In most circumstances, the Nordic countries tend to present a united front. In terms of political culture, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland have far more in common than what sets them apart as distinct nations. COVID-19 has, however, shaken up this dynamic. The Nordic countries have all picked diverging strategies to deal with the pandemic. These differing responses reveal that the Nordic countries are not always uniform in their policy choices, showcasing differences in each country’s history and political structure.
Sweden has received a particularly large amount of international attention for its relatively unique approach to tackling the virus. As opposed to most other European nations, Sweden has not imposed a lockdown. While some social distancing restrictions are in place, life looks a lot more like “the old normal,” with schools open, people congregating in restaurants, and trains running on their usual schedule. This means that Sweden is attempting a version of a herd immunity strategy, letting the virus run its course among the population in order to minimise the long-term social and economic consequences.
Meanwhile, its Nordic neighbours have all imposed more stringent measures. Finland, dubbed the “prepper nation of the Nordics” due to its war-torn history, declared a state of emergency and closed schools on March 16. Later, it completely shut down the borders of its most populous area Uusimaa.
In early May 2020, Sweden’s death rate ran ten times as high as that of Finland. It also has the highest death rate per capita in the world: 6.25 per million, in contrast with Finland at 0.75 per million. However, both countries appear to be facing similar socioeconomic consequences, despite their different public health strategies. While it is still too early to assess the full social and economic consequences of each country’s strategy, the European Commission estimates that both countries will see their GDP shrink by around 6 percent. Both countries have also seen mass furloughs and rising unemployment since March.
Similar countries, different policies, different outcomes. Media observers have noted that public discourse in Sweden has focused on economic and labour market issues, while Finnish media has given more attention to the spread of the virus and the health care sector’s response. Are these differences reflected in the way that Swedish and Finnish leaders have been talking to their population about the pandemic?
Speaking the same policy language?
As part of The Paris Globalist’s series analysing the leadership styles of world leaders through their social media posts, we examined the tweets of Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven (@SwedishPM) and the Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin (@marinsanna). Given that these two leaders are not as frequent tweeters as some of their global counterparts, we chose to cover the full time period from March 13, when both countries started to announce their first policy reactions to the pandemic, to May 7, 2020 to provide a full dataset.
For ease of comparison, we kept the analysis only to these two leaders. It is worth noting that the Finnish president Sauli Niinistö has also played an important role in speaking to the Finnish population during the crisis. However, as managing the pandemic falls more under Marin’s portfolio, we chose to focus on her communication style for the purpose of this analysis. A rudimentary examination of Niinistö’s tweets show that they are broadly similar in content and style.
An analysis of the Twitter communications of Stefan Löfven and Sanna Marin show that in more normal times, these are two leaders with a lot in common. Both are Social Democrats leading left-of-centre coalition governments, and their policy stances tend to overlap. When analysing their overall Twitter presence (even before the pandemic), their communications share a lot of similarities, particularly in emphasising international cooperation at the EU level.
Neither of them takes an overly personal approach to their Twitter communications, usually only speaking in an official capacity. Their tweets tend to underpin wider government initiatives and policies, often supporting official government communications campaigns and hashtags:
It is notable that the @SwedishPM uses English in his tweets to a much higher degree than @marinsanna, who normally sticks to Finnish. This implies that Löfven aims his social media presence at a more international audience, while Marin primarily addresses the Finnish population.
Crisis tweeting or business as usual?
To specifically examine the Twitter communications of Löfven and Marin during the pandemic, we analysed the full set of tweets from the specified time period to index the most frequent terms used by each account. Using topic modeling, we then identified the types of content that emerged as most common for each account.
“Crisis rhetoric” is defined as statements emphasising that the pandemic is indeed a serious crisis that requires strong measures. Official government communications campaigns as well as official statements from the government or other public agencies were coded separately. “Personal greetings” is defined as the leader speaking in a personal capacity to express opinions, thoughts, or greetings. Tweets about communication with other world leaders or covering international responses to the pandemic were grouped under “international cooperation,” while content touching on economic issues were included in a final category.
