DUBLIN // A leading foreign affairs institute in Stockholm has accused Russia of spreading fake news, propaganda and disinformation in an effort to shrink Nato’s influence in the region.
In a paper published in the Journal of Strategic Studies, researchers from the Swedish Institute of International Affairs said a “wide array of active measures” originating in Russia had been intended to influence public opinion and policymaking in Sweden.
The disinformation and fake news, the paper said, was “hampering [the Swedish government’s] ability to generate public support in pursuing its policies”.
Martin Kragh and Sebastian Åsberg, the Russia experts who wrote the paper, identified several methods by which Moscow achieved its disinformation objectives: public relations firms, think tanks, lobbyists, social media activities, and the network of state-run Sputnik websites that deliver “news” in several languages.
A Sputnik site in Swedish was launched in April 2015.
The paper published on Thursday last week comes as concerns are growing across the United States and Europe over Russia’s increasing interference in political affairs – a trend best exemplified by the claims that Russian hackers actively aided Donald Trump in winning the US presidency last November.
Stories published by Sputnik’s Swedish site and other Russian-run Swedish-language outlets have “framed Nato as an aggressor and military threat, the [European Union] as in terminal decline, and Russia as under siege from hostile Western governments”, Mr Kragh and Mr Åsberg wrote.
“The timing, narratives and intensity of the campaigns suggest to us that a key goal of these campaigns was to influence Swedish decision makers and public opinion, in order to hinder the implementation of a Nato host agreement in May 2016 and Swedish Nato integration overall.”
The paper also noted that these propaganda outlets pushed Russia’s perspective about its actions in the Crimea and in Ukraine.
Crucially, the study also pinpointed 26 “forgeries” – documents circulated online, bearing fake letterheads and purportedly written by Swedish policymakers. These documents have found their way into mainstream Swedish media, corrupting coverage of policy issues.
“In contrast to the Cold War, when planting of forgeries was laboriously time consuming, use of internet resources reduces the cost of disseminating information,” the paper said. “Once inserted into different digital media outlets, forgeries and disinformation exist in a target environment over very long time periods, and their origins are easily concealed. “
These operations represent a sea change from the sort of espionage that became commonplace in the 20th century, Alan Woodward, a cybersecurity expert at the University of Surrey, told The National.
“Stealing information is something that intelligence agencies have done for centuries,” Mr Woodward said. But influencing a country’s domestic affairs “in a way that is so public is something that the western governments clearly believe they cannot stand by and let happen unchallenged”.