‘In­for­ma­tion laun­der­ing’: Sweden’s Rus­sia prob­lem

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - OPINION - PAULINA NEUDING

With gen­eral elec­tions ap­proach­ing in Septem­ber, Swedish vot­ers are be­ing warned that now it’s their turn to be tar­geted by Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the demo­cratic process. Ac­cord­ing to Sweden’s Civil Con­tin­gen­cies Agency (MSB), which is lead­ing the coun­try’s ef­forts to counter for­eign in­flu­ence op­er­a­tions, such in­ter­fer­ence is very likely, and cit­i­zens should be on the look­out for dis­in­for­ma­tion and fake news.

There’s just one prob­lem: Sep­a­rat­ing Rus­sian “lies” from Sweden’s messy po­lit­i­cal re­al­ity will not 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 may 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. But 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.” In fact, what is 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 much­needed re­forms. For ex­am­ple, in April, Ka­trin St­jern­feldt Jam­meh, the mayor of the south­ern city of Malmo, 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.

But 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 non­mil­i­tary 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. Rus­sian agents wash their hands of the op­er­a­tion and of­ten achieve their goals.

“It is a kind of in­for­ma­tion laun­der­ing,” Jon­s­son says. “That is why it’s very hard to as­sess the full scope of Rus­sian in­flu­ence.”

Sweden has cer­tainly taken this threat to its democ­racy se­ri­ously.

The govern­ment has launched public in­for­ma­tion cam­paigns and is train­ing elec­tion work­ers, strength­en­ing cy­ber de­fenses and con­duct­ing on­go­ing threat and vul­ner­a­bil­ity as­sess­ments. But of­fi­cials con­cede that they may be fight­ing a los­ing bat­tle. As one MSB spokesper­son put it re­cently, the agency’s lim­ited re­sources are “not in any way on par with the ca­pa­bil­ity of the ag­gres­sor.”

Faced with this re­al­ity, Swedish au­thor­i­ties can limit the im­pact of elec­toral med­dling by fo­cus­ing more on restor­ing so­cial and po­lit­i­cal sta­bil­ity. To do this, lead­ers must re­solve the is­sue of im­mi­gra­tion, over­come par­lia­men­tary dead­lock and re­store law and or­der in cities.

As it has else­where, Rus­sia is at­tempt­ing to al­ter the Swedish nar­ra­tive by cast­ing blame and di­vert­ing at­ten­tion. Swedish politi­cians can re­spond ef­fec­tively, but their best strat­egy to fight Rus­sia’s so­cial me­dia fires is to re­move the fuel.

Rus­sia is at­tempt­ing to al­ter the nar­ra­tive by cast­ing blame

Paulina Neuding, a co-founder of the Free­dom Rights Project, is a colum­nist with the Swedish news­pa­pers Sven­ska Dag­bladet and Gote­borgs-Posten. THE DAILY STAR pub­lishes this com­men­tary in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Project Syn­di­cate © (www.project-syn­di­cate.org).

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