By: christian haag
September 4 2023
Demonstators burn a Swedish flag outside the Swedish embassy in Tehran, Iran. Source: Reuters
Since the beginning of 2022, Sweden has been the target of two widespread disinformation campaigns relating to Swedish social services called the LVU campaign, the Swedish acronym for the Care of Young Persons Special Provisions Act, and the recent public Quran burnings.
The LVU campaign began as a Swedish protest movement but became global after its members reached out internationally. At the end of December 2021, several were interviewed on the YouTube channel Shoun Islamiyya (Islamic Affairs). The channel is run by Mustafa al-Sharqawi, an Egyptian blogger who has been one of the most central disseminators of disinformation in the LVU campaign. He has previously spread radical Islamist content. Claims spread within the campaign have included that Sweden systematically kidnapped children and that Muslim children were primarily targeted and forced to convert from Islam.
On June 28, 2023, Salwan Momikas burned a Quran outside the central mosque in Stockholm, after which the second disinformation campaign began. Momika is a Christian Iraqi immigrant and was a prominent member of the Syrian Hawks, a Christian faction part of the Iran-supported Peoples Mobilization Forces. Mikael Östlund, Head of Communications at the Swedish Psychological Defence Agency (MPF), commented about disinformation being spread to Swedish Public Television: “We have seen a volume now for a year that we have never seen before.”
Participants in the LVU campaign were also active in disseminating disinformation related to the Quran burnings, and Russian state media were also active in spreading the same claims. The MPF stated that three narratives regarding the Quran burnings circulated: that Sweden was an Islamophobic country, the Swedish government supported the burning of the Quran, and that the Quran was the only religious book allowed to be burnt.
Demonstrators prepare to burn a Swedish flag outside the Swedish embassy in Tehran, Iran. Source: Reuters
The campaigns coincided with Sweden's bid to join NATO, resulting in widespread demonstrations and attacks on Swedish diplomatic offices in Iraq, Turkey, and Lebanon. Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson called the situation “the most serious security situation since the Second World War” and has accused Russia of weaponizing disinformation. On August 29, Minister for Civilian Defence Carl-Oskar Bolin stated that Iranian actors have been linked to amplifying false claims about Sweden. Furthermore, Sweden’s terrorism threat level increased from 3 to 4 on a 5-grade scale on August 17.
Suffice it to say, Sweden finds itself in a difficult situation, but what has been done to defend it from these false claims and rumors?
Alongside these measures, the National Board of Health was to increase its presence on social media to provide factual and correct information. The MPF was tasked with supporting all affected agencies at home and abroad to share knowledge. So what have the two agencies with the most responsibility, the National Board of Health and Welfare and the newly created MPF, done to counter the disinformation campaigns?
The National Board of Health and Welfare is a central agency that provides information, develops new health standards, and maintains official Swedish health and welfare statistics. The LVU campaign has resulted in threats to social services offices. Many social workers have quit their jobs, and new recruits are hard to find.
In February 2022, the agency published an FAQ about Swedish social services and childcare according to the LVU law. It covered many misconceptions about false claims in the LVU campaign, clarifying that there are no religious reasons why a child is taken away from their family and that children are not sold into trafficking. It thus mirrored the claims professed in the disinformation campaign. It publishes resources in multiple languages, including Arabic, Russian, French, and Somali.
On January 1, 2022, Sweden established the MPF. Its primary mission was to counter foreign malign information and influence activities directed at Sweden by identifying, analyzing, and, if possible, preventing such actions while retaining Swedish freedom of speech and opinion. It also advises other government agencies on threats of foreign interference and educates civil and state actors on such matters. Its public service campaign “Blir inte Lurad” (don't be fooled) helps train people to identify false information. It was made in collaboration with Swedish illusionists Brynolf & Ljung. The MPF thus works as a sort of first line of defense, and a coordinating agency to fight foreign disinformation campaigns.
A screenshot of the MPF's Don't be Fooled campaign. Source: https://www.bliintelurad.se/en/
The LVU campaign became a baptism of fire for the agency. The MPF recently told the New York Times that they regularly contact social media platforms about problematic posts but have not asked them to remove accounts.
