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Source Criticism as a Technology of Government in the Swedish Psychological Defence: The Impact of Humanistic Knowledge on Contemporary Security Policy

Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, 100 44 Stockholm, Sweden
Humanities 2021, 10(1), 13;
Received: 14 November 2020 / Revised: 23 December 2020 / Accepted: 28 December 2020 / Published: 4 January 2021


“Source criticism” (källkritik) has become an essential part of the Swedish government’s activities against false information, deception campaigns, and propaganda, which are viewed as fundamentally destabilising forces that can potentially undermine the democratic system, the public debate, and political decision-making. The purpose of this article is to explore source criticism as a technology of government focusing on the Swedish Psychological Defence. I analyse the way in which source criticism is brought to bear on Swedish national security policy in the light of Foucauldian theories about modern governmentality and technologies of the self. Source criticism is seen as an example of a contemporary form of government that entails a redistribution of responsibility from the state to the individual, who is provided with certain “technologies of self” to master an unpredictable political environment. With this case study as empirical example, the aim of the article is to contribute to the research on the influence of humanistic knowledge in security and defence policy domains. This prompts further discussion about what happens with the democratic and critical potential of humanistic knowledge as it is enrolled in government operations.

1. Introduction

In Sweden as well as in international politics, “information warfare” or “information operations” carried out by a foreign power or any antagonistic actor with the purpose of affecting the views, behaviour, and decision-making of democratic societies are at the heart of contemporary security policy. There are now many examples of how information, rumours, conspiracy theories, or false statements are causing social unrest. This is evident not least in connection with the recent presidential election in the USA or in relation to how the COVID-19 pandemic may also risk becoming an “infodemic” according to the Swedish Military Intelligence and Security Service (MUST) as well as the World Health Organisation (Försvarsmakten 2020b; WHO 2020). There are also joint EU efforts dedicated to intervening against disinformation (Regeringskansliet 2019).
Specifically, in Sweden, “source criticism” (källkritik) has become an essential part of government. In an information booklet reaching the majority of Swedish households, or nearly five million of them, the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB) is highlighting the significance of source criticism as a vital instrument against false information, deception campaigns, and propaganda, which are viewed as fundamentally destabilising forces that can potentially undermine the democratic system, the public debate, and political decision-making (MSB 2018). The Swedish Armed Forces are also stressing the importance of source criticism as an essential vehicle for maintaining and strengthening Swedish national security and democracy, while the Swedish General Education Agency is advancing the significance of source criticism on all levels of education (Försvarsmakten 2020a; Skolverket 2018).
The purpose of the article is to explore source criticism as a technology of government focusing on the Swedish Psychological Defence. I analyse the way in which source criticism is brought to bear on Swedish national security policy in the light of Foucauldian theories about modern governmentality and technologies of the self. Source criticism is seen as an example of a contemporary form of government that entails a redistribution of responsibility from the state to the individual, who is provided with certain “technologies of self” to master an unpredictable political environment. Specifically, I inquire into the problems which the Swedish government has identified and which political objectives it tries to achieve through the use of source criticism. With this case study as empirical example, the aim of the article is to contribute to the research on the influence of the humanities in security and defence domains. Source criticism is considered an instance of how knowledge that is commonly associated with the humanities is enrolled in major government operations. I do not examine the detailed understandings of source criticism within the defence authorities. The article does not account for the slow process of uptake that led various actors to adopt the notion of source criticism.
Source criticism developed in the 19th century as a method for historians to assess the sources by which the past was studied. It has had a wide-reaching impact on historical scholarship in the Scandinavian countries and for a long time it was intricately linked with the professionalisation of historical scholarship (Torstendahl 2000). It has also been connected with the influence of German historian Leopold von Ranke. In the Nordic countries, and perhaps especially in Sweden, it was regarded as the primary methodological tool of historians, but it did not have the same impact on American or British historical scholarship (Torstendahl 2005). One basic assumption of source criticism is that it is possible and desirable to seek knowledge and truth about the past, that this is a legitimate task of historians, and that the sources that historians use to make their claims may be false (Jarrick 2005).
The initial propositions of source criticism have been reworked many times since its inception. Theories and methods inspired by, for instance, discourse analysis, poststructuralist philosophy, and relativism have also posed questions as to the role of source criticism in historical research (Nilsson 2005). However, four criteria for assessing the quality of source material commonly stand out in discussions of source criticism. These criteria have a long history and are typically reiterated in textbooks and educational material. As will be evident below, they are also organising the use of source criticism as a governmental tool. These criteria are authenticity, which refers to the importance of verifying the author/authors or the original source of information; dependency, which refers to the relationship between different sources and whether one source repeats or relies on another source; tendency, which refers to the potential bias of the author/authors. The notion of time is also significant. Sources that are closer in time or concurrent with the event that they give account of are commonly but not always considered more trustworthy.
A more radical form of source criticism emerged in the early 20th century and was particularly influential in Sweden, where Lauritz and Curt Weibull were especially prominent, as well as in the other Scandinavian countries through, for instance, Erik Arup in Denmark and Edvard Bull in Norway. This radicalisation entailed turning the burden of proof around: sources should be rejected unless there were clear reasons for trusting them. This principle was used against established or traditional historical scholarship, paving the way for new modes of historical research. There were also important distinctions and hierarchisation between different forms of sources.
While source criticism is currently not the method par excellence of Scandinavian historians, it certainly remains relevant to some historical enquiries (Edelberg and Simonsen 2015, p. 216). Source criticism also remains relevant to the education of historians and in other fields (Rosenlund 2015). Source criticism has also influenced other academic disciplines and practices, most notably journalism (Thurén and Werner 2019). Its usefulness in journalism concerns how journalists, rather than seeking objective truths about the world, depart from how all sources of information are biased in one way or another (Steensen 2018). It is also linked with what is referred to as information literacy and a general ability to assess sources of information in relation to the growing quantity of available information (Johannessen 2017).
From a method of historical research and journalism, then, source criticism now has a profound impact on Swedish security policy. Source criticism presents several challenges to historians and journalists as well as to politics, perhaps especially in the Nordic countries. One aspect that is commonly pointed out in regard to Nordic societies is that they are generally characterised by a relatively high degree of trust, both in society and government. This may condition the effects of targeted disinformation campaigns or the generic spread of “fake news” through the internet and social media. On the one hand, general trustfulness may render a society more susceptible to malicious disinformation campaigns. On the other hand, there is less general distrust for adversaries to exploit. It could be argued that source criticism helps to instil a general or methodological scepticism for protecting the population from being manipulated. However, source criticism may further a critical disposition towards all information, including that of the government. As the article illustrates below, this dilemma has been addressed by the Swedish government by relating source criticism to the importance of advancing critical thinking as a fundamental aspect of the democratic society, which also includes a sound critical assessment of public information.
The article focuses on the viewpoints of Swedish government agents and public commissions focusing on MSB and the now decommissioned National Board of Psychological Defence (SPF) and the Swedish Emergency Management Agency (KBM). Reports and material produced by the Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI) and its forerunner, the National Defence Research Establishment (FOA), are also important. Websites are significant material as they are essential for the communication of the Swedish government. All the empirical material is publicly available. It is originally in Swedish; quotes are translated into English.
The argument of the article is divided into three sections. Firstly, I examine the security problem that the Swedish government has identified in connection with the internet since the 1990s and social media. From the perspective of the Swedish Psychological Defence, the capability of individuals to interpret and understand information is intricately linked to national security. Secondly, I account for how source criticism is related to the objectives of government in terms of safeguarding democracy and upholding what is referred to as the open society. As a tool of government, source criticism advances a behavioural scheme of how to act in problematic situations, which includes a transfer of responsibility from the state and established news media to the users/producers of the internet and social media. In the concluding remarks, I relate the analysis of source criticism as a technology of government to a discussion of the impact of the humanities and broader social processes and political uncertainty. First, however, I delineate the research context and analytical viewpoints of the article.

