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Combatting disinformation by state agencies: the case of the Swedish Psychological Defence Agency 

Interview with Mikael Tofvesson, head of the operational department of the Psychological Defence Agency. Interviewer: Andrzej Kozłowski.

May 7, 2024 - Andrzej Kozłowski Mikael Tofvesson - Interviews

Embassy of the Russian Federation in Stockholm. Photo: Holger Ellgaard / Wikimedia

The Psychological Defence Agency’s core task is to build psychological defence in Sweden. “To make sure the population is resilient, as well as organizations, civil society and the private sector when dealing with foreign influence”, said the head of the operational department of the Psychological Defence Agency Mikael Tofvesson. In conversation, we raised issues concerning the role of the Psychological Defence Agency in Sweden’s security apparatus, the Swedish contribution to NATO defence against disinformation, and foreign malign information influence operations against Sweden.

ANDRZEJ KOZŁOWSKI: What is the Psychological Defence Agency?

MIKAEL TOFVESSON: The Psychological Defence Agency (PDA) is a government agency under the defence ministry, where we also have a minister for civil defence. Roughly 60 people working at this agency are divided into three departments: the administrative department, the capability building department and the operational department. The PDA was established in January 2022 but Sweden has a 70-year history of psychological defence, which is a term that was created at the beginning of the Cold War. It has the capability to combat psychological warfare and it is the reason why the agency exists. Sweden had such an institution during the Cold War but when the conflict ended in the 1990s, we started to dismantle it. However, after the invasion of Crimea in 2014, we started the process of re-establishing it. 

The agency’s core task is to build psychological defence in Sweden. To make sure the population is resilient, as well as organizations, civil society and the private sector when dealing with foreign influence. Another part of our work is identifying and countering the malign influence of foreign information that is targeting us. We work in two different processes: building resilience and handling threats. We also prepare Sweden for war and psychological warfare. If Sweden is at war or at risk of being at war, we have a mandate to support the government with advice and the capabilities to counter any aggressor’s intent to attack Sweden. So, we also have an offensive mandate if Sweden is at risk of being attacked.

You used the term psychological warfare. What is it and how does it look in practice?

Psychological warfare is an old term that was popular in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. It is used nowadays too. However, the more relevant term today is “Foreign Malign Information Influence”. This happens when you use information as a tool to influence other actors in a malign way. The agency has the mandate to identify, analyse and counter foreign malign information influence. It must come from abroad and have clear bad intent. It must be malign, antagonistic and try to harm us. It has to be deceptive too. It does not matter if it is correct or incorrect but it must be deceptive. For instance, if you control the information environment you are sure that people only hear your side of the story. Even though what you are saying is correct it will not give a balanced account of what is really going on. 

How does foreign malign information influence look in the case of Sweden?

If you look at Swedish society there is a lot of information coming from abroad which is antagonistic and deceptive. We cannot protect against everything. To make this relevant to us, this information also has to have a major negative impact. For instance, if you spread disinformation or rumours targeting Sweden that have a negative effect on the safety of our population, the functioning of our society or our fundamental values, or if they have a negative impact on freedom of speech, the democratic process or the rule of law. Then it is unacceptable and the agency classifies it as foreign malign information influence and will take actions to counter it. This happens on a daily basis. For example, Russia invaded Crimea in 2014 and they focused their whole influence capabilities on that conflict by trying to control the Ukrainian population, their own population, and any response from the rest of the world. These were the main aims of the Russian operations. In that time, they did not have time to intervene in other countries. In 2014 and 2015, we were looking at the Russian influence apparatus and how they were shaping perceptions of the conflict and the invasion of Crimea as an action against Nazis in Ukraine. Their operations did make their way to many people who were not comfortable with cooperation with Kyiv.

At the beginning of 2015, we suddenly saw in Sweden how outlets like RT and Russian troll factories were operating regarding narratives surrounding Crimea and Ukraine. Instead of dismantling this infrastructure, they targeted the rest of Europe, especially Germany and the United Kingdom and even the United States. Also, Sweden was targeted. Suddenly we saw that Russian outlets started to spread rumours about migration in Sweden, connecting it to terrorism, social unrest and criminality. It is a narrative that they have been building for many years. Migration is an issue in Sweden but it is an issue for many countries. The main topic of disinformation was that you cannot trust the government, you cannot trust the information environment. Therefore, it is better that you listen to “us” – alternative media that can create distrust between the population and the country’s leadership. These activities are done to prepare a country for a psychological operation. It is something they did in Ukraine before the invasion in 2014. It is something that they can do in Poland too. In the case of Ukraine it was part of preparations before the invasion. So I used to say that the Russians were filling up their car in preparation for an attack directly on Sweden. It is how they prepared the ground and also it is how they prepared our ground, creating conflicts and distrust within our societies. Now when looking at Ukraine and psychological warfare, it is clear that there are so many cases. They were spreading rumours constantly since 2015 and targeting Sweden right up to the full-scale invasion in 2022, which caused the EU to block Russian media outlets. So, they do not have an opportunity to reach our countries now. 