Logically Facts contacted the MPF asking how and what they have done to counter the disinformation campaigns. They told us that they follow foreign actors disseminating mis- and disinformation, alert and inform the government and other authorities, and provide advice and support. To increase awareness of the LVU campaign, the MPF also financed a study at the Swedish Defense University, and representatives have frequently visited Swedish media to inform about the two disinformation campaigns.
The MPF also points out that they only follow and map foreign actors, not domestic ones. By doing this, the MPF can see if actors conduct influence campaigns affecting Sweden. However, since it is a defense activity, the MPF cannot explain how this is done in detail.
The MPF also tries to identify vulnerabilities within Swedish society, but without putting actors on any sort of lists. If the MPF sees a foreign power attempting to exploit a vulnerability, it assesses the potential negative consequences of the information and identifies affected actors and relevant agencies to deal with the threat. They then provide information to the respective Swedish agencies.
On August 29, Minister for Civilian Defence Carl-Oskar Bolin, held a press conference along with Magnus Hjort from MPF to provide an update on the disinformation campaigns aimed at Sweden and present new objectives and additional funding for the MPF. The aim is to increase the MPF's operational capacity to counter foreign disinformation spread in the wake of the Quran burnings.
The campaigns are not a solely foreign phenomenon, and since the MPF cannot monitor domestic actors, others have taken up the responsibility, like Alkompis.
Alkompis is an Arabic-language independent media house covering Swedish news. Arabic is the second-largest and fastest-growing language in Sweden, and Alkompis fills an essential role in the Swedish media landscape by bridging the gap between Swedish and Arabic news. Alkompis was caught in the crossfire between the far-right and Islamists long before the LVU campaign began.
Alkompis CEO Julia Agha told Logically Facts that correct information makes people more resistant to harmful disinformation. Since disinformation, more often than not, has a kernel of truth in it, it was important to research what started the rumors thoroughly. She emphasized that during the campaigns, Alkompis had highlighted misinformation and identified what was true, unconfirmed, and false, helped by experts who were able to verify claims and data.
The audience's response was mostly positive, Agha said, but there were people who didn’t understand the role of free media and wanted Alkompis to be on the side of Muslims or other immigrants when reporting on a polarised issue. “In fact, we are not on either side, but tried to lift the different perspectives in a nuanced manner,” she underlined.
Covering the LVU campaign resulted in threats towards Alkompis. There have also been examples of directly miscrediting Alkompis, by claiming that they are funded by the National Board of Health and Welfare funds, are an extension of the state, or an agent of the Swedish Security Police. Mahmoud Agha, the founder of Alkompis, has been particularly targeted by these threats.
The campaigns have affected Alkompis in several ways. “We are more careful in our meetings with people, on demonstrations, and when we cover these questions,” Agha said.
Piercing the flood of disinformation and rumors is difficult and can result in more threats and hatred, as Alkompis experienced. But it has more likely than not made a difference in countering global disinformation campaigns. It ties into the importance of fact-checking operations to disseminate factual information.
As the MPF writes, ”A strong psychological defense is not just a matter for the Swedish Psychological Defence Agency, it requires a whole of society approach where agencies, municipalities, organizations and not least – the individual citizens work together.” Consequently, the tactics deployed by Swedish actors mentioned above had several key approaches: transparency and ensuring the dissemination of correct and corrected information.
The MPF asserts that the LVU campaign will remain for the foreseeable future. The campaign has exploited weaknesses and vulnerabilities in Swedish society and resulted in a collision between cultures that are difficult to repair. Disseminating correct information will not solve the issues. A study by Magnus Ranstorp and Linda Ahlerup, commissioned by the MPF, asserts that extensive efforts are required to rebuild trust in Swedish society and the state.
On August 5, the Swedish government announced a review of the Swedish Public Order Act to consider national security when giving demonstration permits. On August 22, Salwan Momika filed an additional 12 demonstration permits to burn a Quran. The latest, on September 3, ended in violent riots in Malmö. Recently, Saeed Alnahhal, a researcher at Dagens Nyheter, wrote that Momika could be tied closer to Iran due to former memberships with groups in Iraq. Suffice it to say that Sweden has not seen the end of disinformation campaigns.