Russia’s aggression around the world goes far beyond the political and military moves it makes, as the Kremlin’s propaganda machine manages to affect public opinion in other countries through the spreading of false information.
The story of Russia’s attempts to spread false information to persuade Sweden out of joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) proves how effective the strategies can be.
The debate over NATO membership picked up new steam in Sweden following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014. Public support in favor of joining the alliance had been low for years but rose significantly to 41 percent in 2015.
The country is one of the largest in Europe area wise and would make up a strategic location for NATO in the north. In the midst of the debate, Sweden’s newly elected center-left government started to encounter false information on social media platforms. Rumors that nuclear weapons would be stored on Swedish soil, and that NATO soldiers would enjoy immunity to rape girls freely, were suddenly considered facts.
Sweden’s minister of defense, Peter Hultqvist, was the victim of two incidents of identity theft in 2015. The first one appeared when a German news outlet broke the news of Sweden providing artillery systems to Ukraine. The story was based on a fake letter from Hultqvist to the head of BAE Systems Bofors AB, in which he congratulates the company on a great deal. An image of the letter, written on authentic ministry of defense paper with a perfectly forged signature, started to spread on Twitter before Hultqvist denied the story.
“Journalists started to call and it required a lot of explaining to convince them why it was false,” Hultqvist told newspaper Dagens Nyheter in October 2015. “Despite successfully stopping [the spreading of the letter] in Sweden, it has appeared in different places around the world as some sort of evidence for things we don’t engage in.”
The letter has been traced back to Saint Petersburg, Russia, but it is unknown who exactly was behind it.
A fake Twitter account in Hultqvist’s name was later created to connect with international media.
Despite proving he had nothing to do with the letter and the Twitter account, Hultqvist had to answer to people’s accusations as he toured Sweden to promote NATO.
“It infuriates you,” Hultqvist told Dagens Nyheter. “I was first irritated that we need to waste time on denying false activities where someone is only out to sabotage our work. At the same time we shouldn’t really get upset, because unfortunately this is what the reality looks like today.”
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