This is what we reported to the government even before the agency was created. I worked in another agency that started these efforts. I have been working with these issues since 2021 and have been warning our government that the Russians are preparing for a future full-scale conflict with Sweden by influencing our population.

How do you qualify operations as foreign malign information influence operations? What kind of methodology do you use?

To answer this question I return to 2014, when Russia invaded Crimea and then the eastern part of Ukraine. In Sweden I had a team of analysts, who looked at the Russian influence infrastructure, as well as the narratives and disinformation used and what channels were spreading it. We were looking for the way in which they coordinated their efforts, how the whole infrastructure of Russian society was spreading these influential narratives about the invasion of Crimea. Therefore, we could gain detailed knowledge on the Russian influence apparatus. 

Since 2014 we have been able to monitor these ideas in detail because if they want to influence our society then they need to reach out. We subsequently observe their actions. Since we saw them in 2014 and followed them up, we noted their associated companies and structures and how they are integrated. We look and try to understand what disinformation is being spread and how it is spreading in our society. However, we are also focused on how the Russians are doing the same to their own population. Therefore, we can differentiate between internal disinformation that is spread in all countries and what the Russians are doing. 

When we look at the disinformation, we generally monitor rumours and misunderstandings which might generate fear and also topics concerning potential conflicts in our society. So, we make a list of topics that might be exploited by the Russians. Almost every meeting in the agency starts with going through the topics, because we have classified them as vulnerabilities. When we create such a register we never note who is behind the ideas because we want Swedish citizens to use their freedom of speech. If you have freedom of speech it also gives you the right to be wrong. So we cannot treat our population as the threat. They have a right to be wrong and spread disinformation, in other words. But this situation could be exploited. For example, there could be heightened fears of nuclear weapons, or the negative impact of joining NATO, or even fear of an energy crisis.

For instance, we receive information about the actions of threat actors concerning Sweden, as well as what narratives are being used by the Russians targeting Sweden. Then we can connect them with our list of vulnerabilities. For example, the Russian influence apparatus is focusing on the energy sector during winter when the prices of heating are rising. If it is an issue and they are using it against the Swedish population then it is time to analyse the threat and understand what it can mean for us. What kind of negative effects could there be if people start to believe Russian narratives? Who plays the main roles in spreading this disinformation? Then we start the process of what we can do about it. This is a description of our standard procedure of operation.

It is important to stress that the agency counters only foreign disinformation and this is done strictly for democratic reasons. As a defence organization, our operations could not be used against our own population. People who spread disinformation in our societies are perceived as a vulnerability and not as a threat. A vulnerability is someone who needs help and support to make them resilient against the threat of foreign actors such as Russia, which spread disinformation that we need to counter. The agency can expose these disinformation narratives and use any tool to counter them and strike back. Therefore, we have this perspective: internal disinformation is a vulnerability, while external disinformation is a threat.

You mentioned countering or even counter strikes, so what exactly are you doing to counter foreign malign information influence operations?

The agency has a proportional framework for countering disinformation and the best way to illustrate how it works is the following case. When the agency sees that someone is spreading disinformation which could be harmful to the security and functioning of our population or fundamental values, the first thing we do when we see this is analyse how it is spread, follow it and then possibly control it. If we go for every little piece of disinformation we would rather risk amplifying its message.

Our next step is to look at who the affected audience is concerning this disinformation, who can be fooled by this and then make sure that they get the correct information. This can be done without even talking about disinformation. Just making sure that people are well informed so that they can analyse disinformation with the facts and thereby create resilience in society. If we actively highlight disinformation it can somehow become interesting and then the disinformation gains better traction. The first rule of countering disinformation or deception is to never talk about it. If this does not work and it still has traction then you need to go for active countermeasures. We will say that it is indeed disinformation, so don’t believe it and here you can find the facts instead. But if this approach does not work then we identify the channels spreading the disinformation and show how they are spreading it and offer facts. If this still does not work, then we will fully face the actors that are spreading the disinformation and say that these groups are actively targeting Sweden. They are trying to harm Sweden so don’t believe the disinformation. Instead, find the facts. 

We are a defence organization and our countermeasures are proportional to attacks and their aggressive behaviour. In war we can also engage in cooperation with the armed forces to take down infrastructure that is being used by threat actors. Anything is on the table, just look at Ukraine and it is clear how people are willing to do anything to strike back. But those are only options for us at the moment and we are not going into details. This is because it is for the Russians to figure out if they want to attack us. I have to add that we are part of the government so it is not up to us to expose another nation’s disinformation, unless the government gives us a mandate. The good thing for us is that most nations use proxies for spreading disinformation. Since the proxies are not working for specific nations, we can work against them because they are not state entities. Then we can decide who we can expose.

