The debate about foreign interference in the US presidential election has dominated global news for the past year, including the recent release of a trove of social media posts paid for by Russian operatives, who used fake news and Twitter bot accounts to influence the vote and sow discord among Americans.
Sweden, which is set to hold its own elections in less than a year, is watching the developments intently. With politics growing increasingly divisive on home soil, and neither mainstream coalition strong enough to seize a parliamentary majority, it knows it may become the next target in the post-truth information war.
In fact, it has already begun.
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Aside from having a typically Scandinavian long and bureaucratic name, the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB) is responsible for “issues concerning civil protection, public safety, emergency management and civil defence as long as no other authority has responsibility”.
It was set up in its current form in 2009 and usually plays a low-key but hands-on crisis management role, stepping in to coordinate other agencies' work in times of emergencies and natural disasters.
But increasingly, it has been preparing for another kind of enemy, one trying to turn Sweden's strength – its open society – into a weakness. Since early 2017, MSB has been analyzing the threat of foreign influencing campaigns and has found that Sweden's line of defence is both solid and vulnerable.
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You could say it started in 2014. Mikael Tofvesson, head of MSB's global monitoring and analysis section, was following reports of armed soldiers in unmarked uniforms occupying Crimean military bases, its parliament in capital Simferopol and the airport, all while Russia kept denying any involvement.
“Something happened in Europe then. One country invaded another country and lied about it. Everyone debated whether or not it was this country and they said 'it's not us'. Afterwards they admitted it was them, but what did that mean? It meant that everyone was discussing whether it was true or false, and that discussion did not in any way affect their plan to take power in this area,” he tells The Local.
“We got a taste then of how powerful this tool is.”
MSB's offices in Stockholm are located in an unassuming building on the Kungsholmen island in the Swedish capital, with brightly lit and Scandinavian-bland corridors. But in one of these corridors, there's a meeting room. Inside, there's a set of computer screens monitoring emergency calls, the status of Sweden's energy network, social media, television broadcasts, you name it. It gives a real-time overview of everything that is going on and everything that's being talked about – real news, and fake news.
There's been an increase in the latter in recent years.
In 2015, a letter signed by Swedish defence minister Peter Hultqvist about arms sales to Ukraine appeared on social media. Another letter the same year, signed by a senior prosecutor, indicated that Sweden would be prepared to cover up alleged war crimes to protect Ukrainian interests. That letter was reported on CNN iReport and by Russian television. But both documents were forged.
In the run-up to the Brexit referendum a fake article designed to look like it had been published by Swedish newspaper DN trumpeted out that former foreign and prime minister Carl Bildt was working to counteract Eurosceptics and promote closer ties between the EU and Ukraine. The fake article was published by several English-language and Russian-language sites, said DN. It is still out there today.
“The problem was that if you knew Swedish you could tell that there were a lot of spelling errors, Google Translate from start to finish. But if you don't know Swedish, as many Brits do not, the layout looked genuine. It was really designed to make Brits angry and affect the vote, but it also meant they got angry at Sweden and that could potentially affect our international relations,” says Tofvesson.
Prime Minister Stefan Löfven and then Interior Minister Anders Ygeman visiting MSB in early 2017. Photo: Jessica Gow/TT
Russia may accuse Sweden of peddling “James Bond theories“, but in the eyes of Sweden's security police Säpo the country is one of the biggest intelligence threats to Sweden. It has accused Russia both of spying and trying to influence the Swedish public debate. And the vast majority of news stories about Sweden on state-funded Russian media outlets like Sputnik and Russia Today paint a negative picture.
“There are examples from the American election campaign, but also in the run-up to the German and French elections this year. Russia has been openly identified. There is nothing to suggest that future Swedish elections will be spared. On the contrary we are already seeing clear attempts at influencing for example our security politics,” wrote the Social Democrat prime minister Stefan Löfven earlier this year.
Organized troll factories that exist purely to push out propaganda have already been exposed. A story about a vandalized church in Swedish town Kristianstad was shared via such trolls, but not before it had morphed into a story in which the culprits were Muslim refugees. In fact, they were Swedish drug addicts, but that was irrelevant: the fake news had already been shared by Facebook pages with more than ten million followers, wrote DN, which traced it to trolls in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
Similar organized campaigns exist in Sweden. Facebook recently shut down the account of one social media and YouTube site, 'Granskning Sverige', after it urged followers to harass activists who opposed online hate. It is not yet known how the site is financed, but a report by DN was able to link ad money paid to far-right site Fria Tider, which owns the site's internet domain, to businessmen in Russia and Ukraine.
The site's material is frequently shared by representatives of anti-immigration party the Sweden Democrats, despite party leaders' attempts to clamp down on hate rhetoric. The local branch of the party in Nacka also shared the anti-online hate activists' contact details, including addresses, via a site called Gangrapesweden, in a post which it later took down. But drop by drop, it trickles down into the mainstream.