For Marin, the majority of her Tweets are dedicated to sharing official government announcements. Usually, these were retweets of the government’s official policy statements on Twitter. The Finnish government has also been active in creating specific communication campaigns during the crisis. The #Koronafi hashtag accompanies announcements of policy measures meant to tackle the spread of the virus, while the #SuomiToimii (#FinlandWorks) campaign is intended to spread encouraging accounts of Finland working through the crisis.
Crisis rhetoric was also prominent in Marin’s tweets, who often begins her statements with “in the middle of this crisis…”. Personal greetings were also somewhat prominent, mainly through holiday greetings (Easter, Veteran’s Day, and the Nordic Walpurgis spring festival), as well as announcements related to the government’s official coronavirus Q&A session for Finnish children.
Economic issues are also a relatively frequent topic on Marin’s account, often addressing policy issues such as financial support to Finnish companies.
Löfven’s Twitter account strikes a similarly official tone. He also mainly retweets announcements from the accounts of the government or government agencies. However, these tweets do not usually contain specific policy information, but were predominantly just announcements of press conferences to come, in which Löfven tends to appear with other ministers. In short, very few of Löfven’s tweets referred to actions or opinions that were his alone.
Löfven retains an international focus throughout his Twitter communications. He frequently tweets in English about “fruitful exchanges” and “good discussions” with other world leaders, stressing the need for cooperation during the pandemic. Discussions of economic issues also overlap with this category, calling for common EU responses to avoid negative economic impact.
The word “crisis” is not frequently used in Löfven’s tweets. Nor does the Swedish government utilise official social media campaigns specifically addressing the pandemic. Overall, Löfven and the Swedish government appear to refrain from addressing the Swedish population directly on Twitter.
Take me to your leader?
Both of these Twitter accounts can be broadly characterised as matter-of-fact. Neither Marin nor Löfven appears to express anything on social media without official approval. Löfven seems especially prone to avoid expressing any sort of personal opinion or perspective. Most of his tweets are retweets from other government organs or referrals to other sources of information.
It is a far cry from the “Twitter diplomacy” we see among many of the world’s more bombastic leaders. However, the differences we do see between the communication styles of these two prime ministers seem to reflect the political structure of each country.
Sweden is a broadly decentralised state, where a lot of power rests within government agencies rather than the government itself. On March 22, Löfven’s televised speech to the nation was only the third time in Swedish history that a Swedish leader has made such an address. This speech made no specific policy announcements, but rather stressed the need for personal responsibility for all citizens. Most of the time, the Public Health Agency is in the limelight. While these constitutionally independent agencies do not pass laws, they make recommendations to the government, generally without resistance. It is, therefore, Sweden’s state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell who has been doing most of the COVID-19 related communication through daily press conferences, rather than the Prime Minister. He does not, however, have his own Twitter account.
Meanwhile, Marin holds a lot more power within the Finnish state. Even if she does not make policy announcements directly on Twitter, she and her ministers (rather than public health representatives) are the ones appearing at press conferences to declare states of emergency or proclaim lockdowns. Consequently, and compounded by her role as the youngest female prime minister in the world, Marin receives a lot more personalised attention as “Finland’s crisis manager” – a title bestowed upon her by a Vogue feature.
The differences between Sweden and Finland in communicating the crisis reveal that the answer to the question “who is responsible for dealing with this?” receives very different responses in each country. Despite the numerous cultural and demographic similarities between these two neighbours, their differing political structures result in vastly different approaches in managing the pandemic. As we follow how the disparate Nordic coronavirus strategies play out, these internal differences enter the spotlight and may offer insight into the factors that affect coronavirus outcomes, both in terms of death rates and socioeconomic impact.
This is our third in a series of reports looking at how governments worldwide have responded to the coronavirus pandemic.