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INTERVIEW: What can Sweden do to combat Russian propaganda?

Paul O'Mahony
Paul O'Mahony - [email protected]
INTERVIEW: What can Sweden do to combat Russian propaganda?

The Local spoke to James Pamment, an associate professor from Lund University studying disinformation, about Russian anti-Swedish propaganda and what Sweden can do to combat it.


Paul O'Mahony, host of The Local's Sweden in Focus podcast, interviewed Pamment for this Saturday's episode, which you can listen to here

The Local: What does Sweden do at an official level to combat Russian propaganda?

James Pamment: Sweden has lots of different tools that it can use. You've probably heard about the new agency, the Psychological Defence Agency. That's the latest. It builds on a department that already existed, but it signals that they're expanding this work and developing their tools and capabilities.

The Foreign Ministry is obviously looking very carefully at what people are saying abroad: the embassies are active on Twitter, they're following what people are saying, and sometimes correcting them.

The Swedish Institute monitors what's being said about Sweden abroad in several different languages, and they do a lot of fact-checking, like correcting misconceptions, where there are facts that they can show to correct them.


And then Sweden also collaborates with lots of partners, so they have a couple of secondees at the European External Action Service working to counter Russian disinformation there. You may have heard of EUvsDisinfo, which is their update that comes every couple of weeks.

They also collaborate with the NATO Strategic Communication Centre of Excellence in Riga, and then there's lots of collaborations on research with NGO partners, trying to build media literacy, develop training, raise awareness. So it's a whole host of things across the board. And it's not just targeting Russian propaganda, but any foreign propaganda that's trying to influence the Swedish public or the Swedish debate.

James Pamment, an associate professor at Lund University, is studying disinformation. Photo: Private

TL: So it sounds like there's a lot going on in a lot of different places. But is it enough?

JP: It's a good question. I think it's really important to keep the public aware of what's happening, because at the end of the day, you can create all of these institutions, but you need people who are on social media, who are reading the news, to have critical opinions and to recognise disinformation or propaganda when they see it.

So they're kind of the first line of defence, which means that that awareness is more than just running a campaign or telling them once, it's a case of keeping it going, keeping the drumbeat going. Keeping them aware, keeping the information coming.

Then there's a question of whether the system can be better, whether this work can improve. And of course, there's always more that can be done, but I think at the moment, in the Swedish system, we're talking more about an evolution rather than a revolution. So it's building on what's there and keeping it going.


TL: Occasionally in Sweden, you see sort of public awareness campaigns about disinformation, is there a need for more of that kind of thing?

JP: I think during certain situations, such as the upcoming election, it's absolutely appropriate to do that. I don't think we need to have these awareness campaigns going all the time. But there are often good reasons, good situations where you can have a campaign, it's a good opportunity to talk about it and remind people that this is out there.

TL: You've spoken elsewhere about the practice of prebunking rather than debunking. Can you explain briefly to listeners what that means?

JP: Prebunking comes from research on health misinformation and climate misinformation. Psychologists have reached quite strong consensus that if you go out with certain messages before people are exposed to the false information, they're more prepared for it.

So, for example, if you know people are going to be exposed to anti-vaccine messages, as we knew two years ago, early on in the Coronavirus pandemic, you can go out early and warn people or prepare them for certain messages that they might receive, give them the facts and hopefully empower them to make more sensible decisions.


TL: Has that been deployed in relation to Russia's invasion of Ukraine?

JP: Yes, it's quite an interesting use of this technique by the Americans in the weeks leading up to the war. So as you probably recall, they were saying quite a lot in the press about the likelihood that Russia would use false flag attacks, claiming that Ukraine's army was doing something or Ukrainian civilians were doing something. But actually, it was a setup. They'd done it.

And what made that really interesting is that, firstly, it does seem to have deterred the Kremlin from using a false flag excuse for war. It didn't deter them from the invasion, but it deterred them from using this kind of approach to motivate the war.

The other thing that's interesting is that usually with prebunking, it's based on facts. So you know, if it's about vaccines, you go out with the facts, and you prepare people with facts for when they're going to meet the misinformation. With this particular case, it wasn't really based on facts so much as on intelligence assessments. So on likelihood, if you like, or probability. They never gave any evidence, they just said 'we have observed this, we know this'.

So I think in the coming weeks and months and years, there'll be a lot more talk about prebunking and how it can be deployed, based on these new cases. Because I think the way the Americans used it has been very interesting and very effective. But it is something of a break from the traditional use.

TL: Is it something that's been used by Sweden?

JP: Not I can think of. You could argue that an awareness-raising campaign is in a way an attempt to prebunk, because you're making people aware, aware of something that you think might come, maybe making them familiar with certain narratives, or certain falsehoods that you're likely to see in the disinformation. So from that perspective, yes. But I don't think it's used particularly extensively.

TL: Do you think with the case this week of a poster campaign in Moscow, identifying certain Swedes as having approved of the Nazis and supporting the Nazis, is that something that could have been predicted and might have been an opportunity for prebunking given that this is the argument Russia used for invading Ukraine, that they were 'denazifying'?


