Sweden struggles with social media attacks portraying 'country in chaos' ahead of election

There has been a proliferation of new "bots" on Twitter that are primarily stumping for the nationalist, anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats and attacking the ruling Social Democrats.
There has been a proliferation of new "bots" on Twitter that are primarily stumping for the nationalist, anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats and attacking the ruling Social Democrats. PHOTO: REUTERS

STOCKHOLM (BLOOMBERG) - A familiar script is playing out in cyberspace as Swedes prepare to vote in 10 days.

Facing what could be the most tumultuous election in a century, the nation's institutions and political groups have come under increasing cyber attacks that are threatening to disrupt the outcome.

There has been a proliferation of new "bots" on Twitter that are primarily stumping for the nationalist, anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats and attacking the ruling Social Democrats.

The pattern of attack is, by now, familiar. Cyber warfare erupted almost a decade ago in the Baltic states, and the US election was famously upended by the hacking of the Democratic Party, which has since led to indictments of Russian intelligence operatives. There were also attempts to influence the French election, with Mr Emmanuel Macron's campaign falling victim to hacking.

The Swedish Security Service is now stepping up efforts to defend the electoral process, it told the country's national radio broadcaster on Wednesday. The agency stressed that, so far, disruptions have been incremental, not "major", and said not all incursions are related to a foreign power or to the election.

"We're handling a mass of activities and incidents and will, in our intelligence work with others, attempt to puzzle together who is behind each activity," Ms Linda Escar, a deputy unit head at the security police, told Swedish Radio.

'Impeachment' Demands

But the influence campaigns are also spreading across the world in the form of fake news, according to the police. The agency is monitoring an increasing number of international news stories about Sweden being a "country in chaos".

One Twitter account calls for the impeachment of Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, alleging the Social Democrat leader has committed "crimes against the nation of Sweden & its population".

Sweden's status as the country in Europe that has absorbed the most immigrants per capita is also a favourite theme on Twitter, with #swedenstan a popular hashtag. Others refer to Sweden as a "waste dump" for multiculturalism.

While Sweden has experienced rising crime rates and lengthening hospital queues over the past few years, it's still a highly well-functioning society that ranks at the top of most surveys on life satisfaction and economic competitiveness.

As a beacon of social democracy, Sweden is a welcome target for conservatives across the world. Over the past years, it has become a frequent punching bag on social media and with so-called alt-right news sources over its efforts to absorb a record number of immigrants.

Even United States President Donald Trump has used his pulpit to portray Sweden as a nation in crisis from an overload of immigrants, largely based on his reliance on Fox News for information.

On Tuesday, the Swedish Defence Research Agency published a report showing how Twitter bots are multiplying to ramp up support for the nationalist Sweden Democrats.

The Latest Polls

The anti-immigrant party has surged in the polls in recent years. Some surveys even suggest that the group, which has neo-Nazi roots, could emerge as the biggest in the election on Sept 9.

The party wants to halt immigration and drag Sweden out of the European Union. But its leader, Jimmie Akesson, professes no admiration for Russia or interest in alt-right leader Stephen Bannon.