The Fake News war on Sweden


It’s more than fake news – Sweden’s facing a war of disinformation

Over the past two years, Russia has been launching its disinformation campaign against Sweden in order to influence the Swedish public opinion in favour of Putin’s Russia and to help raise anti-establishment movements. The Kremlin deployed Russia Today (RT) and sister news site Sputnik to highlight Sweden’s internal problems and trying to link it with mass immigration that is happening since 2015—also attacking Swedish government’s stance towards Russia and its continuing provocation on Sweden’s sovereignty. The disinformation tactic also involves Russian proxies in Sweden, who are mainly from the far right parties and organisations, busy criticising Sweden’s government policies using propaganda which is produced by Russian propaganda networks.

On January 2017, Sweden’s most authoritative institute on foreign policy the Swedish Institute of International Affairs released a study report accusing Russia of using fake news, false documents and disinformation as part of a coordinated campaign to influence public opinion and decision-making in the country. The study said Russia had used misleading reports on its state-run news website Sputnik, and public interventions by Russian officials in Swedish domestic affairs, as well as more covert methods. The study report also included that armies of trolls were mobilised to target journalists and academics on social media, and those pro-Russia NGOs operating in Sweden use that weapon contributing to the Russian information war on this Scandinavian country. The report also admitted it was impossible for researchers to establish exactly where and how the forgeries and fake stories had been produced, but said they were consistent with Kremlin’s strategic objectives. The forgeries contained enough factual information and other mistakes to enable Swedish authorities to declare them as fake—but not before they had been widely spread on social media, Swedish and Russian websites and, in some cases, mainstream media outlets.

One of the reports co-author’s Sebastian Åsberg told Radio Sweden that a key Russian tool was the Swedish-language version of its state-funded news website Sputnik News, which published thousands of stories between 2015 and spring 2016 before it was closed.  The majority of the stories fell into categories such as “crisis in the west”, “positive image of Russia”, “western aggression”, “international sympathy with Russia”, “western policy failures” or “divisions in the western alliance”, the report said. He also added that it was difficult to know how effective the campaign had been so far. He concluded by mentioning several Russian motives for targeting Sweden where he mentioned the main reason was to minimise NATO’s role in the Baltic region, adding that the upcoming general election in Sweden next year could also trigger a new campaign.

Swedish right-wing extremist movements in Sweden are increasingly spreading their propaganda via various platforms like podcasts, social media and other platforms to attack government’s policies. Most of these platforms tend to share propaganda created by Russian propaganda networks which mainly targets refugees, NATO and European society.

“Sweden? Terror attack? What has he been smoking?”

On 18 February, US President Donald Trump held a rally in Melbourne, Florida, where he tried to defend his controversial “Muslim ban” executive order by pointing to the consequences of migration in Europe. He focused on an unspecified event that took place like last night in Sweden”.

Trump and his administration are known for making up false incidents like for example the “Bowling Green massacre,” which was simply an invented a terrorist attack allegedly committed by immigrants on US soil.

He said, “When you look at what’s happening in Germany, when you look at what’s happening last night in Sweden — Sweden! Who would believe this? Sweden! They took in large numbers, they’re having problems like they never thought possible.”

After Trump’s rally, the White House spokeswoman told reporters that President Trump had been referring generally to rising crime and not a specific incident in Sweden after Fox News linked reported about rising crime rates in the country due to mass immigration.

Swedish government denied Trump’s claims and said that nothing happened that night; later on, Swedish citizens mocked Trump’s claims on Twitter using tweets and memes. Former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt tweeted, “Sweden? Terror attack? What has he been smoking?”

But it’s not unlike the right-wing’s propaganda campaign in Sweden:

The conservative media, especially the far-right or anti-Islam sites, is busy sharing fake stories about Sweden and trying constantly to implement a narrative that Muslim migrants are raping Swedish women in mass numbers. Conservative media outlets like Breitbart, Virginia Dare, Daily mail have all been publishing anti-immigrant and refugees’ articles, Sweden’s ‘refugee’ sexual assault and attacking Sweden’s humanitarian policies of accepting refugees. These fake claims have even made it into more traditional mainstream outlets like National Review and Fox News.

The problem with perception

Many western journalists come to Sweden to set up an investigation or report on immigration or refugee crimes, or to have a tour in Sweden’s so-called no-go zones. They trip to Sweden for a short time and normally have no or less knowledge on Sweden’s environment and communities and yet they make up a conclusion based on a closed-question premise.

On March 1, 2016, The Swedish embassy in London accused the Daily Mail of running a propaganda campaign against Sweden’s refugee policy. Embassy’s report states: “Sweden is being used as a deterrent and an argument against allowing more refugees into the UK… The tabloid Daily Mail has launched a campaign against Swedish migration policy. The Daily Mail characterises Sweden as naive, and an example of the negative consequences of a liberal migration policy.”

Fighting fake news from the ground up:

Recently, the Swedish Finance Minister Magdalena Andersson said that fake news is harming the people of Sweden and that the government should do more effort in combating it, adding, “It is important that there is freedom of expression and it’s important to be able to express themselves freely on social media. It’s a great opportunity. But with the increased ability to express themselves and disseminate a higher burden on our ability to sort information. We need to start with young people who need to learn much more about this in school, but also all the other needs to be able to handle it.”

Swedish Education Minister Gustav Fridolin stated that Sweden will introduce new changes to the curriculum and will apply from July 2018 at the latest. The changes will include digital competence, like programming and source checking. He said, “It’s the exact opposite: we need basic knowledge in reading, writing and numeracy so we can’t be tricked, but we also need to advance our criticism of sources to the same level as we previously taught students about scientific theory for example. You already need to have your first taste of this today at about the age of ten.”

Apart from government’s effort to fight off the fake news, Sweden’s citizens are also involved in this fight. In the north of the country, many citizens use citizen journalism to fight off the right-wing propaganda. Last year in a small village in the northern county called Jämtland there was an article that went viral on social media which claimed that a Swedish school girl was assaulted by a group of young migrants. Then a group of Swedes took the initiative to make an investigation into this incident; they couldn’t find any evidence to this claim and they found out that it was a fake story made up by the right-wing extremist organisation called the Nordic Resistance Movement.

Looking to the future: Brace yourselves – the general elections are coming

The hacking of the US Democratic Party e-mail servers during the 2016 US presidential election has topped headlines around the world, and according to David Lindahl, a research engineer at the Swedish Defence Research Agency, Sweden should be prepared for the possibility that something similar could happen here ahead of the 2018 general election.

According to most security observers, Russia will try to support Sweden’s far-right Sweden Democrats party to win 2018 general election. A poll, produced by Aftonbladet newspaper, showed that popular support for the Sweden Democrats party increased to 21.5%, compared with the 13% they got in the 2014 general election.

On March 8, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven invited all political party leaders for a joint conference reviewing the disinformation threat presented by Security Service. He said, “This is an issue that stands above all the positioning and party politics. It touches our society’s foundation.” Security Service [SAPO] explained to them during the conference about disinformation and about the risks of so-called lobbying operations committed by pro-Russia organisations. Soon the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency will gather the representatives of mainstream media and social media for a dialogue on cybersecurity and the threats of disinformation.

What will that mean for the general elections of 2018?

We’ll have to wait and see.