Credits: Kate Gabor

Credits: Kate Gabor

Media dialogues — Jack Werner
He is a disruptive journalist from Sweden, author and co-author of several books mainly linked to critical thinking and co-founder of the series "The Viral Investigator". We therefore decided to "investigate" him and learn more about his career
19 May 2023

What is your professional background?

I was born in Stockholm, Sweden, and I have always been interested in urban legends and the psychology and sociology of the stories we tell to communicate our worldview and mend social bonds.

What I’m trying to do in general, is to look at the Internet as a field of study for contemporary folklore. In addition to a few odd jobs after my secondary education, I started blogging about weird cultural phenomena on the Internet. This was in 2011, and the topic hadn’t been explored much in the mainstream media.

My blogging led to job offers, and after trying and failing to get a job at a few different companies, I ended up as the Social Media Editor at the free daily tabloid, Metro in 2013. That’s where I developed my own personal focus as a journalist: trying to collect and understand contemporary folklore. In 2014, I was one of the three founders of Viralgranskaren – “The Viral Investigator” – an educational project to counter falsehoods on social media with journalism and critical thinking. That same year, my first book, Creepypasta – spökhistorier från internet (“Creepypasta – Ghost Stories from the Internet”), was published.

Today I’m a freelance journalist, writing regularly for one of Sweden’s biggest morning newspapers, giving lectures on critical thinking on social media and hosting a creepy story podcast, one of Sweden’s top ten. I’ve written three books and won a couple of journalism awards, and even though I’ve sometimes branched out and covered completely different topics, my career still rests on the same two main pillars I built back in 2014.

Werner was one of the three founders of Viralgranskaren – “The Viral Investigator”

What’s the best interview you’ve ever done? Why?

In 2021, I made a six-part documentary podcast about an accident that happened in 2010, when a ten-year-old boy fell to his death down a shaft in central Stockholm while exploring the city. It’s a pretty sad and tragic story, but it’s also about the enduring desire for adventure and discovery that we all share as children.

I’ve done a number of interviews with parents who have lost children, and they are all gripping and extraordinary in their own way. I interviewed the dead boy’s mother a couple of times, and while it was obviously tragic and sad, she also struck me as fascinating. This woman was both articulate and thoughtful and emotionally open. Her Catholic faith had led her to hope for a reunion with her son in death, and I think she was convinced that would happen, but I also think she was afraid that it wouldn’t, and that would mean that he was gone indefinitely. In that sense, she had deeply processed her son’s death, although she deliberately put off final acceptance of it until her own death. We got along well, and I think she felt that the documentary I made honored her son.

After it was released, she sent me a gift for my son, who was about a year old at the time: a jumpsuit that had belonged to her boy when he was a toddler.

What is the interview you’d like to do but haven’t been able to yet? Why?

For about ten years I have been trying to get an interview with Jan Axelsson, the founder and editor-in-chief of the Swedish web forum, Flashback. Flashback has been an absolutely central phenomenon in Swedish media for about 20 years. It started as a fanzine, but evolved into a web forum in the late 90s. Its self-described mission has always been to promote and fight for freedom of speech and expression in Sweden.

Axelsson is something of a free speech fundamentalist, and even though there’s really no formal or legal suppression of speech in Sweden, he feels that there are social sanctions for certain ideas or views – that you’re punished if you try to widen the opinion corridor, as we say here – and he’s always wanted to give those people an outlet. Of course, this has led to Flashback being seen as something of a haven for extremists, but the image of being the central alternative meeting place has also meant that whenever there is a big news story involving socially sensitive issues, Flashback plays a role.

In that sense, telling the story of Flashback is also telling the story of Sweden. This is a book I would love to write, but if I want to do it, I have to interview Jan Axelsson. The bad news is that he says he’s not “ready” yet. But the good news is that he has finally started answering my e-mails!

What is your view on the role of media?

Well, for a democratic society to function, there needs to be a function that identifies and investigates irregularities and problems. Let’s call it “journalism”.

Journalism needs time and resources, which means it needs to build on the same economy as the society around it, while remaining independent. Leaving aside the public service model for the moment, this requires both a product that actually sells, in other words, journalism that someone wants, and a corporate structure that understands the importance of a newsroom that is unaffected by the company’s business. It also means that the journalists themselves must be able to show themselves to be as trustworthy as possible, without being constrained by anything other than their own professional conscience. It’s a form of performance: by constantly claiming to be objective and honest and they create an expectation that they will be just that, essentially a safety mechanism that keeps them true to their word. They need to adhere to clear and concise guidelines that are easily accessible and understood, so that the outside world’s expectation is in line with their own goal.

I’m explaining all of this to say that today’s media organizations didn’t get where they are by accident. Sure, there are a lot of problems, but when asked about the fundamental role of the media, I think it can still be captured by paraphrasing the old saying about democracy being the worst form of government except for all the other forms that have been tried.

What is your vision of media 10 years from now?

My hope is that journalism as a product will always be driven by demand. In other words, even though things sometimes look bad as economies and societies change, I think there will be a demand for journalism in the next world just as there was in the previous one. For example, if the big social media and search companies stay around, I find it hard to imagine them not branching out and opening regular newsrooms. They will need some sort of formal info-sphere conscience to organize content, which they lack today.

As for traditional media, they will probably become more and more beholden to the interests and affirmations of their respective readers, resulting in a few quite rich but ultimately isolating media outlets, and finally, individual journalists whose style, focus, opinions, or tone have earned them their own followings will play an even greater role as a form of journalistic influencers. I haven’t even touched on AI, which – if it doesn’t kill us – is expected to take over a lot of things like news snippets on business and sports. But I think that because journalism is a business of trust, and it’s going to take a lot more than 10 years for us to actually trust AI, it’s not coming for my job, at least not right now.

Could you share an interesting work-related anecdote?

Sure can! This is about the strangest coincidence I’ve ever experienced. In 2013, I wrote a long story about a catfish (a person on the Internet who makes up a character and pretends to be that person entirely). For six or seven years, using pictures stolen from a young woman in California, someone – probably a middle-aged male school librarian in the US – pretended to be “Veronika Larsson,” a non-existent Swedish girl in her twenties who had studied in London. You can read an archived version of the story here.

It was a pretty special story to discover and report, but my anecdote takes place at the point where I gained access to “Veronika’s” Facebook account. There’s no reason to believe he knew I was investigating him at that point. There was no connection whatsoever between me and “Veronika” or the man pretending to be her. But when I found the hundreds of photos locked in “Veronika’s” Facebook account, one stood out. It was the only photo that actually looked like it had been taken in Sweden, rather than, like all the others, in the USA. And in that photo, I recognized a face. It was a friend of mine. She’s not a celebrity, she was just a normal Swedish teenager when the photo was taken, but somehow, by chance, the man behind “Veronika” had decided to steal her photo to create his persona.

You could say that I was as far away from myself as I’d ever been in my journalism, and that’s when I found someone I know personally. I’ve never understood how that coincidence could happen. I don’t know what to make of it. Maybe the lesson is that when we’re on social media, we create so much content over the years that you can theoretically make a connection between any two people you want. It reminds me that life is full of contingency, which we all too often forget.

* Julián Ginzo is a member of the Editorial Board of UN Today.
Read more articles about GLOBAL AFFAIRS