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Sweden recognizes the right to free speech, including on the internet and through the use of social media platforms. While private entities are free to block inappropriate content, the government does not prohibit the use of Twitter or fake accounts on Twitter, and has not adopted legislation that allows for the blocking of internet sites or internet access by the government. It also does not regulate opinion-based advertisements. Sweden has, however, criminalized the dissemination of false information and requires news media to correct such information.  

Recognizing that misinformation is a significant challenge globally, the Swedish government is in the process of launching a new agency, the Psychological Defense Agency, which will focus on psychological defense and combatting misinformation in Sweden. It is set to be launched in 2022.  the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency was earlier tasked with making Swedish residents aware of misinformation campaigns and educating them on how to verify the accuracy of information, and has been actively engaged in that process.

Media companies have begun to voluntarily address the misinformation problem. During the 2018 national election cycle, four Swedish public media corporations created a fact-checking website (now discontinued) that allowed members of the public to verify election-related claims.  Bots were used in the 2018 election, but no successful misinformation campaigns were identified. Facebook deleted posts that included false information produced by fake accounts in connection with the national election in 2018. TV4 initiated rules prohibiting the purchase of political advertisements by foreign entities in the weeks leading up to 2019 EU parliamentary elections.

I. Background

A. Mass Dissemination of Information via Social Media

Misinformation continues to be one of the challenges facing Sweden from both a defense and civil contingencies perspective.[1] Mass dissemination is recognized by Swedish authorities as a global problem.[2] The risk of future mass dissemination of information in Sweden, especially as it relates to elections, is also recognized.[3] Fake Twitter accounts and automated accounts disseminated information over Twitter during the 2018 national election period, and the use of such methods increased in the latter stages of the election period.[4] However, these disinformation attempts do not appear to have been successful.[5] Similarly, no successful disinformation campaigns were identified during the 2019 European Parliament elections. According to reports, ever since 2016, the internet has been used more than TV and newspapers combined to influence Swedish politics.[6] Swedish journalists also use social media as a source for their articles, which has resulted in some false reports, including a 2012 report of the death of British “Labour leader” Margaret Thatcher, the leader of the Conservative Party who was alive at the time.[7]

The Swedish Defense Research Agency (Totalförsvarets forskningsinstitut, FOI) has summed up the risks associated with foreign propaganda as follows: “Previously democracies risked becoming victims of an occupying power. Today, a foreign power may instead attempt to manipulate Swedish political elections through various kinds of information operations.”[8]

B. Principles of Free Speech

Sweden protects the right to freedom of speech enshrined in its Constitution (Instrument of Government).[9] Further regulation of freedom of speech is done in two separate constitutional acts, the Freedom of the Press Act (Tryckfrihetsförordning, TF) and the Fundamental Law on Freedom of Expression (Yttrandefrihetsgrundlagen, YGL).[10] In addition, freedom of speech is protected in the European Convention on Human Rights,[11] to which Sweden is a party.

Sweden introduced its first freedom-of-the-press legislation in 1766.[12] The document was adopted by Royal acclamation, and removed the need for publishers to attain pre-approval from the King prior to publication.[13] A special fundamental law on freedom of expression covering nonprint media was adopted in 1991.[14] Today the TF allows the legislature to put limits on freedom of the press, including through laws that limit the use of commercial advertisements, and criminalizes child pornography.[15]

Publishers of information on electronic databases are constitutionally protected,[16] but are also responsible for the content that appears on those databases.[17] Publishers of electronic bulletin boards (elektroniska anslagstavlor) are not responsible for the crimes that are committed using their services, such as comments posted by others, as the person posting the information is responsible for it.[18] Facebook has removed content that falsely proclaimed to be a Swedish Party Leader’s account.[19]

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II. Current and Pending Legislation

A. Treatment of Bots

The use of internet robots (bots) to automate the dissemination of information is not criminalized in Sweden. FOI produced a study on the use of Twitter bots in connection with the 2018 Swedish election,[20] which found that their use was widespread, but appeared less successful as the information was not retweeted by real accounts.[21]

B. Criminal Sanctions for Dissemination of Certain Information

Sweden has criminalized a number of acts that are related to the dissemination of propaganda. Those laws do not specifically mention dissemination via the internet or mobile apps, but also do not exempt these information channels.[22] For example, it is a crime (högmålsbrott, a type of treason) “to intentionally affect public opinion or limit the freedom of a political organization or a union or trade association to act and thereby jeopardize the freedom of speech and association” through the use of force, coercion, or criminal threats.[23]  Accepting remuneration from foreign sources to spread propaganda in Sweden is also a crime,[24] as is spreading information that could be dangerous to the national security of Sweden.[25]