Now I would like to talk about one incident we experienced. It was not a proxy but an extremist political actor with capabilities comparable to a nation state when it comes to the information environment. This was at the end of 2021 and the beginning of 2022, when there was an outlet called “Islamic Affairs”. They were spreading disinformation in the Arabic-speaking environment, accusing the Swedish government of kidnapping Muslim kids for sex trafficking, “de-Islamization” or placing them with LGBTQ+ families. People were really upset. It spread rumours that the government were kidnapping these kids and they used footage from policy intervention as proof. The disinformation became viral, upsetting many people in Sweden. We saw that the disinformation was really toxic and how threats started toward municipality workers who work with child protection. There were also threats against politicians. They were also calling for violent acts and demonstrations in Sweden. Naturally, in Sweden you can demonstrate as much as you want but our agencies that protect against vulnerabilities here realize that demonstrations may involve people who are fooled by such disinformation.

The problem is that they were working in an Arabic-speaking environment and we did not have any available information about the factual process with the children. We could not go immediately and spread correct information. It was so toxic and could have threatened the safety and security of our population, so we decided to strike back against “Islamic Affairs”. We classified it as a foreign, antagonistic and deceptive body that was undermining trust and our basic values, so we decided to engage with Swedish public media to expose the group’s support for extremism and undemocratic values. They were consistently spreading disinformation about Sweden and other countries in order to radicalize Arabic-speaking people in order to create a conflict between them and the West, and Sweden was a tool. 

This was an example of striking back by telling people that they should not listen to such channels. Of course, there was a long process of finding out about the group. This channel also attacks France and other countries. It was a small platform with very few people but it was very successful in creating conflict and hatred. So, then we countered them in the information environment.

What happens if foreign malign information actors use proxies in Sweden? How are you dealing with this situation?

First of all, we need to make a connection to foreign activities. We never criticize anyone internally. At the same time, if we say that disinformation is being spread in our information environment by Swedish actors but see that it has originated from abroad then we inform our population that it is coming from abroad. So we say that the Russians are working in this area and that we shouldn’t be a pawn. In such cases, the decision always belongs to the internal actors to decide about the measures. At the same time, disinformation could challenge the healthcare service, foreign policy, immigration, social unrest or criminality. But the agency only reacts when national and international disinformation become one clear problem, then all the agencies and authorities that are relevant meet. This involves communication coordination and then we will discuss how we can handle the situation. How do we make sure that people get the correct information? When should they get it? What is the best way to reach out to the groups that should be addressed? After such a meeting every agency, authority and organization starts their planning and implements procedures.

Sometimes, the agency recommends that the government actively speaks out. If it is a nationwide problem then the government is best suited to deal with it. What we did with Islamic Affairs was that the prime minister and I gave a press conference just to talk about this issue and send a message to everyone. The reason why disinformation works is that you are vulnerable and one reason why you are vulnerable is that you are not aware that it is a threat. Someone is going to attack you with disinformation. The other part of vulnerability is that you don’t know your own vulnerabilities. So you don’t know what topics or issues you are vulnerable to regarding disinformation. The third vulnerability is that you don’t know what to do when you see disinformation. You don’t have a toolbox to handle it. The fourth vulnerability is that you are not coordinated and that you don’t help other people, you don’t warn each other so if disinformation is being spread you are not helping your friends and therefore the disinformation can proliferate. What we can do to counter disinformation is increase the awareness of the threat and identify our vulnerabilities. We also recommend how to engage with this disinformation. For instance, do not share this kind of information or be aware that it could be disinformation, be careful before sharing it.

When you set up the agency, was there any criticism that, for example, you were creating an “Agency of Censorship”?

There has not been that much but naturally there were groups that spread this narrative. But I must say that when I worked with another agency in 2014 it was more controversial actually then. But due to the Russian full-scale invasion people are very motivated here in Sweden and we are very adamant about preparing for a foreign threat. It was not only the invasion of Ukraine but we also had the incidents with Islamic Affairs and the Quran burnings. Those happened in Sweden and there was a lot of disinformation spread by Iranian proxies and other extremist groups. I think there is a good understanding in Sweden that we are here to protect Swedes but there are always people hesitant or outspokenly negative about any government activities so, of course, there is a minority. Frankly speaking I was expecting more than we saw.

The Psychological Defence Agency is a rare case of a state institution that is actively fighting malign influence operations and disinformation. But in this fight international cooperation is crucial. How does the agency cooperate with institutions from other countries?

