Different election, same problem. By now, the fact that foreign powers might try to influence other countries’ elections by spreading disinformation, is no longer surprising to anyone.
By – Federico Guerrini
Much less so to Swedish politicians and lawmakers, who have witnessed Russian efforts to manipulate the U.S. elections two years ago, and are by no means willing to let anything similar happen in their own country.
The 2018 general election is scheduled in the Scandinavian nation for September 9: authorities have been preparing for almost two years now to counter hate-filled propaganda aimed at depicting the country alternatively as ‘Swedenistan‘, a breeding ground for Muslim fundamentalists, the ‘rape capital of Europe’, a failed democracy, or all of those things combined.
Which might seem kind of strange, considering that Sweden is always listed among the top 10 – and often the top 5 – nations with the best quality of life, that 76% of people aged 15 to 64 in Sweden have a paid job (above the OECD employment average of 67%) and satisfaction with the way democracy works in their country is consistently above the European average.
Not that the country is devoid of problems: violent crimes are on the rise, the welcoming attitude towards asylum seekers and refugees has given way to harsher reception of the ‘uninvited guests’ and there has indeed been an increasein sexual assaults, although statistics don’t tell the whole story, if you don’t consider that the legal definition of rape in Sweden is significantly broader and more comprehensive than in many other countries.
As Freedom Rights Projects co-founder Paulina Neuding wrote in a very interesting piece for Project Syndicate, there’s often a grain of truth in the fake stories disseminated by trolls and self-proclaimed activists on social media. They might completely false or only partly accurate, and built in such a way to project a distorted image of what actually happened; but given that they have roots in real fears and real issues, they are often believable and therefore difficult to counter.
Everyone is pointing the finger at Russia but it’s difficult to produce concrete proof of the Kremlin’s involvement in undermining democracy in Sweden. “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,” the head of the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB) global monitoring and analysis section, Mikael Tofvesson, told The Local.
It’s also arguable that, while Russia might be the driving force behind rising discontent in the country, it is definitely not doing it all by itself.
“Pro-Kremlin sentiments can be identified within different political communities (…) these groups exist not only to the far left but also the far right of the political spectrum, as well as within more peripheral groups such as libertarians, conspiracy movements, peace organizations and environmentalists,” two scholar of the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, Martin Kragh and Sebastian Åsberg wrote in “Russia’s strategy for influence through public diplomacy and active measures: the Swedish case”, an in-depth analysis published last year in the Journal of Strategic Studies.
In short, Sweden’s open and tolerant society is under attack both from the far right, which accuses it of embracing ‘degenerated European values’ and of leaving the country in the hands of crime-prone foreigners, and from the left, which criticizes NATO membership and collaboration with Western allies and is also maybe scared by what kind of impact the presence of immigrants from male-dominated cultures could have on the country achievements in terms of female freedom and independence.
Motivations can sometimes overlap and the two sides have in common an anti-establishment (and often also anti-American) attitude. In this context, Russian president Vladimir Putin might be seen by some as a proponent of a different social model, although clearly, one doesn’t necessarily have to be a Kremlin supporter to disseminate anti-establishment propaganda.
On its side, the nation has a well-educated population and a high degree of public trust, plus the fact that authorities are well aware of the problem and have started taking a number of countermeasures, such as the launch of a ‘Facebook hotline’ to report forged pages, the proposed creation of an ad-hoc authority tasked with fostering ‘psychological defense’ against disinformation (although the MSB seems oriented to perform this task itself), the introduction of ‘source criticism’ courses for students in junior and high schools, the distribution to party officials and to the general population of handbooks and leaflets containing, among other things, guidance on how to spot and deal with disinformation.
Will it be enough? Difficult to say. Some recent surveys seem to suggest that fake news are already altering the perception of facts among Swedes, undermining people’s trust in the media, and that many young people would rather have experts governing the country than democratically elected politicians.
Once sown, the seed of distrust is hard to eradicate and, even in the best-case scenario, it will take time to piece together again a highly polarized society.
Read more: From 2018/02/21