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'Fake news' was picked as word of the year by UK-based Collins Dictionary, which said usage of the term increased 365 percent in 2017. But the biggest challenge lies not in outright lies: it is in those little grains of truth that can be cherry-picked, exaggerated and turned into whatever suits the messenger.
Sweden is a war zone! The rape capital of Europe! They have banned Christmas lights! You can't eat bacon on trains any more! Women are oppressed, no wait, men are oppressed by radical feminists! Those are just some of the hammed-up stories that have grabbed online headlines, including on several state-funded Russian sites or alt-right outlets such as Breitbart or InfoWars, in the past year. Many more of them have been picked up by comparatively more mainstream publishers, including tabloids in the UK.
“The stories are usually about a society that is not working, our leadership is bad, we are uncoordinated, we are… decadent, even! This is a sick society, that's an image they like to spread. That is an ongoing trend, and it would be nice if this country stopped doing that – because we think there's a country behind this – but it's difficult to attribute blame because there's a filter of media agencies and Twitter users and others who are free to express themselves,” says Tofvesson, firmly declining to name any nations or media.
Mikael Tofvesson, head of MSB's global monitoring and analysis section. Photo: Emma Löfgren/The Local
It's a difficult arena to navigate. There is a huge spread between coordinated disinformation campaigns, exaggerated headlines, misunderstandings, poor journalism or just someone using Sweden to score political points in their home country, and the lines are not always clear cut.
“These influencing campaigns sometimes move in an area that is a bit blurred. If there's a trend in negative reports about Sweden, that's a good opportunity to piggyback on that. But our impression is also that there is indeed a foreign power that has a long-term plan to strengthen negative reports about Sweden,” adds Tofvesson.
So how do you sow discord in one of the most open and trusting nations on earth? You focus on as divisive a topic as possible, which in the run-up to the September 2018 election, three years after Sweden's record intake of refugees, is likely to centre around immigration, segregation and crime.
Debating how to reduce crime or stop segregation in vulnerable suburbs is perfectly legitimate, and an urgent issue that Sweden desperately needs to address. It also provides the perfect breeding ground for anyone who wants to spread rumours or undermine people's trust in the state and democracy. You barely even have to steer it: with a multitude of willing accomplices, people with genuine concerns, trolls acting on their own initiative and useful fools, all you have to do is fan the flames, sit back and watch.
If you think it's like comparing apples and pears, that's the point. Disinformation feeds on confusion. There may be good guys and bad guys, but there is a much wider grey area where one person's truth is another person's falsehood. In the information war, we are all perpetrators and we are all victims.
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Sweden is now taking measures to slowly build up its defences. The government wants children to learn to differentiate between real and fake sources from as early as primary school. Teaching kids how to spot fake news on the internet has even made it into one of Sweden's most famous children's cartoon strips.
Some of Sweden's largest media companies – public broadcasters SVT and Sveriges Radio, Bonnier, Schibsted and NTM – have joined forces to develop a digital platform to counteract fake news.
MSB is working together with the Swedish Election Authority, the security police and the national police to identify weaknesses in the system to be ready to tackle foreign interference in the 2018 election.
The strategy, they say, is not to fight fire with fire. For example, in the case of the fake news about Carl Bildt and Eurosceptics, MSB settled for contacting Bildt himself and DN, so that the main actors involved could themselves share the story of what actually happened, or in this case, did not happen. It argues that its role as a government agency is to present correct information, not hit out against incorrect information.
“It's like mudwrestling a pig. You'll both get dirty, but the pig will think it's quite nice. This plays into their hands, whereas for us getting dirty is just a pain. Instead, we have to try to stay clean and focus on the part of our society that has to work: democracy and freedom of expression, to make sure that giving the citizens correct information becomes our best form of resistance,” says Tofvesson.
But such a strategy depends on that information being shared farther and wider than the fake stories. If citizens are the last line of defence, it means that people too, will have to step up their game: don't share things without knowing who the messenger is, think critically about what a site tells you but also what it does not tell you, know that even serious newspapers get things wrong and use your own voice.
“Our population is relatively well-educated and IT savvy, so in that way we are fairly resistant. On the other hand in Sweden we are not as eager to debate things as in many other countries, so we let a lot of things go. Some join the debate, but many don't, normally you don't take on that fight,” says Tofvesson.
“The people probably don't want the state to lead the debate on freedom of speech, it is something that has to come from within. If the people don't join the debate, democracy loses out. But we've become very time focused and everyone is careless with how they share information online. That's a vulnerability.”
Six fake or distorted stories about Sweden
False or exaggerated stories about Sweden that have been shared on social media in the past year.
