She sent a few more messages on the same subject -- essentially expressing her confusion about what exactly classifies a person as Jewish -- before eventually backing down, presumably as a result of intense backlash on the microblogging site.
"I thought it was a good idea to ask the question when so many well-educated people all over the world can answer. But no. Bad idea," she tweeted.
Sonja also tweeted a photo of the Freddy Mercury next to a plate of strawberries, describing the late lead singer of Queen as a "hungry gay with aids [sic]."
But in spite of insistent digitally-based protests that Sonja be stopped, those behind the project have chosen not to intervene. According to Ziv, the curators begin their tenure with only three rules: They can't promote products or services, they can't write anything that threatens national security, and they can't break the law.
"In Sweden, we have a law that says that you can't say things that encourage hate crimes, or push someone to racist action," Ziv explained, adding that an individual would have to go pretty far beyond making racist or politically incorrect statements to be in violation of the law.
"[Sonja] was incredibly indelicate in what she wrote, but she certainly did not break the law. Unless you break the law, we're not going to shut you down," Ziv said. But that doesn't mean those involved with the Curators of Sweden project approve of Sonja's more controversial statements.
"What she wrote when this started about the Jews [etc.] was from my perspective completely unnecessary, and I'm really mortified that she's offended so many people," Ziv said. "That's not at all the intention of the project."
Sonja wasn't a complete unknown in Sweden before she was chosen to be @Sweden's curator. She's an active blogger in a network supported by a legitimate news organization, and has long had a popular YouTube channel. According to Ziv, Sonja also has relationships with some Swedish radio stations.
"We didn't go into this blind," Ziv said. "We knew that she likes to be provocative. And that was part of Sonja's appeal to those running the project." Still, it sounds like both Sonja and those working for Curators of Sweden were overwhelmed by the intensity of the public reaction.
"People around the world reacted to this in a very negative way," Ziv said, referring to the offensive tweets. "We've insulted many people, and we're obviously upset and sorry about that."
Though Ziv explained that @Sweden curators are briefed by a communications agency before they take ownership of the account, the project managers prefer a hands-off approach while the curator is actively tweeting. In Sonja's case, though, they did reach out, in the event the she needed some guidance.
"When all the media attention started, we emailed her and said, 'if you want to talk, or if you feel you need to be coached on how to handle this ... we're here for you,'" Ziv said. She has also passed on the myriad interview requests to Sonja, who has not agreed to any of them (nor did she respond to the outreach email.)
"I think she feels she already has her channel to communicate," Ziv explained.
Since Sonja began tweeting for @Sweden, the Curators of Sweden's Klout rating has gone up from 60 to 75 and the account now has over 60,000 followers, with roughly 30,000 of those on Sonja's clock.
"I wish she hadn't insulted people ... That's not what we're after. At the same time, it gave us an opportunity to talk about the project and why we are doing it," Ziv said. "There's a deeper reason why we're doing this project and why we're not shutting it down...Everyone says 'you have to be transparent, you have to be honest and open,' and then you are -- and then people want her head on a plate.
“There's always going to be something that doesn’t suit someone. If we start backing down, if you take away everything [potentially offensive] and just leave the stuff that offends no one, then we’re not really saying anything," Ziv said. "And there’s no point in doing it."
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