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Sweden sets up Psychological Defense Agency to fight fake news, foreign interference

People vote as part of the European elections in a polling station located at a school in Stockholm on May 26, 2019. (Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images)
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Sweden is launching a new agency to defend against a rising threat: disinformation — organized campaigns to spread false information.

The Scandinavian country, home to about 10 million people, established the Swedish Psychological Defense Agency on Jan. 1, in a bid to safeguard its “democratic society” and “the free formation of opinion,” the agency said on its website. As the country heads into elections this year, the agency will work alongside the Swedish military and government on the new battleground of fake news and misinformation.

“The security situation in our near European environment has deteriorated for some time now and therefore we need to rebuild our total defence,” Magnus Hjort, the agency’s deputy director, told The Washington Post by email.

The agency will aim to boost the country’s “ability to identify and counter foreign malign information influence, disinformation and other dissemination of misleading information directed at Sweden,” Hjort said.

The agency will not battle those spreading false information within Sweden, instead aiming “its sole focus on foreign threat actors,” Hjort said. “Russia and China often resort to information influence activities, but we can also see new actors engaging in these activities.”

The government-funded body, which will start with 45 staff members based in Karlstad and Solna, will report to the country’s justice department.

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The idea for the agency was first developed in 2018, and it is being led by Director General Henrik Landerholm, a former army officer and ambassador to the Middle East.

Disinformation, particularly around elections, has been a major threat around the world. Russia launched a far-reaching campaign to influence the 2016 presidential election in favor of Donald Trump. Last year, European Union officials warned Russia against carrying out “malicious cyber activities” on the eve of elections in Germany, as Europe grows wary of Kremlin-backed hackers.

Social media giant Facebook issued a report last year revealing disinformation campaigns in more than 50 countries since 2017, and it named Russia as the largest producer.

France has announced plans to establish a national agency to fight fake news and prevent foreign interference in its elections. Hjort says there is “huge interest from other countries to gain knowledge from our experiences,” predicting others will follow suit.

For this year, the agency will focus on working to “protect Sweden against foreign malign information influence” ahead of elections in September, he added.

Sweden is not a member of NATO and has maintained a scaled-down military since the Cold War ended. Neighboring Russia has been an ongoing perceived threat, with its annexation of Crimea in 2014 alarming the Swedes.

Like other countries, Sweden has experienced misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic and protests over government-imposed restrictions. The agency emphasizes that individuals will have a role to play in tackling fake news, alongside a robust national media and civil society.

The Swedish agency says fighting disinformation “strengthens democracy,” however it will need to do so without impinging on the freedoms of speech and expression, which are protected by the country’s constitution.

“One has to tread very carefully when it comes to freedom of speech. We must never limit the democratic rights of our population,” Hjort said.

Karen Douglas, professor of social psychology at the University of Kent, told The Post that the new agency would probably equip the Swedish population with the skills to spot fake news and to take in information “with a more critical eye.”

This approach, she said, was “probably less likely to meet with public resistance” than simply blocking information on social media or websites.

“Blocking information and particular sources can only be so effective, because people and groups are likely to find new ways of sharing misinformation. The process of dealing with misinformation therefore becomes a bit like a game of whack-a-mole,” she added.

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Some are more skeptical. “I suspect policing the Internet is indeed a lost cause,” said Martin Bauer, director of social and public communication and a professor of social psychology at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Still, the move to establish such an agency, Bauer said, reflects a shift toward preventing disinformation as a form of consumer protection — with the government stepping in proactively to stop citizens from getting hurt by fake news.

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