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Sweden has launched a new agency dedicated to defending the country against disinformation, propaganda and psychological warfare in the latest part of its efforts to bring military and civil defence back towards Cold War levels.
The official opening of the Swedish Psychological Defence Agency came on the same day that Finland's President Sauli Niinistö accused Russia of "challenging the sovereignty of several EU member states, including Sweden and Finland" by demanding security guarantees ruling out “Nato’s further movement eastward”.
"Disinformation is a threat to Swedish democracy, our decision-makers and to our independence", Sweden's interior minister Mikael Damberg said at a press conference in October announcing the appointment of Henrik Landerholm, a former Vice-Chancellor for the Swedish Defence University, to head the agency.
Landerholm has served as Ambassador to Latvia and the United Arab Emirates, and also as an MP for the centre-Right Moderate Party.
At the press conference, Mr Damberg said that the agency's first big task would be to protect Sweden's election from the sort of influence campaigns mounted against the US residential election campaigns in 2016 and 2021.
"A very important duty for the agency in 2022 will be to work to strengthen society’s ability to identify and handle misinformation directed at Sweden in connection with the General Election," he said.
After his appointment, Mr Landerholm named Russia, China and Iran as three countries known to mount disinformation campaigns against Sweden, adding that the propaganda was often aimed simply to sow division within society and undermine trust in the authorities.
"If we look at how the narratives of how Sweden is functioning or not functioning are formed, a lot of that is aimed at destabilising or undermining trust in government agencies," he told Swedish Radio in an interview.
"We’ve seen that work quite well in, or example, the USA, where the Russians were very effective at sowing disunity in the run-up to the election."
The agency's 45 employees will work with both the Swedish Armed Forces and with elements of civil society, such as the media, universities, and central government, to strengthen the country's psychological defences, Mr Landerholm said.
"The first part of the job is threat analysis, the second is assessing the vulnerability of Swedish society to different types of influence, and the third is to build resilience in society," he said.
A soon-to-be-published study for Sweden's Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB) has found that as many as 10 per cent of Swedes read articles from Sputnik News, Russia's international propaganda agency.
Sputnik's Sweden coverage tends to ridicule the country for its positions on feminism and LGBT issues, to portray its government and institutions as weak and incompetent, and to downplay the threat from Russia in a bid to deter Nato membership.
Previous reports for MSB have placed Russia's propaganda campaigns in Sweden within a broader push to polarise debate and sow disunity in Europe more broadly.
The agency would strive to strike a balance between protecting against propaganda and seeking to control the information available to the public, he said.
"This is not the Ministry of Truth or a State Information Board like we had during the Cold War," he said. "We want to protect freedom of opinion in our country."
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