Disinformation is poisoning global politics. But it threatens to destroy national politics.
A new anti-disinformation agency in Sweden is simultaneously encouraging and discouraging in the realm of public free speech and truth.
On Jan. 1, the government of this progressive, Scandinavian nation established the Swedish Psychological Defense Agency (SPDA). Its fundamental purpose is “to safeguard our open and democratic society, the free formation of opinion and Sweden’s freedom and independence.’” according to the SPDA website.
What’s encouraging about the new organization is its unique focus on identifying weaponized foreign misinformation and disinformation assaults on Sweden. What’s discouraging is that it doesn’t focus on internal threats such as the politically fabricated “Stop the Steal” (of the 2020 election) campaign instigated in the United States by defeated former President Donald Trump.
Sweden wary of probing domestic disinformation
Why is Sweden less worried about domestic political flim-flam than about foreign information-deceit campaigns of the kind that in the end helped nearly topple U.S. democracy soon after our Nov. 4 national presidential election?
Indeed, the FBI director recently identified “domestic terrorism,” of which purposeful disinformation is an essential driver, as America’s current top national security threat—even more threatening than Russia’s continuing disinformation warfare against the U.S., which became apparent during the 2016 election and, just as Russian leaders hoped and worked toward, ultimately ensconced Russophile Trump in the White House.
Of course, the U.S. and other nations are actively defending against weaponized lies and propaganda from beyond their borders, as from within, but especially in the West, the assumed sacredness of the free-speech ethos has effectively blunted the potential effectiveness in combating domestic information skulduggery.
The Washington Post reported recently that the new Swedish agency “will work alongside the Swedish military and government on the new battleground of fake news and misinformation.”
“The security situation in our near European environment has deteriorated for some time now and therefore we need to rebuild our total defence,” SPDA deputy director Magnus Hjort told the Post by email.
Hjort said his new agency’s aim is to expand the country’s “ability to identify and counter foreign malign information influence, disinformation and other dissemination of misleading information” directed at Sweden.
Notably, however, the SPDA won’t seek to identify similar homegrown nefarious activity, turning its “sole focus” to foreign information influence activities targeting Sweden.
“One has to tread very carefully when it comes to freedom of speech. We must never limit the democratic rights of our population,” Hjort said.
In the “Frequently Asked Questions” page of its website, the agency tries to ease Swedish citizens’ concerns about the potential erosion of free speech by answering the rhetorical question, “Everyone can think and say what they want, right?”
“Yes, in Sweden our freedom of speech and expression is protected by the constitution. Agencies have a responsibility to increase everyone’s awareness that disinformation and misleading information occurs, so that society’s functionality and people’s lives and health are not threatened,” the agency answered.
“Misleading information can threaten our open and free society. Identifying and counteracting the effects of misleading information is part of the agencies’ responsibility to stand up for freedom of expression, which strengthens democracy.”— Swedish Psychological Defense Agency website
The website also explains what it hopes to accomplish with its “psychological defense” capabilities against foreign interlopers:
“Psychological defence must be able to identify, analyse, meet and prevent undue information influence and other misleading information that is directed at Sweden or Swedish interests both nationally and internationally. It can be disinformation aimed at weakening the country’s resilience and the population’s will to defend itself or unduly influencing people’s perceptions, behaviours and decision making.
“Psychological defence must also strengthen the population’s ability to detect and resist influence campaigns and disinformation. Psychological defence contributes to creating resistance and willingness to defend among our population and in society as a whole.”
But nowhere does it talk about holding accountable domestic purveyors of disinformation and misinformation for political ends harmful to the nation’s well-being. Likewise, American authorities are careful not to talk about surveillance of citizen expression or punitive legal consequences for spreading informational deceit for the same reason as Sweden: constitutionally protected free speech.
Domestic propaganda threatens democracies
The riotous “Stop the Steal” insurrection in which five people ultimately died and hundreds were wounded Jan. 6 at the Capitol was the pre-envisioned end game of Trump’s months-long campaign of disinformation to sow doubt in his followers’ minds about the integrity of the 2020 election and, really, all federal institutions.
PBS anchor Judy Woodruff asked Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-New York), “How close did it come to being even worse than it was? Ultimately, these rioters were not able to get into the House chamber. They did get into the Senate. But, from your perspective, how close did we come (to overthrowing the government and halting the peaceful transfer of power)?”
Jeffries answered, “We came very close.”
More than 700 insurrectionists from that day have been charged with crimes, including insurrection, and a number have already been sentenced to jail time. Charges are still expected to be filed against yet more perpetrators of the Capitol assault.
