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Americans, Like Swedes, Need Help Telling Fact From Fiction

A botched disinformation board shouldn’t be the end of efforts to educate the public.

Braw-Elisabeth-foreign-policy-columnist3
Braw-Elisabeth-foreign-policy-columnist3
Elisabeth Braw
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
A man wears a QAnon shirt while boarding a shuttle bus.
A man wears a QAnon shirt while boarding a shuttle bus.
A man wears a QAnon shirt while boarding a shuttle bus going to Manchester-Boston Regional Airport in Londonderry, New Hampshire, on Aug. 28, 2020. Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. government has suspended the activities of its disastrously launched Disinformation Governance Board. An outfit with such an unfortunate name and ill-defined mission was bound to fail. That doesn’t mean the idea was wrong—just poorly conceived. Countries need to address the avalanche of disinformation and misinformation that leads to disasters like the Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol insurrection and attacks on COVID-19 vaccination sites. Some have already launched bodies that do the work that the Disinformation Governance Board was supposed to do in an effective and professional way. The United States can learn from them in its next attempt.

On May 2, as news agencies reported about the launch of the new Disinformation Governance Board, it was already obvious that nobody really knew what the advisory group’s mission or competencies were. The board “will immediately begin focusing on misinformation aimed at migrants, a problem that has helped to fuel sudden surges at the U.S. southern border in recent years,” the Associated Press reported while Politico explained that the board would “coordinate countering misinformation related to homeland security, focused specifically on irregular migration and Russia.” The U.S. public though was none the wiser as to what it meant, especially since the government provided little detail. Documenting disinformation, misinformation, or both? Analyzing it? Launch U.S. counter-messaging strategies? This lack of clarity led activists to accuse the government of creating a “Ministry of Truth” and wanting to police free speech in the United States. Three weeks later, the board had been suspended.

But as the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6—fueled by conspiracy theories about the election—made painfully clear, Americans need help understanding what information is accurate and what is not. The same thing goes for many other issues: the safety of vaccines, former U.S. President Barack Obama’s birthplace, and the war in Ukraine. This isn’t a matter of politics but of simple fact: Vaccines work well, if not perfectly; Obama was born in Hawaii; and Russia is committing serious crimes in Ukraine. Fighting disinformation (the willful sharing of falsehoods) and misinformation (the accidental sharing of it) has nothing to do with policing people’s opinions. For a healthy political landscape, citizens need accurate information—and they can only get it if untruths are detected and stopped. That goes double when disinformation comes from a hostile foreign actor.

The U.S. government has suspended the activities of its disastrously launched Disinformation Governance Board. An outfit with such an unfortunate name and ill-defined mission was bound to fail. That doesn’t mean the idea was wrong—just poorly conceived. Countries need to address the avalanche of disinformation and misinformation that leads to disasters like the Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol insurrection and attacks on COVID-19 vaccination sites. Some have already launched bodies that do the work that the Disinformation Governance Board was supposed to do in an effective and professional way. The United States can learn from them in its next attempt.

On May 2, as news agencies reported about the launch of the new Disinformation Governance Board, it was already obvious that nobody really knew what the advisory group’s mission or competencies were. The board “will immediately begin focusing on misinformation aimed at migrants, a problem that has helped to fuel sudden surges at the U.S. southern border in recent years,” the Associated Press reported while Politico explained that the board would “coordinate countering misinformation related to homeland security, focused specifically on irregular migration and Russia.” The U.S. public though was none the wiser as to what it meant, especially since the government provided little detail. Documenting disinformation, misinformation, or both? Analyzing it? Launch U.S. counter-messaging strategies? This lack of clarity led activists to accuse the government of creating a “Ministry of Truth” and wanting to police free speech in the United States. Three weeks later, the board had been suspended.

But as the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6—fueled by conspiracy theories about the election—made painfully clear, Americans need help understanding what information is accurate and what is not. The same thing goes for many other issues: the safety of vaccines, former U.S. President Barack Obama’s birthplace, and the war in Ukraine. This isn’t a matter of politics but of simple fact: Vaccines work well, if not perfectly; Obama was born in Hawaii; and Russia is committing serious crimes in Ukraine. Fighting disinformation (the willful sharing of falsehoods) and misinformation (the accidental sharing of it) has nothing to do with policing people’s opinions. For a healthy political landscape, citizens need accurate information—and they can only get it if untruths are detected and stopped. That goes double when disinformation comes from a hostile foreign actor.

That’s exactly what Sweden’s Psychological Defense Agency (MPF) is helping its country do. The new government authority, which was launched earlier this year, is led by a career government administrator, with two highly regarded civil servants leading the agency’s two departments. One of them, a veteran intelligence officer, leads the department charged with identifying disinformation directed against Sweden; the other, a civil preparedness expert, directs the department in charge of improving societal resilience to disinformation and misinformation.

What are their political beliefs? I have no idea, nor does any other member of the public. Indeed, the reason the MPF is trusted by the Swedish public is that it’s staffed by highly experienced civil servants whose sole task is to make the country information literate and identify influence campaigns. “The purpose of the psychological defense is to safeguard the open and democratic society, the free formation of opinion and Sweden’s freedom and independence,” the agency’s website explains. Among recent efforts: a handbook for journalists on how to identify and defuse influence campaigns as well as efforts to monitor Russian disinformation regarding Sweden’s NATO membership bid. On May 24, the MPF launched a new “Do not be fooled” information website, conveniently timed to steady Swedes against, say, Russian disinformation attempts regarding NATO or Sweden’s general elections this September. The agency is even planning to team up with a university to create a master’s program in information resilience.

