Written by Sytske Post
Since the Russian meddling in the American presidential elections and the Brexit referendum in 2016, worry over disinformation campaigns has gained increased attention and its threats to democracy and stability have been widely discussed. Disinformation can be used as a strategic tool by states and non-state actors alike to create division, weaken trust in governing institutions, and instil fear amongst populations. According to the European Commission, Russia is behind most disinformation campaigns interfering in foreign affairs. This has prompted several nations to adopt and develop counter-disinformation measures, Sweden being one of the latest. The Scandinavian country established a new government body which will be a ‘psychological defence’ agency and will provide tools to help counter (the effects of) disinformation in the long run. The agency was installed shortly after tensions between Russia and Ukraine built up and in light of the upcoming general elections scheduled for September 2022. As Russia invaded Ukraine on the morning of the 24th of February citing dubious arguments that have been dismissed as propaganda, it is clearer than ever that disinformation is a tactic not to underestimate when it comes to preserving European stability and security.
In the context of international relations, disinformation is defined as the deliberate dissemination of false or distorted information by foreign and domestic actors with the primary goal of confusing and misinforming people and fostering disagreement and instability. Disinformation or information manipulation is not a new phenomenon and can be traced as far back as Roman times. However, today’s technology has provided a cheaper, faster, and less risky way to spread untrustworthy information, with algorithms encouraging and automating the distribution of media content. In addition, our global and interconnected society provides malicious actors with a wider and more accessible network of potential victims.
After repeated foreign interferences in countries' domestic affairs, particularly during election campaigns, public awareness of the dangers of media manipulation increased in recent years. Such manipulation is perceived as especially dangerous in today's contemporary status of democracy, as political polarization, a loss of faith in representative democracy's institutions, and the growth of strongmen politics increase the potential influence of disinformation campaigns and their effect on liberal democracy. However, the actual effects and impacts of disinformation campaigns are still under-researched. It is difficult to argue whether these campaigns are creating divisions or are merely exploiting existing tensions and concerns. Regardless, the potential disruptiveness of disinformation on democratic practices has encouraged various countries to adopt counter-disinformation campaigns and effectively treat the issue as a national security threat.
The challenges of countering disinformation
European countries responded to the threat of disinformation with various strategies, as an analysis by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace illustrates. One of the most popular and widespread approaches is regulating online platforms. The Digital Services Act (DSA) and Digital Markets Act (DMA) proposed by the European Commission offer new regulations to improve platform openness and accountability, as well as researchers' access to their data. If tech companies fail to comply with these regulations, fines can apply. However, Carnegie Endowment mentions, these rules spark debate on the potential infringements of individual rights, such as freedom of expression, they might bring if state-enforced.
However, a recent press release by the European Parliament acknowledges countries still lack efficient measures and sanctions to effectively combat disinformation campaigns. Solely focusing on regulating companies responsible for the distribution of false information overlooks the main cause of the problem – a widespread lack of trust in the mainstream media and the government. In order to maintain one’s identity and political activism, individuals actively seek content that confirms their ideological beliefs. Therefore, governments’ media campaigns and other (semi-)official institutions’ initiatives may be ineffective. It is reasonable to assume that those populations prone to foreign disinformation are difficult to reach and persuade by their national governments, and even less so by international organizations such as the European Union.
As foreign influence campaigns are mainly aimed at increasing tensions and polarization in the targeted countries, the most efficient counter-strategy would be investing resources into identifying and taking away the causes of these problems. In this context, counter-disinformation strategies should invest in identifying why individuals seek disinformation content in the first place. At the other end of the spectrum, counter-disinformation strategies should also provide insights into the aims of the foreign states interfering in domestic affairs. Identifying both receivers' and culprits’ motives to engage in disinformation campaigns might provide insightful knowledge on ways to combat this threat. An example of such a bilateral approach is the Swedish 'psychological defence' agency.
The Swedish ‘psychological defence’ agency
On the 1st of January 2022, Sweden launched their ‘psychological defence’ agency aimed at combating disinformation and strengthening the population's resilience in the face of potential ‘information influence.’ With upcoming general elections in September 2022, Magnus Hjort, deputy director of the agency, mentions that the decision to establish this new government agency gained renewed attention as the tensions between Russia and Ukraine have put Sweden on alert, the Guardian reports. As Hjort mentions, polarization in the region could bring security and defence at the centre stage of the election, attracting more interest from foreign powers “to make sure that Sweden takes the ‘right measures’ in the way [they] see it.” The agency will work preventively and operationally both in peacetime and war.
Psychology can provide insightful data for a country’s defence (e.g., information-processing biases, attitudes, and interpersonal and intergroup connections) to explain why people think, feel, and act the way they do. Strengthening personal connections, sustaining self-worth, accomplishment, and agency, and building meaningful worldviews are all protective strategies that could influence the effectiveness of disinformation. However, the most important role in psychological defence is to educate the public by providing tools against trusting disinformation. This awareness-raising practice tries to address counter disinformation with long-term strategies offering support to agencies, municipalities, regions, companies, and organizations and educating the general population on how to verify facts.
In the Swedish approach, cooperation between public and private actors at the national, regional, and local level is strongly encouraged. This collaboration is essential because direct government involvement might be counter-productive as mistrust of institutions is a contributing factor to the prevalence of disinformation. For example, local civil society networks often have more credibility in the eyes of the citizens but lack the resources and data the government enjoys. Therefore, involving them can help better identify the communities most prone to disinformation and try to understand the reasons behind their susceptibility. Then, with help of trusted members, discussion and awareness on the topic can take place.
Risk-assessment and a way forward
Disinformation continues to pose a security threat to democracies as it fuels instability, fosters fear, and can increase violence and hate crimes. As it was shown by Russia’s attack on Ukraine, disinformation campaigns can also be used as a powerful tool to escalate tensions and even mobilize populations. In addition, new technologies are constantly being developed providing more advanced means of disseminating disinformation. However, counter-disinformation campaigns are often still narrow-focused, whereby little attention and insight is being paid to addressing the root causes of the issue. Governments should reassess what role they play in creating distrust in institutions and context-specific approaches should be investigated. ‘Psychological defence’ could provide insightful knowledge to fill these gaps.
About the author: Sytske Post
Sytske is a graduate of International Studies and is currently enrolled in the Master's degree Conflict Studies and Human Rights at Utrecht University. This educational background has provided her with an interdisciplinary understanding of violent conflict and security. Currently, she is particularly interested in the intersection of technology and conflict, ranging from digital disinformation to the shifting nature of warfare powered by artificial intelligence.
The article was written with help from Annette Bross and edited by Alessia Cappelletti.