Information disseminated pertaining to the Swedish military is considered spying even if the information is false.[26] Thus, publishing fake news about Swedish military operations, military holdings, etc. is a crime.[27] Also, publishing certain documents that are deemed secret is criminalized, if publication risks the nation’s security.[28] The accuracy of the information is not relevant. Any publication of such information, true or false, is a crime.[29] Other crimes include instigation of war (krigsanstiftan)[30] and upheaval (uppror),[31] crimes against a citizen’s freedoms (medborgerlig frihet),[32] treason (högförräderi),[33] and threats against servants of the state (hot mot tjänsteman).[34] During times of war false rumors about the state are specifically criminalized.[35] Thus, Swedish media corporations may not publish information that risks the security of the state. It is the publisher (ansvarig utgivare) that is responsible for any violation.[36] In addition unlawful depictions of violence (olaga våldsskildring) are a crime.[37]

C. No Legal Authorization for Blocking Media

While the publication of certain information and statements (such as defamation, agitation of racial groups, and instigation of war) is criminalized, as can be seen from Part II(B), above, no legislation exists that allows the state to block media content because it is a threat to national security. Sweden has historically taken a stance against blocking or limiting internet access, arguing that “crimes should be prosecuted, not hidden.”[38] It does however, allow “private individuals, schools, companies, or other organizations“ to use filters to prevent access to “inappropriate material” (such as pornographic material) online. [39] Sweden is a member of the Freedom Online coalition, which encourages member states to work with private companies to prevent human rights violations online, and ensuring a free internet.[40]

D. Amended Advertisement Legislation

Swedish legislation on advertisements (the Advertisement Act)[41] does not include regulation of political, religious, or opinion-based advertisements. The government is currently working on amending the legislation, but the report published in connection with this does not address political advertisements.[42]

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III. Other Government Actions

A. Creation of Psychological Defense Authority

In 2018 the Swedish government announced that it would launch a new Psychological Defense Authority,[43] because creating such an authority was an “important step in the process of building a modern total defense adapted to the threats of our time.”[44] The purpose of the authority is to

discover, counter, and prevent influence campaigns, and disinformation, both nationally and internationally. It shall also strengthen the population’s resistance [so that people can] themselves discover influence campaigns and disinformation. In addition, the psychological defense must be able to act both in the short term and in the long term. [45]

The mission of the Psychological Defense Authority will be to ”identify, analyze, and counter influence campaigns.”[46] Originally, the commission for the creation of the Psychological Defense Authority was scheduled to present a report on how this authority could be created no later than August 15, 2019.[47] On July 11, 2019, this date was extended to May 31, 2020.[48] The government hopes the institution will be in place by 2022 (which is also the next election year).[49]

According to FOI, counteracting deception, disinformation (“including rumour-mongering”), and propaganda is one of three essential components of psychological defense.[50]  Psychological defense is thus, according to FOI, about creating a psychological climate—“a will to defend” and “a coordinated narrative about what values Sweden wishes to uphold.”[51]

B. Nordic Cooperation on Cyberattacks and Foreign Influence

In a 2017 op-ed, the Danish and Swedish Ministers of Defense declared that “fake news” is a danger to the two countries.[52] The Nordic countries have collectively joined forces to combat fake news, proposing coordination of their national security strategies.[53]

C. Civil Contingency Agency Tasked with Increasing Misinformation Literacy of Citizens

In addition to the above measures, Sweden has worked to increase the misinformation literacy of its citizens. The Civil Contingencies Agency (Myndigheten för samhällsskydd och beredskap, MSB) was specifically tasked with increasing the awareness among Swedish residents of the threats associated with misinformation and influence campaigns.[54]  One of the MSB’s responses was the publication in 2018 of Countering Information Influence Activities: A Handbook for Communicators,[55] which provides communicators working in public administration with resources in the event of an actual or anticipated information influence campaign.

As early as 2013 the MSB recognized that misinformation was one of the possible crisis scenarios that Sweden would have to address in the future.[56] The MSB response includes a public emergency preparedness brochure on how to act “when crisis or war comes.”[57] This publication includes information on how to spot fake news and misinformation campaigns.[58]

 

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IV. Media Coordination

A. Industry Fact-Checking Sites

During the 2018 parliamentary election cycle a joint initiative to address fake news titled Faktiskt.se (“actually”) was created.[59] Faktiskt.se was a collaboration between the two largest morning newspapers, Dagens Nyheter (DN) and Svenska Dagbladet (SVD), and the two public service providers, Sveriges Radio (SR) and Sveriges Television (SVT).[60] It evaluated the accuracy of political statements by political party leaders,[61] as well as other news stories—for example, on the reported health benefits of moderate alcohol use.[62]  It was discontinued in December of 2018 following the election, as originally planned.[63]