1. The car on fire
A stock image of a car on fire in Bulgarian capital Sofia is frequently used by anti-immigration proponents as an example of rising crime in Sweden. For example, it was used last month by far-right news site Voice of Europe in an interview with blogger Peter Imanuelsen, who is currently based in Norway after having lived in the UK for several years, and has alleged on several occasions that Sweden is turning into a “war zone”. It has even been shared by more mainstream voices as well, including by the leader of Norwegian Fremskrittspartiet, Siv Jensen, with the tagline “We don't want the Swedish condition in Norway”. Sweden has indeed reported an increase in car burnings, but if you see this picture, no, that's not quite what it looks like.
2. The elderly woman
A picture of a severely bruised elderly woman was shared just a few days before this article was published by a Facebook user who regularly shares anti-immigration material, alleging that “Stina” had been beaten up by asylum seekers in Jordbro. But the picture stems from an article from 2014, about how the 95-year-old got injured in a fall while trying to get to the toilet on her own, because she did not want to bother the care home staff. The woman, whose real name is Karin, passed away in 2014 and her family has now sued the man for exploiting her picture. He has since taken down the post, but not before it had been shared more than a thousand times, with few people questioning the claim.
3. The blond boy with blue eyes
A picture of a blond child with stitches around the eyes occasionally makes the rounds on social media, purporting to be of a Swedish boy who was beaten up by Muslims “because his eyes are blue”. It is in fact a picture of a young Welsh girl who grabbed headlines in 2008 after she was attacked by her family dog.
The fake story last resurfaced in December 2016, including being shared by a group called God Today, which has almost 3 million likes on Facebook, but the claim has been floating around since 2013.
4. Sweden bans Christmas lights
An online hoax about Sweden banning Christmas lights to avoid upsetting Muslims went viral in 2016, after it was shared by alt-right blogger Milo Yiannopoulos. What actually happened was that the traffic authority had stopped local municipalities from hanging Christmas lights from the authority's roadside lampposts, due to safety concerns and bureaucratic rules about electricity. Councils were not prevented from hanging them anywhere else. If you lived in Sweden all you had to do was look out your window to see that the country was still sparkling with Christmas lights. The Local's readers even sent in their own pictures.
— The Local Sweden (@TheLocalSweden) December 24, 2016
5. The curious case of Egor Putilov
Disinformation campaigns often pretend to argue their opponents' positions, but in an exaggerated and borderline ridiculous way. An opinion piece which suggested giving asylum seekers and undocumented migrants the right to vote in Swedish elections was published in one of Sweden’s biggest newspapers, Aftonbladet, in 2016, signed by “Tobias Lagerfeldt, law student at Stockholm University and volunteer for the organization Refugees Welcome”. It sparked debate with many ridiculing his radical view.
But he does not exist. Neither the university nor the organization had any records of a Tobias Lagerfeldt.
Aftonbladet claimed, after removing the article from their online site and looking into the matter, that it had in fact been written by a Russian immigrant who had freelanced for several media organizations in Sweden, had worked for the Migration Agency and was an employee for the Sweden Democrats at the time. He had also contacted MSB to offer to help them investigate Russian interference in Sweden.
The man, who uses the pseudonym Egor Putilov, denied being responsible for the forged opinion piece in Aftonbladet, but was eventually forced to leave his parliament job after security experts raised concerns.
The Swedish parliament. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT
6. Pippi Longstocking
A Swedish daycare's trip to a local library sparked a racism debate recently after a library user overheard the group listening to an outdated CD of various Pippi Lockstocking stories, and filed a report to the police over racial agitation (hets mot folkgrupp). It is not the first time the children's books, in which Pippi's father is described as a “Negro king”, have caused a stir, and new editions instead refer to him as a king of the “South Seas”.
It was first reported by Swedish tabloid GT, then by The Local in English, both articles explaining that one individual had made the complaint, and it was dropped. But it was then picked up by Voice of Europe, where the headline suddenly became “Sweden: Reading aloud from famous children's books is now 'racist'”, confirming their image of Sweden as a country where anti-immigration opinions are suppressed.
In fact, there is a vibrant debate in Sweden about whether old children's literature should be updated if it includes offensive words, or if parents and children should instead use it as an opportunity to talk about why that word was used in the 1940s when Astrid Lindgren wrote the books about Pippi, and why it is considered offensive today. The decision not to use Pippi's dad's old title, and rename him King of the South Seas, was made by Lindgren's daughter Karin Nyman, after the author herself admitted in an interview in the 1970s that had she written the books then, she would not have called him a Negro king. Most public libraries today have the new editions on their shelves, but old copies have also been preserved for posterity.
This is an example of how an initially correct story gets exaggerated, so that a complaint gets turned into a lie about how Sweden thinks it is racist to read aloud. Perhaps even our own story should have made it even more clear that it was a single complaint and it was dropped? Perhaps we should not have reported it at all?
As one of Sweden's top experts on fake news wrote on Twitter, do we need to take more care to explain what it means that someone has filed a police report? And does mainstream media sensationalism play into the hands of propagandists? We would love to hear your thoughts, because it is important that the media are self-critical, but critical readers who speak out are even more important. You're the last line of defence.
File photo of Pippi Longstocking books. Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT