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Sweden election: Russia's actions in Ukraine see Stockholm beef up its fight against disinformation

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By David Mac Dougall
FILE: Voter casts a ballot in Swedish election
FILE: Voter casts a ballot in Swedish election   -   Copyright  AFP / ODD ANDERSEN

The Swedish agency on the frontline of defending against malign influence and disinformation has been busier than ever ahead of Sunday's general election.

The Psychological Defence Agency's job is to strengthen the population’s ability to detect and resist any efforts from countries like Russia to subvert society and the democratic process.

Mikael Östlund, from the agency, says one of the ways it does this is through education and that demand has been huge in the run-up to the vote.

Psychological defence operations have a long history in Sweden, dating back to WWII, and through the decades they've had a general remit to counter disinformation. 

However, when Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014, the massive disinformation efforts which preceded their actions made it obvious for Sweden and other countries the need to upgrade their capacities. 

So, by the time Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, an increased budget and more resources meant the agency was able to do much more work in raising awareness about misinformation, disinformation and influencing operations from abroad - and their potential effects on society. 

"We haven't seen any coordinated information campaigns against Sweden during the election campaign, and no increased activity either, but as we are getting closer to the election date we are aware of the fact it might be an opportunity for a foreign power or actor to do something exceptional, near to the election," Mikael Östlund told Euronews.

In the spring, staff from the agency met with Swedish political parties to give them more education about the possibility that they could become targets, and advise on how to guard against such disinformation campaigns. 

"We tell them, generally, think before you share something on social media, and be aware you might be part of a disinformation campaign," said Östlund.

Beyond that, the education outreach highlights ways in which disinformation can generate anxiety, fuel hatred and doubt, and increase the vulnerabilities in society - particularly around polarising issues in Swedish society like immigration and crime: subjects which have been at the heart of this year's general election campaign and pushed in particular by right-wing political parties. 

Why has Russia stayed out of the Swedish election?

It seems that Swedish authorities have braced to be on the receiving end of a Russian disinformation operation that never came - at least, not yet. 

So why might the Kremlin have left the Swedish election campaign alone? 

One reason, says Jakub Kalenský from the European Hybrid Centre of Excellence, is that they might be too tied up with the invasion of Ukraine to spare the resources to mount a credible malign influence campaign in Sweden as well. 

"But it might partly be that the Swedish audience is too hard to penetrate and they focus on something else," said Kalenský.

"Sweden is one of the most resilient countries in Europe, and if you are the Kremlin you see that media is strong, the trust level is quite high, and you think it would be too expensive for us to be effective in Sweden. Besides, they will be needing their resources elsewhere," he told Euronews. 

The Helsinki-based Hybrid Centre of Excellence brings together experts from more than 30 countries and coordinates with both the EU and NATO over best practices and expertise. 

Kalenský says that when it comes to any election in Europe -- since Ukraine's Maidan protests that saw a pro-Kremlin government in Kyiv ousted in favour of a pro-Western government -- there are often similar efforts to undermine the process. 

"In some of the countries in Europe and North America, the Russians get help from domestic actors who act as unwitting agents for Russia's disinformation campaigns. Narratives like the elites will falsify election results, this kind of messaging is probably the most prevalent." 

How to build resilience against disinformation campaigns

Of course, the key in Sweden -- and other countries -- when it comes to building resilience against disinformation campaigns is education. 

But even in countries with high media literacy rates, the Russians are capable of finding "weak spots," said Jakub Kalenský.

"Education will take years, probably decades to where you would get information-resilient societies. We need solutions in the short term," he told Euronews. 

In Europe, Kalenský said, that means having four distinct lines of defence.

The first is documenting and exposing what is happening in the disinformation scene. The second is to raise awareness also with education and to reach out to actors who can speak to audiences that might not be reached by the mainstream media. 

The third line of defence is to repair any damage done by disinformation or malign influence campaigns; while the fourth is to target those responsible for the campaigns overseas - by cutting off internet access to troll farms, or actively hacking the computers of state and non-state actors, or imposing sanctions against companies and individuals. 

"There is now a stronger appetite to go after the companies after the war ends. Russian state TV including its pseudo-journalists including Sputnik and its different language operations, they have been involved in disinformation campaigns since Ukraine's 2014 Maidan Revolution, they have been lying about our countries and trying to undermine democracy," said Kalenský.

"Pseudo-journalists spreading misinformation about the EU, our democracies or spreading likes about issues such as LGBT issues, they should also be sanctioned."