TV Broadcaster TV4 (owned by Bonnier) has published rules on who may advertise, and specifically who may purchase political advertisements to be broadcast in Sweden.[64] During the most recent election to the European Parliament (three weeks prior to the May 26, 2019, vote) only Swedish political parties and Swedish unions were allowed to advertise political messages.[65]

B. Self-Regulation of Journalistic Content

Swedish journalists are bound by industry ethical guidelines (Ethical Rules for Press, TV, and Radio) and have a general duty to correct information that is false.[66] Swedish journalists are typically not prosecuted for misinformation, but are criticized by the Press Council (PON) following referral from the Press Ombudsman (PO).[67] The PO is responsible for investigating, at the request of an individual or on its own initiative, possible violations of “the use of good publishing practices,” which include accuracy of the information published.[68] The PO refers cases to the PON when it finds that a violation has taken place.[69] The PO’s review specifically includes social media content.[70] The PON has previously explained that “[a] fundamental prerequisite for publishing must be that publishing is compatible with good publishing customs and that there is evidence to substantiate the information.”[71] Thus, the publication of false information violates the ethical rules. The maximum fine to be paid by the publisher for such violations is SEK 32,000 (about US$3,500).[72]

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Prepared by Elin Hofverberg
Foreign Law Specialist
September 2019


[1] MSB (Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency), Five Challenging Future Scenarios for Societal Security, 40, 54 (2013), https://perma.cc/QMT2-THDN

[2] Id.; see also Nationell strategi för samhällets informations- och cybersäkerhet, Skr. 2016/17:213, https://perma.cc/3UAA-BQRY.    

[3] Skr. 2016/17:213, supra note 2. 

[4] Johan Fernquist et al., FOI, Bots and the Swedish Election – A Study of Automated Accounts on Twitter (Sept. 12, 2018), https://perma.cc/75PD-HZXM.

[5] Id.

[6] Nic Newman et al., Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2019, https://perma.cc/8S7R-4DFB.

[7] Pär Anders Albinsson et al., FOI, Analys och detection av vilseledning och paverkansoperationer i sociala medier 13 (Dec. 2015), https://perma.cc/T2B2-EZMP.

[8] Niklas H. Rossbach, FOI, Psychological Defence: Vital for Sweden’s Defence Capability 2 (Nov. 2017), https://perma.cc/9Y2H-ETLZ.

[9] Regeringsformen [RF] (Svensk författningssamling (SFS) 1974:152), https://perma.cc/2L66-LWKR.

[10] Tryckfrihetsförordning [TF] (SFS 1949:105), https://perma.cc/63C5-89AU; Yttrandefrihetsgrundlagen [YGL] (SFS 1991:1469), https://perma.cc/GB6Q-DLKC.

[11] European Convention on Human Rights [ECHR], Nov. 4, 1950, 213 U.N.T.S. 221, https://perma.cc/Y584-N9KT.

[12] Kongl. Maj:ts Nådige Förordning, Angående Skrif- och Tryck-friheten. Gifwen Stockholm i Råd-Cammaren then 2. December 1766, https://perma.cc/9BJA-9T6M.

[13] Id. 1 §. For more information on the 1766 law see Elin Hofverberg, 250 Years of Press Freedom in Sweden, In Custodia Legis (Dec. 19, 2016), https://perma.cc/4NTL-78AR.

[14] For legislative background see Proposition [Prop.] 1990/91:64 om yttrandefrihetsgrundlag m.m., https://perma.cc/X878-7W3X.

[15] 1 kap. 12-14 §§ TF.

[16]  1 kap. 9 § 1 st YGL.

[17] Högsta Domstolen NJA 2013 s. 945, https://perma.cc/EHV3-LY72

[18] NJA 2007 s. 805, https://perma.cc/65YS-DL3F.

[19] Antonia Woodford,The Hunt for False News: EU Edition, Facebook Newsroom (Apr. 2, 2019), https://perma.cc/7JVA-8PY8.

[20] Fernquist et al., supra note 4. 

[21] Id.

[22] E.g., 18 kap. 5 Brottsbalken [BrB] (SFS 1962:700), e contrario, https://perma.cc/DLC6-E8A5.

[23] 18 kap. 5 § BrB.

[24] 19 kap. 13 § BrB.

[25] 7 kap 19 TF.

[26] Id.

[27] Id. 7 kap. 19 §.

[28] Id. 7 kap. 15 §.

[29] Id.

[30] 7 kap. 13 § TF.

[31] Id. 7 kap. 10 §.

[32] Id. 7 kap. 11 §.

[33] Id. 7 kap. 12 §.

[34] Id. 7 kap. 8 §.

[35] Id. 7 kap. 19 §.

[36] Id. 8 kap. 1 §.

[37] Id. 7 kap. 7 §.

[38] Konstitutionsutskottets betänkande2013/14:KU23Tryck- och yttrandefrihetsfrågor, at 26, https://perma.cc/CL6F-3KEZ.

[39] Id. 

[40] About us, Freedom Online Coalition, https://perma.cc/8R8W-SUUN

[41] Marknadsföringslag [Advertisement Act] (SFS 2008:486), https://perma.cc/SSG6-244P.

[42] Statens Offentliga Utredningar [SOU] 2018:1 Ett reklamlandskap i förändring – konsumentskydd och tillsyn i en digitaliserad värld, https://perma.cc/9UWJ-WZKB.

[43] DIR 2018:80 Ansvar, ledning och samordning inom civilt försvar, https://perma.cc/GCF8-Z6HV.

[44] DIR 2018:80, at 7 (translation by author).

[45] DIR 2018:80, at 5.

[46] DIR 2018:80, at 7 (translation by author).

[47] DIR 2018:80, at 10.

[48] Tillägssdirektiv till Utredning om en ny myndighet for psykologiskt försvar (Ju 2018:06) Dir. 2019:42, https://perma.cc/5P4P-SM5W.

[49] Press Release, Länsstyrelsen för Västra Götaland, Landshövdingen ska utreda ny myndighet (June 3, 2019), https://perma.cc/HRZ5-8NX6.

[50] Rossbach, supra note 8, at 1-2.  “The three parts are: to counteract deception and disinformation, including rumour-mongering and propaganda or, in other words, everything that hostile psychological warfare engages in; to ensure that the government authorities can get their message out in a crisis, including war; and to contribute to strengthening the population’s will to defend Sweden.” Id.

[51] Id. at 3.

[52] Peter Hultqvist & Claus Hjort Frederiksen, Ryska ’fake news’ - en fara för våra länder, Aftonbladet (Aug. 30, 2017), https://perma.cc/5QF2-ZMXS.

[53] Press Release, Nordic Council, Nordic Fightback against Fake News (Oct. 30, 2018), https://perma.cc/W8YL-LABR.

[54] MSB regleringsbrev, Regleringsbrev för budgetåret 2019 avseende Myndigheten för samhällsskydd och beredskap, ESV (Dec. 20, 2018), https://perma.cc/H94V-RXV7

[55] MSB, Countering Information Influence Activities: A Handbook for Communicators (Mar. 2019), https://perma.cc/3L7W-YJ2Y

[56] MSB, Five Challenging Future Scenarios for Societal Security (Mar. 2013), https://perma.cc/7CB5-DTKR.

[57] MSB, Om Krisen eller Kriget Kommer (May 2018), https://perma.cc/4PHH-ZCQG.

[58] Id. at 6.

[60] Id.

[61] Faktakollen, SVT, https://perma.cc/VU99-4S6F; Ebba Busch Thor har delvis rätt om vårdköer, SVT (Oct. 31, 2018), https://perma.cc/3ERY-KK6V

[62] Faktakollen, SVT, https://www.svt.se/nyheter/inrikes/17565278; Därför är påståendet om att alkohol kan vara nyttigt mestadels fel, SVT (Nov. 3, 2018), https://perma.cc/9XZ2-V378.

[63] Linnéa Kihlström, Faktiskt.se läggs ned, Medievärlden (Oct. 11, 2018), https://perma.cc/6RV7-HA8A.

[64] Regler för åsiktsannonsering i TV4, Bonnier Broadcasting (Mar. 29, 2018), https://perma.cc/B5BU-LUB6.

[65] Id. § 7.

[66] Etiska regler for press, TV och radio, PO-PON, https://perma.cc/94CB-AS7L.

[67] Senaste fällningar, PO-PON, https://perma.cc/ME5M-FQ8U.

[68] PO-PON, 1 § Instruktion for Allmänhetens Pressombudsman, https://perma.cc/S2C7-GZL4.

[69] Id.

[70] Id. 1 § c.

[71] Svenska Dagbladet klandras för publicering om NN [namn angivet], PO-PON (June 25, 2018), https://perma.cc/VKR6-C8EA; see also Elin Hofverberg, Sweden: Swedish Media Criticized by Swedish Press Council for Publishing Names of #MeToo Accused Without Cause, Global Legal Monitor (Oct. 4, 2018), https://perma.cc/Y3BQ-K6KM.

[72] Hur går det till?, PO-PON, https://perma.cc/7BCD-QYKE.

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Last Updated: 03/16/2020