I can only give a general perspective because as a defence organization we cannot share details about bilateral contacts. First of all, we are engaged with the European Union External Action Service, where they have the East Stratcom Task Force and the group for the Western Balkans, so many experts are working there. We have also one expert at the NATO STRATCOM Centre of Excellence in Riga, and in Estonia we have an advisor on psychological defence at the Swedish embassy. They are there to work with Estonia and other Baltic countries. Hopefully, we will be in NATO soon and we will play a more concrete role then. The good message is that when Sweden joins NATO, the Alliance will have an experienced defence agency supporting this domain of psychological defence.

The agency also has close bilateral contacts with several nations because fighting disinformation is all about cooperation and coordination. For instance, if Russia wants to attack Sweden, one way of doing that will be to threaten Finland. The information environment is global. If you go for a straight threat against one country then only one population will get angry. Russians are good at threatening many countries. What Russia is also trying to do is to create divisions between the EU and NATO and between member states within these organizations. Therefore, they routinely spread disinformation about other countries to make a particular country upset. The agency has very close connections with international partners and knows if disinformation is being spread in other countries.

How do you cooperate with the media, NGOs and fact-checking organizations that are engaged in fighting disinformation?

They are extremely important for us. We are mandated and instructed to support Swedish media. It works in the way that Swedish media might contact us if they need support in the area of our responsibility. We also set up training for journalists on the topics of identification and handling foreign malign influence operations. It is not our analysts who are doing the training but we are financing and supporting the Fojo Media Institute at Linnaeus University, where there is continuous training for journalists. So if you have a journalist ID, you are eligible to take courses there.

They give specific courses based on our knowledge. We also invite representatives of Swedish media twice a year to give them situation awareness reports and listen to their feedback. The important thing is that this all goes in one direction, which means that we cannot ask journalists for anything. The agency has come up with a handbook for journalists and our media strategy discourages unnecessary contacts with journalists. It is pretty clear that we need to understand the media’s role in countering disinformation and foreign state influence campaigns.

In strong democracies you have a leadership that is a target of attackers because it is the decision making process of the country that the attackers want to control. So if they make a bad decision for our country, an adversary might gain from this. If the leadership is making mistakes and bad decisions, they will lose their jobs following an election or investigations by journalists because they are accountable to the people. The thing is that to be able to influence the leadership you need also to influence the population, so you have to target these two levels with the same kind of long-term disinformation. You do that in the environment where the politicians, leaders and the population meet. This is in traditional and social media. This is a reason why the Russians are very active in our own media outlets and on social media. In this way they can create a new collective conscience about the situation and slowly shift values and norms to prepare for a coming attack. As a result, in the agency we have analysts working with traditional and social media to make sure that we understand that environment.

You mentioned Iranian proxies spreading disinformation about Quran burning at a point during NATO accession. Did you find that these Iranian proxies cooperated with Russia?

The Iranians were motivated to intervene because they are targeting Sweden for another reason. There is an Iranian citizen who committed crimes against humanity and was subsequently arrested and convicted in Sweden. Since then, Iran has been targeting Sweden with its influence campaigns. Of course, it was a good opportunity for them to target Sweden’s NATO application and to harm the country more generally. So they have their own incentives to do this. We also saw that the Russians were meddling in this and we warned the population about Iran and Russia being active in this wider campaign. But I stressed that in the case of the Quran burning the main actors were “Islamic Affairs”, Daesh and Al Qaeda. Every extremist jumped in on it. There might be some coordination but in general they all have their own interests here. The purpose of these actions was clearly to antagonize Turkey and stop Swedish accession to NATO.

How might the Psychological Defence Agency support NATO when Sweden joins the Alliance?

It is an issue we are currently debating and we are having a dialogue with several institutions. We have already established cooperation with NATO STRATCOM. We have been supporting NATO efforts since 2015 and I do believe that we will strengthen the Alliance with our expertise on Russia and other nations’ influence infrastructure. We can be more collaborative within these areas concerning threat actors but also in the integration of countermeasures.

Last but not least, we have extensive cooperation with Ukraine. Many other nations are doing this too but we are actually doing it from the psychological defence perspective, so we have an opportunity to test out our ideas and solutions. At the same time, we are helping the Ukrainians with activities there. I think that is something we want to bring to the table.

This interview was originally published in Polish by Nowa Europa Wschodnia.

Mikael Tofvesson is head of the operations department at the Swedish Psychological Defence Agency. He was previously head of the Counter Information Influence Section at the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB).

Andrzej Kozłowski is a cybersecurity and disinformation expert and assistant professor at the University of Lodz. He holds a PhD in political science and is the former editor-in-chief of the CyberDefence24.pl portal. He conducts lectures, training and seminars on cybersecurity and the fight against disinformation.

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