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Sweden told to step up its game to fight international smear campaign

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Sweden told to step up its game to fight international smear campaign
People casting their votes on polling day. Photo: Stina Stjernkvist/TT
11:01 CET+01:00
A newly-released report studies the effect of international influence campaigns on Sweden's September election, which resulted in a political deadlock that has yet to be broken.

The report was created by a team from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) and the London School of Economics (LSE) and funded by the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB), following evidence of foreign powers attempting to influence other elections including in France, Germany and the USA.

"We wanted an external analysis of possible impact on the election, in addition to our own analysis," explained Mikael Tofvesson, elections operation manager at MSB. "The study also contributes to a broader international picture of how information impact is taking place, as the research team has also studied elections in other European countries."

The researchers studied online platforms including social media sites, chat forums (including far-right fringe platforms such as 4chan and messaging app Gab), and far-right websites, using the same methods they had used to study elections in France or Germany.

They also looked into potential influence campaigns by foreign powers, studying Russian state-sponsored outlets RT and Sputnik. 

Fortunately, they found that Sweden was not affected by any direct campaigns aimed at influencing the election result – but did highlight long-term smear campaigns against the Scandinavian country.

READ ALSO: Report: Swedes bombarded with 'fake news' ahead of election

"International far-right and Russian state-sponsored media are attempting to smear Sweden's reputation internationally," the researchers concluded, citing propaganda efforts either smearing Sweden or presenting it as a country in decline, which the study said were "persistent and widespread" in the run-up to the vote.

RT and Sputnik, as well as the far-right English-language channels Red Ice TV and The Alex Jones Show, all supported far-right groups in Sweden and presented negative, often misreported or biased, reports of the country. But these were deemed to be primarily aimed at "influencing international audiences" rather than having an impact on the Swedish national election.

Disinformation was shared online, most often referring to election fraud, which the study noted was likely the result of a coordinated effort to breed mistrust. Similar tactics were observed in the run-up to the recent elections in France and the US.

The team identified new actors in the spreading of disinformation, including nationalist media outlets and politicians in Poland, and the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir which spread anti-democracy messages to Swedish Muslims ahead of the election, as The Local reported at the time.

The researchers did find evidence that users of sites including 4chan discussed tactics to influence the election, particularly from Denmark-based users, but they said they observed "little to no take-up of these efforts". 

But they warned against complacency and suggested several measures to strengthen democracy and defend against attempts to spread disinformation and mistrust in the democratic system. These measures include consistent monitoring of smear campaigns against Sweden, so that authorities can more effectively counter them; a focus on digital education both for children and adults; and an increased effort from the mainstream media to understand and cater to alienated audiences.

In particular, "if mainstream media provided more accurate and sensitive reporting on the challenges of immigration and integration it could undermine the influence of sensationalist 'junk news' media sources", the writers noted.

READ ALSO: Swedish school kids learn source criticism in fake news study

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