JP:  At the moment, in the Russian sense, 'Nazi' seems to refer to anyone who doesn't agree with Russia. So that's reasonably predictable. I think we've established how they're using it and what they mean. I think there were two target groups. I think that the campaign was a response to the campaign that a law company, a law firm, did in Stockholm early on in the war. And I think it's quite interesting that it's taken them two months to come up with this response, which says something about the state of their propaganda system at the moment.

But in terms of the real target audience is. That's a message to Swedish decision-makers, that 'we're following what's happening in Sweden and we'll get you back'. But really, the target is Muscovites, right. It's the Russian population. And given the way that the communications situation has changed with the ban on much social media within Russia, it would be very difficult for Sweden to prebunk this. Because it would mean, you know, somehow going out to the Russian people directly and telling them we're not Nazis. I don't think that's something that would be a credible move to make. So I don't think it was really possible to prebunk that particular campaign, although it may have been fairly predictable that some kind of response would come after what happened in Stockholm.


TL: So you don't think then that the broader Swedish population was a target audience for this campaign?

JP: I don't see who would think that, you know, people living in Sweden would be particularly concerned by some Russian propaganda. That's in Moscow. You know, it's an interesting story to talk about. Maybe it might raise some debate about some of the people who were mentioned. But as far as influencing the Swedish population. I don't think that's particularly high risk.

TL: No. In general, what does Russian propaganda about Sweden look like?

JP: On a narrative level, they'll tell you that Sweden is a failing country, they like to exaggerate the social problems that genuinely do exist. But they'll make them seem like there's some kind of constant crisis, that the problem is bigger than it really is. And often these narratives will try to turn strengths, the strengths of Swedish society into weaknesses. Things that we see as strengths for a strong liberal democracy -- equality, LGBT rights, freedom of debate -- these are all things that they're trying to turn into weaknesses.

In terms of the techniques that they use, a lot of the propaganda is just coming from their official accounts, ffrom embassies, from other official Russian accounts. They do use coordinated methods to amplify this disinformation. So you know, they have botnets - you've probably heard about these - that are automated and will retweet things automatically.

Sometimes they coordinate comments on new sites or blogs or, you know, any other places where people want to have discussions. So they'll try and pollute those discussions. And they're often looking, trying to seek out like-minded people in Sweden, people who might have some beliefs or interests or worries that overlap with something where they have something to offer. So they're often scouting out for these people. They want to form relationships with them.


TL: So do you think maybe the Nato question at the moment is something that they'll be trying to exploit, trying to find people within Sweden who are anti-Nato?

JP: It's possible, but I think they're also very busy at the moment with other things. There's a lot for them. If they really did want to influence the Swedish Nato debate, there's other ways of doing it than just trying to influence let's say, newspaper coverage in Sweden. Don't forget that all the Nato members need to approve membership. So they may decide to pick certain members and focus their efforts there.

TL:  What do you think about the current state of Russian propaganda? Has it suffered since the invasion of Ukraine?

JP: Yeah, I think their propaganda system was really disrupted by the ban on RT and Sputnik within the EU. Now, whatever you think of the right and wrongs of censorship, and I'm certainly not for censoring media, RT and Sputnik perform a role in Russian propaganda delivery.

And at the start of the war, it's very clear that they weren't acting like a news service. They were acting like a propaganda service. And I think the ban didn't stop people from getting access to RT and Sputnik if they really wanted to seek it out. But it did disrupt the propaganda in Europe for a couple of weeks. We've seen that in studies. We're able to measure that disruption.

Then they changed tactics, they moved a lot of their propaganda to Telegram, which is a Russian-controlled, a predominantly Russian social media platform. And from there, they coordinate a lot of the activities that then go on Twitter and Facebook, and other Western media.

But what's interesting in one of the ways that they've changed is that they're doing a lot of this in the open now. So whereas coordination in the past would have been covert, they don't seem to be able to do it in secret. So they're doing it on these accounts, which means that it's detectable.

TL: Why is that? Why are they not able to make it covert anymore?

JP: It seems like they are struggling generally with the amount of propaganda that they need to produce. I really think they were disrupted. They found some workarounds, but it's just not working, the system is just not working as smoothly as it was before. And that shows that trying to disrupt it is a good thing.

TL: This is a little bit of a speculative question, but were the Russians working with, say, communications companies across Europe, who've maybe walked away from them since the invasion on February 24th?

JP: That's an interesting question. I mean, certainly, it's well-known that Russia has its own in-house public relations. Companies that produce a lot of the trolling, so the so-called 'troll factories', we know that they have a couple of these. We also know that they are offering payment to influencers to produce content that follows a certain narrative or a certain format. As to whether they're working with PR companies in the EU and whether these companies have stopped working with them, I haven't heard anything specifically about that. But I would certainly hope that any companies who have been working with them have cancelled those contracts. I would have thought that they were obliged to under the sanctions.

TL: The fact that some Russia Today journalists left the company in supposed disgust after the war broke out: was were a sort of ripple effects across the communications infrastructure for them?

JP: I think there were, but as I said, you know, it took a couple of weeks, and then they started to find some new workarounds and some new strategies. So the propaganda is up and running again, for sure. It is reaching Europe. But don't forget, they can produce as much propaganda as they like, but you know, is there an audience for that?


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