March 14, 2019  |  Updated April 29, 2019

Lessons from the 2018 Swedish Elections

By Patrik Oksanen
A ballot envelope is put in ballot box at a polling station in Tomelilla, Sweden September 9, 2018. Johan Nilsson/TT News Agency via Reuters

This article is part of a series of special articles for #DisinfoWeek Europe. To learn more, visit DisinfoWeek.org

Sweden held elections for parliament, as well as at the regional and local levels, on September 9, 2018. 87.2 percent of the eligible voters participated.

Sweden has a robust election system. It is decentralized and handled manually and transparently. Every citizen is able to observe on-location while votes are counted at the County authority.

This is combined with a parliamentary system based on proportional representation. Hence small swings create small effects, compared to a national referendum or an elections system where the winner takes all.

Swedish authorities also raised the bar before the September election. Alongside educational efforts, which did increase awareness, public statements, such as one from Prime Minister Stefan Löfven in January 2018, made it clear that Sweden would name and shame any interference.

However, coming into the election cycle, with a polarized political debate and populist parties on the rise, conditions also looked positive from a Russian point of view. Some predicted the Sweden Democrats and Left Party receiving a third of the seats in parliament. In the end, they received 25.5 percent of the vote.

So what type of interference was there? In short, more of the same every day, ongoing information warfare. The MSB (Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency) ordered an election report from the Institute of Strategic Dialogue (ISD) and London School of Economics (LSE) called “Smearing Sweden”.

The report describes how Russian sources amplified the far-right in the United States, Europe, and Sweden. The report also noted heavily pro-Russian Twitter accounts which had earlier supported Trump and Le Pen, and were now supporting the far-right fringe party AfS.

The most notable disinformation action was directed toward the long-term effects of trying to undermine Swedish democracy. It was aimed at the core belief of a fair election. At the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Russia demanded election observers in Sweden.

This call was built on reports, well in advance of the elections, from different alternative news websites that all called for election observers. Once such source, Nyheter Idag, wrote in September 2017, “It might not be a dumb idea to invite Russian elections observers in advance to next year’s parliamentary elections”.

Another outlet, Nya Tider, had its editorial team act as election observers in Moscow during the presidential election and then in Zimbabwe. When returning from Harare, the editor-in-chief wrote on August 7, “In Sweden we really need to have activists (like in Zimbabwe) that have the endurance for being in polling stations the whole day, considering the extensive election fraud with ballots that I myself have observed.”[1]

Coming into election day, the narrative of election fraud was increasing on social media, mainly from far-right groups. The “Smearing Sweden” report noted the attempt to establish “election fraud” well in advance of the election on Twitter. Different election fraud hashtags peaked, according to the report, on September 10, the day after the election, with 13,558 posts.

This was fueled by the fact that the website of the Election Authority went down during election night. It did not affect counting, nor the reporting of the ongoing counting to media, but did affect the presentation of the result on the Election Authority´s own website.

However, during the period the website was down, Sweden Democrats’ percentage of the vote also went down. This led to another wave of narratives of “stealing the election from SD.”

At first, the Election Authority claimed their website was down because of huge interest but did not exclude the possibility of an attack. In February, this analysis was changed when the Authority finally admitted it had been a DDOS-attack that took down the website. The attack is still unattributed.

In summary, a robust election system and wide-spread efforts to increase the threshold for an attacker to make a large-scale attack, such as in the United States or France, made it unattractive for an attacker to meddle directly and try to influence the election result.

Instead, the action seen during the Swedish election was part of the long-term effort to undermine trust in the democratic system; disinformation messages created in 2018 will be used in coming elections.

Patrik Oksanen is a Swedish award-winning editorial writer for MittMedia Newsgroup. He is also the author of “Skarpa Skärvor” – a book on how open society is threatened by information warfare.

[1] It should also be noted that Manuel Ochsenreiter is a featured writer for Nya Tider, and is connected to a false flag bomb attack in Ukraine. Stetsenko, Sergei, and Carl Schrek. “Far-Right German Journalist Implicated In Firebombing Of Hungarian Center In Ukraine.” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. January 14, 2019. https://www.rferl.org/a/far-right-german-journalist-implicated-in-firebombing-of-hungarian-center-in-ukraine/29708843.html

Sign up for more information