In recent months, Russia’s disinformation success in Sweden has been pretty muted, Mikael Tofvesson, head of the MPF’s detection-and-countering arm, told FP: “Many Russian media accounts are blocked on Western social media, so you’d have to go [to] their websites to access their information. But by now, Swedes are used to what the Russians do, so there isn’t a lot of trust in their information.” The NATO application though seems to already have caused intensified Russian efforts—targeted not just against Sweden. “It’s likely that Russia will try to influence other countries by smearing Sweden and the Swedish Armed Forces,” Tofvesson noted.

A shocking reminder of the harm information campaigns can inflict arrived a few months ago. Out of the blue, a disinformation campaign—led by the website Shuoun Islamiya and other Arabic-language social media accounts—appeared, alleging that Swedish authorities kidnap Muslim immigrants’ children. Unsurprisingly given the explosive allegations, the disinformation spread rapidly among Swedish Arabic-speaking communities, and it received further fuel when established media, including TRT World and Al Jazeera, on the allegations without verifying them. “We noticed the campaign in the early stages, as did the Swedish Institute,” Tofvesson recalled, referring to a Swedish government agency that offers information about Sweden abroad and organizes Swedish-language courses.

But even though both the Swedish Institute and the minister of social justice tried to set the record straight, the campaign escalated. “Many people, including Swedish Muslims on Twitter, tried to point out that the information was false, but then the campaign started targeting them with hate and vitriol,” Tofvesson explained. “Some government agencies were targeted with vile comments every few seconds, which meant that these agencies were in effect blocked from communicating with the public. And by directing massive amounts of online vitriol and threats against politicians and commentators, the people behind the campaign also limited such personalities’ chances of communicating with the public.” Activists were already organizing protest marches based on the false information.

Tofvesson stresses that the MPF doesn’t object to protest marches. But, he told FP: “If you’re going [to] protest marches based on incorrect information, it’s hard to back down. People were being mobilized based on disinformation, and the vitriol these accounts were spreading was so extreme. It was among the worst influence campaigns we’ve seen in Sweden. We realized that thousands risked being radicalized based on disinformation.”

On Feb. 2, Tofvesson convened his team for an emergency meeting. “We concluded that the campaign came from abroad, that it had hostile intent, and that the instigators knew they were spreading disinformation,” he told FP. “Then decided that it should be classified as a hostile disinformation campaign, and once we did that, my first decision was to alert all government agencies.” That was at 1:37 p.m. local time. At 2 p.m., the MPF sent out the alert. The following morning, Tofvesson spoke with a journalist for Radio Sweden, whose piece—aired a few days later—went viral.

In the meantime, the MPF and other Swedish government agencies pushed out messages through their channels that highlighted a fact documented by the MPF: that the instigator behind Shuoun Islamiya’s false kidnapping tales had no knowledge of Swedish social services—but that he did have links to the Islamic State. When enraged residents organized a protest march a few days later, only a smattering of people turned up. Sweden’s foreign ministry, meanwhile, called up Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe countries’ ambassadors to alert other countries of the campaign.

The MPF is not without its critics. In a recent column, Jan Guillou—a veteran left-leaning commentator—suspected the MPF might want to discredit voices critical of Sweden’s NATO bid. (He offered no evidence of such plans.) It’s also not clear if and how the MPF is going to handle domestically led disinformation campaigns. The minister under whose department the MPF operates, Morgan Johansson, is well-known for going after opponents online, and his digital notoriety isn’t helping the Don’t Be Fooled campaign. And then there’s the question of what constitutes a fact. “What is truth?” Pontius Pilate famously asks in the Gospel of St. John. That question bedevils the MPF as much as it did the Roman governor of Judea. But it helps that there’s a broad consensus in Sweden, even between political parties, of a shared grounding in reality—and that the civil service is a largely apolitical organization. Today’s United States lacks such agreement, or perhaps it simply lacks enough people willing to publicly demonstrate a willingness to work with those of different persuasions.

Education matters too. Although few countries are as active as Sweden in countering disinformation, Finland specializes in training primary school children in media literacy—an essential “civic competence,” as the country’s government notes. Imagine if U.S. school boards, or perhaps just one pioneering school board, could agree to introduce information literacy classes in all grades. I’m willing to bet that it would result in not just well-informed discussion but also skilled news sleuthing that would make many journalists jealous.

Latvia, in turn, hosts NATO’s Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence (COE), which conducts pioneering research on disinformation and influence campaigns that governments in NATO and beyond would do well to consult. A recent COE study of social media manipulation, for example, finds that it remains exceptionally easy to buy fake likes on social media—and such fake likes, of course, influence public discourse.

Sweden is certain to be targeted by more disinformation campaigns, beginning during its tense NATO application period, and the MPF is certain to be criticized for not doing enough to counter such campaigns—or for being paranoid. But thanks to the agency, Sweden is one of very few countries whose residents can be rest assured that a corps of experts is constantly tracking disinformation directed against the country and working to minimize its harm as well as having other experts helping various groups in the population improve their information literacy—whether through handbooks, courses, or fact sheets. Considering how much more disinformation is headed the way of the United States and its allies, they would do well to learn from Tofvesson and his colleagues. Indeed, why not invite Tofvesson to teach a class or two at a U.S. elementary school?

Elisabeth Braw is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and gray-zone threats. She is also a member of the U.K. National Preparedness Commission. Twitter: @elisabethbraw

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