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Threats in the air ahead of the 2018 Swedish elections
Operations to influence and disinformation have become prominent phenomena in the world of policy. Fake news, with the potential of influencing political choices and damaging democracy, has been identified as a serious societal risk. Technology development has created opportunities for players who want to reach large audiences. A study by the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI) showed that Russian disinformation and the spread of false news is also increasing in the social media flows of Swedish citizens. Nils Svartz, Director General Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB), said in an UI seminar attended by Mundus International at the end of November that Sweden was being targeted on daily basis from Russia with an aim to divide the population and spread uncertainty. Both the extreme left and the extreme right are targeted and trolls act fast. Following the data on Russian influence in connection with the elections in the Netherlands, France, Germany and the United States, Swedish authorities took a number of measures. The government tasked the MSB to gather representatives of mass media and social media platforms for a dialogue on information and cyber security before the election. The government also wants to provide MSB with SEK 60 million extra to strengthen psychological defence. In addition to supporting co-ordination, MSB will disseminate knowledge to the municipalities, county administrative boards and electoral authorities.
Sweden has made preparations ahead of the upcoming 2018 Riksdag election in anticipation of possible cyber security problems. SÄPO has been contacted by the government for plans to protect democracy, both in terms of the actual Election Authority (Valmyndigheten) but also the political parties. MSB has appointed a project group with the task of supporting co-ordination and spreading knowledge to responsible actors in the election administration. To start with, MSB will analyse if, and in which cases, Sweden’s elections may be affected. MSB’s analysis should provide support to those responsible for implementing and protecting the election. MSB offers support and education to relevant actors, such as County Administrative Board, and the election authority, in autumn 2017 and spring 2018, based on the development of the issue. The goal is that a joint preventive effort ensures that the 2018 election is not exposed to the influence of foreign power. ”The resilience and awareness of the population are the most important tools in fighting against malicious foreign influencing,” says MSB’s Swartz.
Social media and other internet-based platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and Google, play a key role in the ongoing conversation about our society and its organisation. It is through these platforms and networks that people read, share and discuss news and inform themselves and engage politically. “Sweden is not immune to the kind of undue influence that has occurred in many other countries,” said Minister for Digitalisation, Peter Ericsson, in meeting with Facebook representatives at the company’s headquarters in California, to discuss Facebook’s responsibility for questions about false news and about growing polarisation in the social debate. Facebook has promised to alert Sweden if the company sees signs of manipulation. How Sweden will act in such case, Peter Eriksson cannot say. In addition to Facebook, Mr Eriksson has met several other institutions, organisations and companies in California. The message from the meeting with Twitter was, that the company will increase transparency so that it becomes clearer who is behind the funding of political ads.
Millions of kronor are also being invested in a project in which Sweden’s largest media groups – SVT / SR, Bonnier, Schibsted and NTM – are tasked with “fact-investigating” social media and alternative medias with an aim to prevent “false news” from spreading and penetrating the electoral movement. The cooperation between the government and media groups is focused on a “downward” review of what is commonly referred to as “people’s media”, ie social media, popular blogs and media giants in alternative media. Obviously, in the case of Sweden, established newspapers are not considered to be spreading false information.
Sebastian Bay from MSB brings an interesting point of view to the discussion of a foreign force trying to influence public opinion in Sweden, saying that although the government claims that it is completely unacceptable, there is no law that makes it illegal in Sweden and the politicians don’t seem to be working on the issue either. “If you want to influence a Swedish election, there are great opportunities,” says Mr Bay. In the United States, it is illegal for foreign power to intervene in the election. But in Sweden, a similar propaganda campaign would have hardly led to any investigation. You can buy advertising, finance or launch media in an open society. According to him, there are essentially three forms of foreign influence: 1) Impact on opinion. For example, through disinformation and fake news to influence the perception of an issue, about a party or to split / polarise opinion. 2) Impact on confidence in the electoral system and democracy. For example, hacking electoral machines or spreading rumours that the electoral registers are corrupt. 3) Subversive activity / espionage. Contacts with politicians, threats. MSB works with problem number two. Säpo is in charge of number three (in case of crime). But number one falls between the chairs.
At UI’s disinformation seminar, Daniel Fried, Ambassador and Distinguished Fellow with the Atlantic Council was of the opinion that sanctions against countries hosting troll farms should be in use. Alina Polyakova from David M. Rubenstein Fellow at Brookings Institution claimed that what we’ve seen is only a beginning of disinformation. Free and open online space enables malicious activities with very cheap costs and replication become more and more accessible, making it difficult to distinguish between artificial and human voices and videos.
Mundus News reported on 29 December that Swedish agencies are now making study visits to different countries ahead of the election to study, among other things the foreign attempts to affect the elections in the USA and France, Brexit in the UK and the crisis in Catalonia. The Swedish Civil Contingency Agency is educating other agencies. “False information caters to white nationalists and to minorities. It is disguised as belonging to both-anti-Muslims and Muslims. There is no ideology behind it, the goal is to destroy and sow division – a sort of anarchy in our societies, says Daniel, Fried, one of the longest working diplomats for American governments.
Considering Sweden’s political situation, where forming a majority governments is looking to be difficult, Sweden could be an attractive target for other nations to attempt to influence public opinion. Cyber harassment, influencing and attacks happen in various ways, and no matter what measures a state takes, it will always be one or two steps behind. In addition to the country’s technical readiness, awareness of the population in recognising false news and opinion influencing, is crucial.
Note: This is a shortened version of the original article, which was published in the December 2017 edition of the Monthly Policy Review. Footnotes and graphs are only available in the subscriber version of this article.
Photo: Camilla Svensk/Sveriges riksdag