However, holding to legal account the top conspirators and orchestraters of this treasonous violence is proving harder than finding hens’ teeth.
This is because free speech (and apparently its insurrectionist expression) is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, an unintended brake on justice today rooted in the fact that the Founding Fathers could not even begin to imagine the invention of the digital internet centuries hence and the massively influential and destructive global juggernaut of social media.
So we end up in this frightening new cultural zeitgeist where lies are truth and criminal violence is patriotic in the minds of arch-conservative extremists. But only the foot soldiers of the failed revolution go to jail.
Is this a rational situation?
Holding liars accountable an uphill battle
In fact, the leaders and key fellow travelers in Trump’s “Big Lie” and failed insurrection have thus far been able to categorically refuse without consequence to even give testimony formally requested and even subpoenaed by Congress about what happened that fateful day.
Why? Supposedly sacred rights of freedom and privacy enshrined in the Constitution, and special deference to members of Congress.
But in what way does this actually protect much less help the nation?
It doesn’t. Such a broad, irresponsible interpretation puts our very system of government at existential risk and lets criminals run free—as we observed Jan. 6 if not before as the former president routinely trashed rule of law and longstanding political norms for his own glorification and gratification, and the achievement of anti-democratic Republican goals.
What’s needed is an American version of Sweden’s Psychological Defense Agency but focused on domestic misinformation, disinformation, and other forms of propaganda. As with Sweden’s new organization, an American version should “increase everyone’s awareness that disinformation and misleading information occurs, so that society’s functionality and people’s lives and health are not threatened.”
For example, former President Trump’s refusal to tackle the coronavirus pandemic head-on in the U.S.—by churning out false, understated information for political reasons—arguably resulted in the unnecessary loss of untold tens of thousands of lives among the more than 800,000 Americans who ultimately perished from the deadly, virulent disease.
In addition, the former president’s false insistence that he supposedly won the 2020 election, which he continues to espouse today, resulted in a deadly insurrectionist assault on the Capitol to block a formal electoral duty of Congress.
Purposeful, nefarious lies, as we’ve seen repeatedly, can have grave existential consequences — to people and governments.
Yet, our system of government and law seems woefully ill-equipped for holding liars, especially high-ranking ones, accountable.
U.S. needs domestic anti-disinformation agency
Thus, we need a new agency, like Sweden’s, whose essential role would be to police provable, repeated, and destructive mendacity in government, from the president on down, and to prosecute violators under stiff new laws. Like courts do.
This should not harm good-faith free speech but only bad-faith misinformation and disinformation disseminated to corrupt important official public activities and their effective functioning, like voting and vote counting.
Just as the U.S. Department of Justice recently created a new domestic terrorism unit to combat “elevated” extremist threats in America, a new government department or agency needs to be created to deal with an elevated threat to the peace and stability of the homeland posed by weaponized information distortion campaigns by anti-democratic zealots.
No American leader should be allowed, without legal consequence, to falsely yell “Stolen” without evidence in a crowded electorate after a demonstrably free and fair election. People—in this case tens of millions of Trump supplicants—will, sadly, believe any bogus thing their demigod says, true or invented.
But in Sweden as elsewhere right now the focus seems mainly on external threats.
“Disinformation, particularly around elections, has been a major threat around the world,” the Washington Post reported in a January article, adding,
“Russia launched a far-reaching campaign to influence the 2016 presidential election in favor of Donald Trump. Last year, European Union officials warned Russia against carrying out ‘malicious cyber activities’ on the eve of elections in Germany, as Europe grows wary of Kremlin-backed hackers.
“Social media giant Facebook issued a report last year revealing disinformation campaigns in more than 50 countries since 2017, and it named Russia as the largest producer.
“France has announced plans to establish a national agency to fight fake news and prevent foreign interference in its elections. Hjort says there is ‘huge interest from other countries to gain knowledge from our experiences,’ predicting others will follow suit.”
However, the enemy is not always an outsider.
As said Pogo, the philosopher possum from Okefenokee Swamp in the classic comic strip “Pogo,”
“We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
However, citizens just being more aware of reprehensible domestic misinformation campaigns is not nearly enough. Anti-propaganda laws and severe penalties are essential. Citizens have shown they cannot be fully entrusted with sifting facts from fallacy on their own—as they aren’t in combatting nonpolitical criminality.
That’s why we have courts. We desperately need the same type of institution to identify and prosecute weaponized mendacity on behalf of the people.
Note to readers: My columns for OnlySky always will be inherently informed by nontheism and secularism, mainly in the realms of politics and culture, but (like this one) they won’t always focus directly on religion.