World·CBC in Stockholm

Sweden calls on citizens to prepare for war, terror attacks — and fake news

Sweden is one of the first nations to directly warn its citizens, in plain language, about the perils of false information in the modern age — and to provide concrete advice on how to avoid falling for it.

European country becomes one of first to directly warn citizens about the dangers of disinformation

Christina Andersson of the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency holds examples of old emergency advice pamphlets that were distributed in Sweden during the Cold War. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

In nearly five million mailboxes all over Sweden, an updated version of a Cold War-era brochure arrived this week as a definitive, modern family's guide to 21st century emergency preparedness.

As such, in addition to war, the government-issued booklet included mention of terrorist attacks, cyber threats and climate-change fuelled weather — all of which were negligible or non-existent risks back in the Soviet era when the If War Comes pamphlet was regularly printed in Sweden.

The updated version Sweden is distributing to some 4.8 million households about what to do in the event of a crisis dedicates a full page to false information, whether in peacetime or during war. (Pontus Lundahl/TT/Associated Press)

When the new 20-page version was unveiled to the public last week for the first time in nearly 30 years, headlines worldwide focused on the threat of war. Sweden is just downwind from Russia, after all, and the new nervousness in the neighbourhood is infectious.

But many of those headlines missed details of a significant addition on page 4: the warning about fake news.

With that, Sweden becomes one of the first nations to directly warn its citizens, in plain language, about the perils of disinformation in the modern age — and to provide concrete advice on how to avoid falling for it.

Addressing the threat of 'false information'

Of course, the threat of made-up news masquerading as legitimate is an old problem with a new name, given new life by new technology.

Some of the old pamphlets shown to CBC News in Stockholm do make a passing mention of being "on guard" against propaganda in relation to war's "spies and saboteurs." One depicts that multiple threat with the image of a large spider.

One of the Cold War-era pamphlets previously distributed in Sweden uses an image of a spider alongside descriptions of the multiple threats of propaganda and spies. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

But the brochure's modern version dedicates a full page to disinformation — whether in peacetime or in war.

"States and organizations are already using misleading information in order to try and influence our values and how we act," it reads under the heading "Be on the Lookout for False Information."

"The best protection against false information and hostile propaganda is to critically appraise the source," it continues. "The way to do that is to ask questions like 'Is this factual information or opinion?' or 'Is the source trustworthy?'"

It goes on to advise seeking out information from more than one source in order to verify it.

The warning arrives just months before a fall election in which foreign meddling and fake news are a significant concern. For authorities, it's a happy coincidence.

"That is quite a big issue in Sweden especially now — we are going into elections," said Christina Andersson of the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency, which prepared the brochure.

"It's a problem in the society as a whole," she said in an interview at the agency's offices in Stockholm. She would not speculate as to the main source of existing fake news in Sweden.

Worldwide response to disinformation

Revelations that false news, believed to be largely from Russia, reached millions of Americans on social media prior to the 2016 election prompted parliaments in several countries — from the U.K. to Singapore — to study fake news and its effects.

Since then, Malaysia criminalized fake news. Germany created a law that says media companies that won't take down false posts can be fined.

In a January speech, Pope Francis called on people to rediscover the 'dignity of journalism.' He also said journalists should be 'truthful and opposed to falsehoods, rhetorical slogans, and sensational headlines.' (Andrew Medichini/Associated Press)

The Pope has also warned against fake news. To combat it, earlier this year he recommended a rediscovery of truth-based journalism.

And many voluntary and state-funded organizations have sprung up around the world to combat disinformation through fact-checking, raising awareness and media literacy.

But few governments have done what Sweden has done —a nationwide warning. It put the threat of false information high up on the list of threats in a pamphlet issued to ordinary people during the highly publicized emergency preparedness week, right alongside advice on how to stay nourished and warm during a crisis or war.

"This time the threats are much more complex and we are talking about peacetime crisis as well as the threat of war," Andersson said.

There is a difference of opinion on how much governments should be doing to combat fake news, especially given it could be easy to veer into unobjective, political judgment of news.

Governments ponder what role to play

But it is generally agreed that it also cannot be left to social media platforms and traditional journalists alone to combat hoaxes and disinformation that can spread unchecked — especially on social media.

Given that polarizing and confusing disinformation could have an influence on crucial democratic exercises like elections, what more can a government do?

Some, like British MP Bob Seely — an expert on Russian warfare and a member of the British Parliament's newly formed Russia Coordination Group — are actively pondering the question. He wonders, for example, whether a government warning scheme, similar to that on cigarette packages, should exist to tell consumers of the risks associated with certain consistent sources of disinformation.

At a minimum, governments like the U.K. or Canada could fund an arms-length institution that can do what only newspapers now do and "investigate and expose subversive techniques and attacks," Seely said in a recent interview.

Others suggest a multipronged approach, in which governments should focus on educating the public — as Sweden has with its pamphlet.

The Swedish pamphlet also addresses the threat of terrorism. Five people were killed after a stolen beer truck was deliberately driven into crowds in Stockholm in April 2017. Rakhmat Akilov, a 39-year-old Uzbek man, has been charged with terrorism. (Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images)

"Both public and private institutions should fund digital media literacy programs for children and adults alike," Lorenzo Marini, co-creator of uCheck, a social platform for collective news verification, recently wrote

In addition to paper form, the Swedish preparedness brochure is being made available online and in 13 languages.

In it, the government pre-emptively engages in countering the most damaging kind of fake news that could come up in the case of war: "If Sweden is attacked by another country, we will never give up," it says.

"All information to the effect that resistance is to cease is false."

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Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.