Thursday

21st Jan 2021

Sweden raises alarm on election meddling

  • Stockholm: far-right Sweden Democrats gaining support in run-up to September vote (Photo: Beat Küng)

Sweden aims to create a new government agency to protect its upcoming election from Russian and other propaganda.

"It is now less than eight months left to the finest day in Sweden's democratic life, our election day … [and] only Swedish voters will determine the outcome," Swedish prime minister Stefan Loefven said at a security conference in Stockholm on Sunday (14 January).

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"To the one or those who are considering trying to influence … our country: stay away!", he said.

Loefven said the main threat came from Russia, but he added that "we cannot rule out that there may be others" who would try to influence the Swedish vote on 9 September.

He also indicated that he had specific information on efforts being made to meddle in the electoral process.

"We will not hesitate to expose those who try to do something, because we know that operations are underway at the moment", Loefven said.

He said the new Swedish agency would be created "immediately" and would be responsible for bolstering the "psychological defence" of the Swedish public by "identifying, analysing, and responding" to "external influence" campaigns.

The counter-propaganda agency was part of wider measures to safeguard the election, the prime minister noted.

These included increased funding for Swedish intelligence and cyber-defence services.

Loefven said he would hold a series of meetings with Swedish political party leaders in spring "on how the parties can increase protection and resilience … against the risks of influence during the election process".

He also said he would hold "in-depth discussions" with Swedish media and with social media firms to "increase awareness of foreign influence".

The Swedish vote will pit Loefven's centre-left Social Democratic Party against the centre-right Moderate Party and the far-right Sweden Democrats party, which came third in the last election in 2014 and which has continued to gain support.

Russia has a track record of using cyber attacks and propaganda campaigns to help populist candidates in recent elections in the US, France, and Germany.

There is increasing evidence that it meddled in the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, the Brexit referendum in 2016, and the Catalan independence vote last year.

The US Senate, in a report last week, also warned that: "Italy could be a target for electoral interference by the Kremlin" when Italians go to the polls on 4 March.

The US report noted that Nordic states were "a favourite target of the Kremlin's propaganda machine".

It added that: "when it comes to exhibiting strong immunity against Russian malign influence operations, the Nordic states are also exemplary".

The report said this was due to two factors - the Nordic countries' "extraordinary educational systems that emphasise critical thinking skills … and extremely low levels of corruption".

Far-right US activists with no apparent links to Russia also got involved in efforts to sway the French vote.

But speaking of Russia's modus operandi, Loefven said on Sunday: "We have seen it in several different countries recently."

"There have been violations of political parties' internal computer systems. There has been financial support for extremist groups on the right side and examples of … systematic 'fake news'," he said.

Military context

Loefven noted that the Russian propaganda threat comes amid its aggressive military posturing in Europe.

"Russian action in Ukraine challenges the European security system in a way that we have not seen since it was established 25 years ago," he said, referring to Russia's invasion and partition of its neighbour four years ago.

He said "Russia is a major and important neighbour in the east that we and the EU must be in contact with" and that both sides ought to "think in the long-term about [their] relationship".

But he added that "this task is not facilitated by more and more reports of Russian disinformation and influence operations".

He also said that his government would continue to support EU economic sanctions against Russia "for as long as the reasons for their introduction [Russia's military aggression in Ukraine] remain".

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