Sweden’s New Psychological Defense Agency Offers Alternate Model

The Washington Post (and other news outlets) published an article on January 6 spotlighting the announcement from Sweden that it is establishing a new Psychological Defense Agency to improve its capabilities to “identify and counter foreign malign information influence, disinformation, and other dissemination of misleading information directed at Sweden.” The agency, to be established under the Ministry of Justice, will have a 45-person staff to support the “coordination and development of agencies’ and other actors’ activities within Sweden’s psychological defence” and “offer support to agencies, municipalities, regions, companies and organisations and contribute to strengthening resilience within our population.” Unlike efforts in the United States (which have typically been externally focused and housed in Defense or State Department organizations), the decision to establish this Agency “reflects a shift toward preventing disinformation as a form of consumer protection,” according to the deputy director, Magnus Hjort.

Because of the similarity (and alignment) with IPA’s mission of cognitive security, the stated missions of the Psychological Defense Agency and its mission statement (as quoted from their website https://www.mpf.se/en/mission/) should be of interest to our members.

The purpose of psychological defence is to safeguard our open and democratic society, the free formation of opinion and Sweden’s freedom and independence.

Psychological defence must be able to identify, analyse, meet and prevent undue information influence and other misleading information that is directed at Sweden or Swedish interests both nationally and internationally. It can be disinformation aimed at weakening the country’s resilience and the population’s will to defend itself or unduly influencing people’s perceptions, behaviours and decision making.

Psychological defence must also strengthen the population’s ability to detect and resist influence campaigns and disinformation. Psychological defence contributes to creating resistance and willingness to defend among our population and in society as a whole.

The Swedish Psychological Defence Agency works both preventively and operationally and must be able to fulfil its tasks in peacetime and in war. We will contribute to a strong Swedish total defence that prevents conflicts.

A strong psychological defence is not just a matter for the Swedish Psychological Defence Agency, it is something we build together – agencies, municipalities, organizations and not least – individual citizens.

In considering how something like this might be applied in the United States to address domestic needs, it is helpful to look at some of the lessons that might affect our approach if we were to explore establishing a government entity like this.

  • Strategic focus: Looking at this as a consumer protection problem vice a security or foreign relations challenge may help ameliorate some of the freedom of speech considerations, but it will mean a significant shift in perspective for much of the community. Couching it in different terms – like consumer protection or epidemiology – might shift the discussions and “demilitarize” the issue in ways that allow for less polarization in the debates over misinformation/disinformation and how to deal with it.
  • Independent agency: Building capability in state and federal agencies that are not  the Departments of Defense or State would be helpful and would further help with capacity-building (in this case, bringing in a variety of new players with useful perspectives like law enforcement, civil society, and consumer protection). In the case of Sweden, putting it in the Ministry of Justice pulls this back more into the realm of the rule of law, and less of national security (and helps normalize discussions that will hopefully be less heated than the current rhetorical debates on the tradeoffs between curtailing free speech and combatting malign influence and disinformation).