Disinformation in public discourse


Disinformation and propaganda shape false narratives and deprive people of the ability to read their own situation and the world, and thus to make informed choices.


The topic with which we open the new season of Media Talks is “Disinformation in public dialogue”, and the lecturer and our interlocutor is H.E. Anika Ben David, Ambassador of the Kingdom of Sweden in Belgrade.


Could you please tell us a bit about your background and experience in the field of diplomacy and communication, which has led you to the topic of misinformation/fake news?


Throughout my 27 years as a diplomat, I have worked with both bilateral and multilateral affairs. I have studied and worked in five countries. A third time ambassador, I am happy to serve in Serbia where Sweden contributes to helping Serbia advance on its EU path.


All diplomatic missions of Sweden – 100 or so – conduct public diplomacy. That is, they communicate what Sweden is, sees and does in the world; what is important to us and what we strive for. Swedish diplomacy advocates the right to access to information, which is a human right, part of the freedom of expression.


Human rights, including media freedom, democracy and the rule of law are cornerstones of Swedish

foreign policy since decades. We are convinced that a rules-based international order and multilateral cooperation makes the world safer and more just. We don’t believe in an international system where might alone rules.




Misinformation has become a major concern globally. How do you see the impact of misinformation on society, politics, and international relations, particularly in the context of Sweden and Serbia?


Disinformation and propaganda shape false narratives and deprive people of the ability to read their own situation and the world, and thus to make informed choices.


Disinformation and propaganda have the potential to polarise public opinion, to promote violent extremism and hate speech and, ultimately, to undermine democracies and reduce trust in the democratic processes.


And disinformation and propaganda are powerful tools in hybrid warfare, that can lead to armed conflict. For example: for years, Russia has brandished its democratic, neutral and sovereign neighbour Ukraine as a Nazi regime. This is obviously absurd, not least since its president is Jewish. Russia has invested a lot of resources into pushing this narrative. Eventually, it became an excuse for a full-scale invasion and mass atrocity crimes.


In the last two years, disinformation campaigns against Sweden have been waged. One concerns the situation for Moslems in Sweden. It claims that the Child Protection Services kidnap Moslem children. These campaigns aim at discrediting Sweden in the eyes of the world.


As the Ambassador of Sweden in Belgrade, could you share any specific initiatives or strategies that Sweden has adopted to combat the spread of misinformation, both domestically and in the international arena?


Sweden has recently set up a National Centre for Cyber Security and a National Agency for Psychological Defence to combat and prevent disinformation and hybrid warfare.


A government agency – the Swedish Media Council – is tasked to gather, interpret and disseminate research on children’s and young people’s use of media. The council also produces information and teaching materials on Media and Information Literacy (MIL) for schools and libraries.


Media literacy is a mandatory element in middle school in order to strengthen the abilities of students to critically evaluate sources.


In Serbia, Sweden supports investigative journalism through our democracy and human rights support.


But let me stress that the most important factor here is media freedom and the access of fact-based information.


In Sweden, media freedom is enshrined in the constitution. Our Press Freedom Act, adopted in 1766, is the world’s oldest.


Freedom of expression incl media freedom has served us well. Today, free speech, free press and overall openness and transparency are key to Swedish society. A plurality of voices makes a society stronger.


According to our Constitution, those in authority must be held accountable and all information must be freely available. The law protects the identities of sources who provide publishers, editors or news agencies with information, and journalists can never be forced to reveal their sources.


The principle of access to public information is a cornerstone of Swedish democracy. It means that the general public and the media are granted access to official records. This way, they have the opportunity to scrutinise the activities of government on all levels – national, regional and local. Transparency reduces the risk of power being abused.


Civil servants and others who work for the government are also free to inform the media or outsiders.


Swedish media are independent of political power and hold politicians accountable in the public interest. Media ownership is separated from politicians in executive and legislative functions. No active politician can sit on the board of directors of public media outlets or media regulators. There is a consensus on the need for public media.


Public media are regulated by an independent broadcasting commission which is part of the Swedish Press and Broadcasting Authority, while an independent media ombudsman accepts complaints on ethical issues.


In general, journalists in Sweden work freely and independently without any major constraints or risks of being bribed or fired because of their opinions. Journalistic sources are legally protected.


A consequence of all this is that there is high degree of trust in public service media in Sweden.


MediaTalks 2023 aims to promote media literacy and responsible journalism. How important is media literacy in the fight against misinformation in media, and what steps can individuals take to become more discerning consumers of information?


Media literacy is key in today’s local and global context. This is my advice to anyone who consumes media, be it social, print or tv:


  • Be critical of sources, do not spread rumours and seek verified information from public authorities.


  • Pay particular attention to information that upsets, scares or generates strong emotions. There may be someone who is trying to influence you.


When encountering information, ask yourself:


  • Is the information correct, is this reasonable?


  • Can this be checked against other sources?


  • Who is the sender and is it a normally credible source that is saying this?
  • How old is the information, image or film? Is it still relevant or is old information being recycled?


  • Why is this information being spread, is someone benefiting from you seeing something in a particular way?


Could you highlight any successful examples of international cooperation in addressing the issue of fake news, and how can countries like Sweden and Serbia work together in this regard?


First of all, I tend to avoid the term “fake news”. News should always be impartial, fact-based information. I rather use the terms disinformation, misinformation, malinformation and propaganda.


Now, there are many international initiatives and efforts against disinformation, of which Serbia and Sweden are part. UN, Unesco, OSCE ODIHR and the Council of Europe are the major ones. Among them, Unesco has issued A Handbook for Journalism Education and Training.


Also, the EU has adopted an action plan against disinformation.


The digital age has brought about new challenges when it comes to the dissemination of information. In your opinion, what role should social media platforms and technology companies play in tackling the problem of misinformation on their platforms?


Platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and TikTok have been criticized for spreading disinformation and for not doing enough to prevent this. On the other hand, these channels are also helpful for people’s engagement, solidarity and organizing.


The EU last year adopted a landmark legislation to prevent hate speech, propaganda and disinformation. The Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act aim to create a safer digital space where the human rights of users are protected and to establish a level playing field for businesses.


One concrete example of its application is how the EU recently issued a warning to Elon Musk over the alleged disinformation about the Hamas attack on Israel, including disinformation and “repurposed old images”, on X, which was formerly known as Twitter.


If Musk, the owner of X, does not comply he can face a fine of 6% of his revenues from X or a total blackout in the EU.


Lastly, what key takeaways or messages do you hope the audience will leave with after your lecture on Fake news/Misinformation at MediaTalks 2023 in Novi Sad?


The centrality of media freedom for a society to thrive. The need to always stay vigilant, check your sources and to protect the facts.


The interview was conducted by Aradi Vladimir Huba


Organizers of Media Talks are Heror Media Pont and MINORITY & LOCAL MEDIA DEVELOPMENT CENTER


Patrons: Provincial Secretariat for Culture, Public Information and Relations with Religious Communities and the Culture Administration of the City of Novi Sad


In cooperation with the Embassy of Sweden in Belgrade