Russia Will Interfere in U.S. Midterm Elections and Sweden Can Show Us How to Respond, Experts Say

With the U.S. midterm elections rapidly approaching, some U.S. policymakers are thinking about new ways to combat Russian interference in the elections. Meanwhile, Sweden, which will hold elections this Sunday, is touting itself as an example of how to counter Russian influence in the lead-up to election day.

In March, Congress earmarked $380 million for states to bolster the security of their election infrastructure, and an additional $300 million to combat cyberattacks from Russia. Nevertheless, many analysts have noted that the U.S. is still terribly unprepared for dealing with the inevitability of Russian interference, especially as Russian-linked actors use social media platforms to sow social discord. 

Officials in Sweden spent years in the run-up to their election looking at ways to address Russian disinformation and election interference. Journalists have been trained to spot fake news and work to counter disinformation actively. Politicians have been trained to spot phishing attacks and other attempts to infiltrate their computer systems. And local officials have been trained to protect voting booths.

"I would assess that in Europe, Sweden is the most prepared country for mitigating the impact of Russian influence activities in their elections. Swedish institutions had the advantage of studying Russian interference activities in other Western elections, and they have trained more than 10,000 Swedish local state officials, done in-depth briefings for political parties or media or publicly raising the awareness about Russian methods," Jakub Janda, executive director of the Prague-based think tank European Values, told Newsweek. 

1025741496-594x594 Annie Loof, leader of the Centre Party in Sweden, votes ahead of the polls in Stockholm, on September 1. Sweden began looking at ways to combat election interference years before the September 9 election. Janerik Henriksson/AFP/Getty Images

"Sweden has many domestic problems, mainly related to migration, which domestic parties use, but it seems that Sweden has done the most it could to be ready. We assess that Sweden is in a category of countries which are doing the most, together with the U.K. and the Baltic republics. They are the European leaders," continued Janda, who also described Sweden's efforts to combat election interference in a Twitter thread.

Officials in Sweden said they believed their measures have effectively discouraged Russia, which has consistently backed conservative movements in Europe that oppose the European Union, from attempting to meddle in their elections.

“I have been deeply impressed with how thoughtful the Swedish officials who have visited us in Cambridge and Helsinki and elsewhere have been. They’ll say, ‘Teach me.’ They want to listen. People don’t get that from government officials,” Jed Willard, the global engagement director at Harvard University’s FDR Foundation, told Newsweek of his experience working with Swedish officials. 

The Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency created a comprehensive handbook for all communicators that explains how to identify information-influence campaigns from abroad. 

“To separate between information influence activities and other forms of legitimate communication, you need to assess the extent to which a piece of communication is deceptive, is intended to do harm and causes a disruption,” the handbook reads. "It is no coincidence that techniques employed in information influence activities often overlap with journalism, public affairs, public diplomacy, lobbying and public relations—mimicry of these techniques is part of the way in which information influence activities can appear legitimate."

However, preparedness has not stopped the barrage of fake news from arriving in the country. On Thursday, Oxford University released a report demonstrating that as many as one in three news stories shared on Twitter about Swedish politics between August 8 and August 17 were fake news stories, many of them aimed at stoking fear of Muslims and immigrants. The report noted that Swedish officials believed Russia was one of the main actors attempting to influence Swedish politics.

“At the People and Defence conference 2018, the Swedish Prime Minister claimed that Russia were responsible for several influence operations. In a larger political context, Russia has a history of being one of the biggest intelligence threats towards Sweden,” the report read.

“Furthermore, the Totalförsvarets Forskningsinstitut [the Swedish Defence Research Agency] recently released a report on interference campaigns which found that automated bots share URLs of known junk news sites like Samhällsnytt and Fria Tider more frequently than regular accounts; and that the majority of automated accounts that have either been suspended or removed by Twitter expresses traditional authoritarian and nationalistic views,” it continued.

In the lead-up to the elections in Sweden, polls suggest that the far-right, anti-Islam party the Sweden Democrats could win around 25 percent of the vote. It would be a major shift for a country whose politics are dominated by left-leaning parties.

“The Sweden Democrats are pro-Russia and anti-EU, so you don’t have to imagine overt support when it’s right out there in the open,” said Willard.

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