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How Sweden Is Fighting Against Potential Election Interference

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The U.S. is not the only country worried about the spread of misinformation and fake news in the run-up to elections. Sweden has taken some steps to warn its voters as they head to the polls next week. Government agencies have partnered with the private sector, social media companies and the press. For more, we turn now to Erik Brattberg. He's director of the Europe Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ERIK BRATTBERG: Thanks for having me, Audie.

CORNISH: Where is Sweden vulnerable in terms of its politics? What are the wedge issues, so to speak?

BRATTBERG: Well, Sweden is a fairly resilient country. It's a country with public trust in government and public institutions and also in media. But it has vulnerabilities. And especially we've seen in the last few years an uptick in societal tensions, especially related to the issue of immigration. And you have a far-right party called the Sweden Democrats that have surged in the polls following the 2015-2016 migration crisis. So this is adding to the societal tensions and possibly something that Russia is trying to also utilize.

CORNISH: So the idea is people might see fake stories in their news feeds about migrants or about certain politicians?

BRATTBERG: Yeah. There's been a couple of studies to show an increase in automated bots trying to amplify the voices of anti-establishment parties, both on the far left and on the far right. And it showed that especially the anti-immigration party has been benefiting from those automated bots. I think what Russia's trying to do is to amplify the voices of anti-establishment figures and parties and politicians...

CORNISH: Wherever they are on the spectrum.

BRATTBERG: ...Wherever they are on the spectrum.

CORNISH: What are some of the things that Sweden is doing to take action? For the everyday Swede, what does that look like?

BRATTBERG: What's interesting about the Swedish case is really an effort to kind of reach out to ensure that the country is resilient, to work with political parties and politicians and government officials to make sure that they are trained, that they are aware of the problem of disinformation and propaganda.

CORNISH: So quite literally, this is how you spot a fake news story, or...?

BRATTBERG: Literally, they produced a handbook that's been distributed to 50,000 politicians at national and local level to just learn about the problem. But then they've also had outreach and dialogue to media outlets and to technology firms. They've worked with tech companies like Facebook to establish a Facebook hotline allowing government officials to report fake Facebook pages so that Facebook can deal with that. And then on top of that, working with educators, especially targeting high school students to make sure that they understand the risks associated with disinformation and propaganda and so that they can ascertain better what is real news and what is fake news.

CORNISH: So what can people learn from this? Are there other countries who are watching what Sweden is doing?

BRATTBERG: I think especially as the U.S. is preparing for its upcoming midterm selection and the 2020 presidential elections, it's interesting to look to countries in Europe, including Sweden, to see what they are doing. Obviously there's a debate here in the U.S. right now about election security, making sure we shore up cybersecurity and protect the physical and cyber aspects of our elections. But I think we also need to have a debate in this country about broader issues pertaining to information and disinformation. And looking at countries that have tried to work, again, with educators and media, I think, is worthwhile.

CORNISH: Erik Brattberg is director of the Europe Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Thank you for speaking with us.

BRATTBERG: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.