Fri, Jun 15, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Sweden must face up to Russian interference ahead of polls

The best defense against disinformation campaigns is for the nation’s political leaders to recognize the need for key reforms and be willing to work together on them, thereby removing the fuel that feeds rumors

By Paulina Neuding

Illustration: Mountain People

With a general election approaching in September, Swedish voters are being warned that now it is their turn to be targeted by Russian interference in the democratic process.

Sweden’s Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB), which is leading the country’s efforts to counter foreign-influence operations, said such interference is very likely, and citizens should be on the lookout for disinformation and fake news.

There is just one problem: separating Russian “lies” from Sweden’s messy political reality is not going to be easy.

In recent months, Russian trolls have targeted Swedes by distributing believable stories and politically charged gossip about social unrest and moral decay. In one case, Russian agents allegedly flooded social media with news meant to influence the Swedish debate on immigration.

The MSB said Russia’s goal was to fuel Swedish domestic disputes and divert attention away from Russian activities elsewhere in Europe.

That might be true, but what makes Russia’s actions all the more dangerous is Sweden’s own missteps, which have caused false stories to gain currency. Immigration and soaring crime rates have divided the country; Russia is merely seeking to exploit these rifts for its own gain.

Sweden’s political troubles are not new. For the past four years, the country has been governed by a minority coalition comprising the Green Party and the Social Democrats, a bloc that is barely tolerated by center-right forces.

However, the government has hobbled along, unified primarily by its members’ opposition to the alternative. After a strong showing by the anti-establishment, anti-immigration Sweden Democrats in the 2014 general election, center-right parties refused to cooperate with the party and tacitly sided with the left, fueling resentment among many voters.

This bitterness has only sharpened since, as the current government has downplayed the damage caused by the country’s immigration policies. Instead of engaging with sensible critics on the topic, the government has labeled its opponents “populists” and accused them of damaging “the image of Sweden.”

What is really most damaging to the country’s reputation are politicians who continue to refuse dialogue.

To be sure, Swedish politics has given Russia plenty of ammunition in its efforts to influence public opinion, but it is also disturbing how Russia’s history of electoral meddling has become an excuse for Swedish leaders to ignore much-needed reforms.

For example, in April, Malmo Mayor Katrin Stjernfeldt Jammeh summoned the MSB to discuss how to protect the “image of Malmo” from “foreign entities” that might try to sully it in order to influence the upcoming vote.

The mayor missed the point: Malmo’s image problem is the result of mismanagement, not distorted public perception.

Despite a population of less than 330,000, Malmo stands out in Western Europe for its high levels of unemployment and welfare dependency, soaring crime rates, radicalization, segregation and social unrest.

Oscar Jonsson, a doctoral student at King’s College London who specializes in Russian non-military warfare, told me that what makes countering Russian interference so difficult is that the tactics are subtle, sophisticated and often believable.

In Sweden’s case, Russian agents are accused of feeding false narratives into the Swedish social-media mill, which, because they contain grains of truth, are then shared by Swedes themselves.

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