Faced with a tsunami of propaganda about its treatment of Muslims that has sparked protests from Stockholm to Baghdad in recent months, Sweden decided it needed to fight back.
It turned to the Psychological Defense Agency, a part of the Defense Ministry that its government created last year. The agency has become the first line of defense for a country facing constant information attacks from abroad.
The country’s leaders are borrowing from old Cold War tactics to prepare the country’s 10 million people for the possibility of a “total war” with the Soviet Union. The main threat today – though not the only one – is Russia, the successor state of the Soviet Union. According to agency officials, the Kremlin has targeted Sweden with a concerted online campaign on social media and elsewhere to discredit the country and undermine its bid to join the NATO alliance.
After working quietly behind the scenes, the agency has now explicitly accused Russia of exploiting recent Protests by immigrants and others This includes burning copies of the Quran in Sweden, an act highly disrespectful to Muslims. The outcry has already had an effect: Sweden’s joining NATO is being delayed because of objections from another member, Turkey.
Referring specifically to Russian efforts online to amplify the global response to protests outside Stockholm’s largest mosque on June 28, Mikael Toffvesson, the agency’s director of operations, said in an interview, “They were at a level that we’ve seen before.” had never seen.”
Other countries have struggled to combat foreign influence campaigns in recent years, including France, which has created a similar agency, but Sweden now focuses on the country’s security, its social cohesion and even its democratic The foundation is on the front line of the battle. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – and Sweden’s subsequent decision to seek NATO membership – has put the country in the Russian crosshairs.
The work of the Psychological Defense Agency could become a model of how democratic governments can fight back – or a symbol of how ineffective they are against determined authoritarian opponents.
Sweden’s prime minister, Ulf Christerson, who has led a coalition government since the last election, said “the state and state-like actors” were “actively exploiting” the protests in Sweden. In a statement with the Danish leader late last month, he said Sweden faced “the most serious security situation since World War II”.
In Sweden, as elsewhere, the question of what to do in the face of an information onslaught has become increasingly complex, threatening traditions of tolerance for free speech against threats posed by malicious information online.
In the United States, debate has become increasingly partisan with Republicans accused the federal government of suppressing critics At home Last year, an attempt to create a disinformation advisory board at the Department of Homeland Security failed amid heavy opposition.
The Psychological Defense Agency also raised political concerns when it was proposed, but its leaders have stressed that the mandate only allows it to address foreign sources of disinformation, not material originating in Sweden.
This is the challenge faced by all democracies which, as a matter of principle, refuse to impose official ideologies that allow for differing points of view about what is right or wrong.
“The government can’t control the truth if it’s a democracy,” said Hanna Linderstel, founder of the Earhart Business Protection Agency, a cybersecurity firm in Stockholm, and advisor to the International Telecommunication Union, part of the United Nations. ,
The Psychological Defense Agency began operations in January 2022, but some of its functions were previously under a civilian division in the Civil Contingencies Agency. Its roots extend back to 1953, when Sweden, though neutral, feared Soviet dominance in the ideological struggle between the West and communism.
The decision to revive the country’s ability to fight information warfare came after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, triggering a military intervention known as waves of disinformation. As elsewhere, officials in Sweden have expressed concern that the propaganda has succeeded in creating confusion and suspicion among European voters, thereby undermining government policies to counter Russia’s aggression.
“When it comes to information warfare,” said Par Noren, senior analyst who conducted training sessions for the agency, “it is the brain that is the site of the battle.”
Since the agency’s inception, Sweden has faced intense disinformation campaigns. They began in late 2021 with posts on Twitter, YouTube and other social media platforms expressing anger over the plight of an Iraqi immigrant in Sweden whose children had been removed from their custody by the country’s child protection services.
The allegations turned to false accusations that Sweden was abducting Muslim children and forcing them to eat pork or otherwise violate Islamic traditions, which was followed by Arab countries including Egypt, Morocco and Lebanon as well as Turkey. Spread online in speaking countries.
The immigrant was, in fact, not a Muslim, but a Mandaean Sabian, a follower of an ancient monotheistic faith in southern Iraq that revered John the Baptist among other prophets.
The allegations have continued online, including on a YouTube channel with nearly one million subscribers that first aired them. One of Russia’s state television networks followed this year a similar report Involving an ethnically Russian immigrant family from Latvia, it was said that Sweden would not allow the children to speak Russian, which is not true.
Disputes over social services brought prominence to a new political party, the Nyans or Nuans, which have built support among the country’s immigrant voters. Party leader Mikael Yüksel admitted that the allegations of state usurpation were false but nevertheless criticized the government for its policies.
Mr. Yuksel, who came from Turkey, said, “Sweden is an anti-Islamic country.” “This is not propaganda. This is true.”
The government was slow to respond to allegations about social services, but the new government under Mr Christerson announced a number of measures this year in response, including adding more staff members to the Psychological Defense Agency, which now has 55. There are employees.
The agency is headquartered in Karlstad and has an office in Solna, a suburb of Stockholm. There, it occupies an inconspicuous yellow building on the campus of Karolinska University Hospital, which has opened its doors to refugees and casualties from the war in Ukraine.
The agency’s director-general, Magnus Hjort, a former historian who wrote a report proposing the reorganization of a department devoted to psychological defence, said, “What we are seeing now is a full-scale, full-scale crackdown in Europe.” There is war.” “And Sweden is not neutral.”
According to the agency, Russian state media and online accounts have also fueled a series of protests, in which incidents of Koran burning in Russian and Arabic have been reported across the Middle East over the past two years. It found that some of the sources were the same who were circulating false news about the kidnapping of Muslim children. Other researchers have suggested that the Russians were involved in helping to instigate the protests.
One of the first protests involved far-right Danish politician Rasmus Paludan, who also holds Swedish citizenship, who burned a copy of the Quran in Jönköping in 2002. He did it again in January in front of the Turkish embassy in Stockholm, sparking public outrage. There is resentment in Turkey that has helped block the approval of Sweden’s application to join NATO.
The cost of the permit for Mr Paludan’s protest in January – 320 krona, or about $30 – was paid for by Chang Johannes Frick, a Swedish journalist who previously worked for Russian media. However, Paludan denied any ties to Russia and said in an email that he opposed Russia’s invasion and that he had staged the protest to draw attention to Turkey’s position.
“I wanted to send a signal to Erdogan that he should not interfere with freedom of expression in Sweden,” he wrote, referring to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Another protester, Salwan Momica, has organized a series of smaller demonstrations desecrating the Quran, twice in Iraq, resulting in attacks on the Swedish embassy in the capital, Baghdad. Mr. Momica, an Iraqi Christian who immigrated in 2017, initially agreed to answer questions about his motivations by email, but declined to answer when asked about his ties to Russia. Did not give
Mr. Hjort and other agency officials declined to detail evidence of Russia’s involvement, and so far the agency has produced few public reports about foreign disinformation campaigns. Much of its work consists of advising other government agencies behind the scenes to raise awareness of the threat of foreign interference. This included training sessions for municipal departments handling child welfare matters among immigrants. It ran a public service campaign in Swedish, Arabic and English ahead of the last election, using humorous posters to warn about lies hidden online.
Mr Hjort said the agency was regularly in touch with the social media platforms but had not asked them to remove the accounts. Only once has it publicly named the source of the disinformation – the YouTube channel Shawn Islamia in Egypt, which attracted international attention over false accusations of child abduction – but it remains online.
“If you live in a democratic society, the best way to protect society from disinformation is to raise awareness among the population about the dangers and their vulnerabilities, so that they can make the right decisions,” said Mr. operational. “And that’s the Swedish way.”