The tabloid is reported to have acquired illegally-gathered lists of the personal details of 40,000 Swedes commenting on Flashback, a forum with an eclectic collection of content and with an estimated 900,000 users. Since then it has begun publishing the posts, and sometimes the identities, of some of the users, leading to hounding, firings, and to one person's suicide.
Aftonbladet editor Jan Helin, who is reported to have purchased the databases, explained that his publication was "attempting to start a conversation about the limits of free speech." Aftonbladet reporter Karin Estman, quoted by Radio Sweden, noted that "we have been watching Flashback for a long time, and have long wanted to find out who is behind these anonymous users. Through our investigation, we have uncovered who stands behind some of the anonymous comments, and revealed the names of public figures. [We found that] what they wrote anonymously was, in fact, the opposite of their official positions."
Mattias Philipson, a Democratic Party official from Bastad, was reported to have taken his life earlier this month after the tabloid Expressen carried out a similar campaign to smear him for comments he'd made on the internet. Sweden's Fria Tider explained that the revelations resulted in the collapse of the official's small rural business, which hosted company events and parties. "Nothing worked after he was exposed in the media," journalist Gunnar Sandelin said in a blog post, according to Fria Tider.
The Flashback forum is controversial in and of itself. Featuring discussions on everything from cooking to politics to sex, drugs and bomb-making, the site, whose servers are registered in the US, has been the source of a debate about the limits to freedom of speech. Sweden is known for its proactive legal and social censure of hate speech, and Swedish Minister of Justice Morgan Johansson recently noted that Flashback is a "swamp" that must be cleaned out, but that authorities' efforts are hampered by the fact that its servers are located in another jurisdiction. However, the SwedishSurveyor's commentary notes that the legal and social ostracism and pariah status are often taken too far, and warns of the dangers of destroying peoples' lives over internet comments, as "nobody wishes to associate themselves with an individual who has expressed opinions that are deemed incorrect by the establishment."