Sweden, a country that has built its security on the principle of neutrality, has begun to increase the resistance ability of its society to information attacks.
Like many other Western nations, Sweden’s awakening alarm in 2014 was Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. It became clear that the eastern threat had not disappeared, but that Sweden’s ability to cope with the threat had been greatly reduced by the end of the Cold War.
Sweden embarked on an overhaul of its defence strategy and outlined eight major challenges to National Security, which included cyber and information security. „The USA authorities recently announced that they had evidence of Russian influence operations in the last Presidential election. Sweden may also be the target of similar attempts at influence activities,“ wrote the then Prime Minister, Stefan Löfven in an opinion article on the new security doctrine published in January 2017.
Right wing trolls working for the Kremlin
There is also cause for concern, as confirmed by a study published in 2017 by researchers from the Swedish Institute of International Relations (UI), which demonstrated that Russia’s influence activities in Sweden have increased steadily since 2014. „Sweden has been the target of large scale „active measures“ by Russia, where fake news, false documents and misinformation have been used to influence Swedish public opinion and decision making as part of a coordinated campaign,“ researchers said.
According to the EuvsDisinfo portal, one of the main Kremlin narratives is the exploitation of how Sweden relates to migration. Fake news disrupting society, how Sweden is on the brink of civil war due to migration, how all Swedish children are force to pray to Allah at school, how Muslim immigrants are vandalizing the image of Christ, and so on. In addition to dividing society, the Kremlin aims to spread anti-NATO messages in Sweden and ridicule the Swedish Defence Forces, which are constantly engaged in „hunting for non-existent submarines.“
In February 2017, the Swedish daily newspaper “Eskilstuna Kuriren” published a story describing how far right wing troll factories are working there. A reporter pretending to have right wing sentiments succeeded in gaining the trust of local troll chiefs and described to readers how trolls try to propagate messages from the propaganda machine of the Kremlin. Journalists were one of the targets of trolls, who had precise instructions for provoking with telephone calls. There were cash prizes for the most popular telephone recordings posted on Social Media.
The nation is building up its resistance ability
The Crisis Management Agency (MSB) is the organization responsible for psychological protection in Sweden. The MSB has produced a number of reports for the government, including a secret threat assessment including possible campaigns to influence the last general elections in 2018. They have published several leaflets to raise public awareness to the threat. These include an evaluation of media and influence operations in Sweden. The Agency regularly publishes various handbooks of which many are aimed specifically at journalists and others in the media environment (the Crisis Communication Handbook and the Handbook for counteracting influence activities)
It is precisely the education of the population and the development of general psychological resistance that is at the heart of the Swedish fight against misinformation. The Government has allocated SEK 60 million (EUR 5.75 million) for such activities. In addition to the MSB, other government agencies, including the Swedish election commission, Security Police (Säpo) and the Police are also working to prevent misinformation and campaigns of influence activities.
The National Media Council has developed new teaching materials on Fake news and propaganda for primary and high school students. The aim is to improve the students’ media literacy and skills to critically evaluate fake images and other forms of propaganda on the Internet.
In the election year 2018, the automated fact-checking system faktiskt.se was launched in cooperation with Swedish television and other Swedish broadcasters to prevent the spread of fake news. The government has allocated 13.5 million kroons (nearly 1.3 million euros) through the Swedish Innovation Agency, Vinnova.
The Swedish Prime Minister at the time, Stefan Löfven convened a commission in August 2018 to examine ways to develop and coordinate Sweden’s „psychological protection“ and to create a new government agency. Initial assessments are expected in May this year. According to the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet, the new agency must be up and running by 2022. The former head of Säpo, Anders Danielsson is setting up the agency.
The Army is training cyber soldiers
Sweden is one of the best internet connected countries in the world, with over 95% of the population having internet connections. Therefore, the country is also particularly vulnerable to cybercrime and attacks. According to a Symantec study released last year, in 2018, about 30 percent of Swedes were exposed to some form of Cybercrime, resulting in a total financial loss of $3.5 million USD. More than 12,000 cyber incidents were registered every month in 2018, according to the Swedish Intelligence and Cyber Security Agency, FRA.
The Swedish government launched a national cyber security strategy in June 2017 and is launching this year’s pilot project to train the first „cyber soldiers“ in the Defence Forces. The Commander of the Swedish Defence Forces, Micael Bydén, confirmed to the publication, The Local that in the first phase, about 30 conscripts will be trained as cyber soldiers. Their main task will be to protect cyber systems from potential qualified adversaries.
Sweden also participates in various international initiatives against misinformation and influence operations. The country is a member of the European Center of Excellence in Hybrid Threats in Helsinki and participates in the NATO Strategic Communication Center in Riga as well as the NATO Cyber Defence Center in Tallinn, although it is not a member of the alliance.
Photo: Screenshot from the Crisis Communication Handbook