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

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.

Sweden told to step up its game to fight international smear campaign
People casting their votes on polling day. Photo: Stina Stjernkvist/TT

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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2022 SWEDISH ELECTION

What’s the Swedish Christian Democrats’ abortion contract all about?

Ebba Busch, leader of Sweden's Christian Democrats on Monday presented an "abortion contract", which she wants all of Sweden's party leaders to sign. What's going on?

What's the Swedish Christian Democrats' abortion contract all about?

What’s happened? 

Ebba Busch, leader of Sweden’s Christian Democrat party, called a press conference on Monday in which she presented a document that she called “an abortion contract”, which was essentially a pledge to safeguard the right of women in Sweden to have an abortion.  

“There is room for signatures from all eight party leaders,” she said. “I have already signed on behalf of the Christian Democrats.” 

What does the so-called “abortion contract” say? 

The document itself is fairly uncontroversial.

It states simply that Sweden’s law on abortion dates back to 1974, and that it grants women the right to an abortion up until the 18th week of pregnancy, with women seeking abortions later in their pregnancy required to get permission from the National Board of Health and Welfare. 

“Those of us who have signed this document support Sweden’s abortion legislation and promise to defend it if it comes under attack from forces both within our country and from outside,” the document reads.  

Why have the Christian Democrats produced it? 

The decision of the US Supreme Court to overturn Roe vs Wade, and so allow US states to ban abortion has aroused strong feelings in Sweden, as elsewhere, and Busch is seeking to send a strong signal to distance her own Christian party from the US religious right. 

Abortion has been a recurring issue within the Christian Democrats with several politicians and party members critical of abortion. 

Lars Adaktusson, a Christian Democrat MP, was found by the Dagens Nyheter newspaper to have voted against abortion 22 times when he was a member of the European parliament. 

The party has also in the past campaigned for the right of midwives and other medical professionals who are ethically opposed to abortion not to have to take part in the procedure. 

So why aren’t all the other party leaders signing the document? 

Sweden’s governing Social Democrats, and their Green Party allies, dismissed the contract as a political gimmick designed to help the Christian Democrats distance themselves from elements of their own party critical of abortion. 

“It would perhaps be good if Ebba Busch did some homework within her own party to check that there’s 100 percent support for Sweden’s abortion legislation,” Magdalena Andersson, Sweden’s prime minister, said. “That feels like a more important measure than writing contracts between party leaders and trying to solve it that way.”  

In a debate on Swedish television, Green Party leader Märta Stenevi argued that it would be much more significant if Busch’s own MPs and MEPs all signed the document. 

It wasn’t other party leaders who needed to show commitment to abortion legislation, but “her own MPs, MEPs, and not least her proposed government partners in the Sweden Democrats and even some within the Moderate Party”. 

She said it made her “very very worried” to see that the Christian Democrats needed such a contract. “That’s why I see all this more as a clear sign that we need to move forward with protecting the right to abortion in the constitution,” she said. 

How have the other right-wing parties reacted? 

The other right-wing parties have largely backed Busch, although it’s unclear if any other party leaders are willing to actually sign the document. 

Tobias Billström, the Moderates’ group parliamentary leader, retweeted a tweet from Johan Paccamonti, a Stockholm regional politician with the Moderate Party, which criticised the Social Democrats for not signing it, however. 

“It seems to be more important to blow up a pretend conflict than to sign the Christian Democrats’ contract or look at the issue of [including abortion rights in] the constitution, like the Moderates, Liberals and Centre Party want to,” Paccamonti wrote. 

The Liberal Party on Sunday proposed protecting abortion rights in the Swedish constitution, a proposal which has since been backed by the Moderate party and the Centre Party

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