2. Previous Research and Analytical Viewpoints

The article draws on Michel Foucault’s (e.g., 1997) analyses of government as inherently productive in shaping human subjectivity and social relationships. Government in this sense refers to all systematic ways and means of shaping human conduct in certain directions. Especially in focus is the “technologies of government” (Rose and Miller 2010, p. 281) or the instruments that governments use to act upon and modify human conduct. The subjectivity of individuals is at the heart of government interventions. A crucial element of this government is to encourage people “to think of themselves as calculating, responsible, self-managing subjects” (Shore and Wright 2015, p. 421). This focus of government correlates with broader tendencies that have been referred to in terms of the changing governmental techniques of advanced “liberal” democracies of the late 20th century (Miller and Rose 2008). In these government schemes, the ultimate object of political intervention is the subjectivity of the individual, which is both the target and an active part of government programmes. Political interventions instil both individual agency and responsibility, which, for instance, are exercised through continuous education and in the “continual incitement to improve oneself, constant monitoring of health, and never-ending risk management” (Garsten and Jacobsson 2013, p. 828). What is referred to as “technologies of self” entails specific modes of training and modification of people, but it does not merely include acquiring new skillsets but also the formation of different attitudes to oneself and others to modify behaviour (Foucault 1997). Training provides a form of ethical script that delineates how one should act and direct one’s conduct. Such ethical scripts are especially highlighted in problematic situations that cannot be regulated by specific ordinances or law (see Lakoff and Collier 2004). Accordingly, state initiatives are meant to foster individual behaviour to assume the responsibility of furthering their own as well as the safety of others by acting responsibly (Larsson 2020). The introduction of source criticism in the Swedish Psychological Defence is thus part of the governmental effort of constructing a foundation of national security that builds on the responsibility and critical capacity of the individual members of the public.
What in this literature is referred to as responsibilisation concerns a political rationality where government seeks to make individual citizens responsible for what was previously the responsibility of the state (Rose 1999). Another characteristic is the use of education and information to enable and support behavioural changes rather than introducing new laws and regulation. Accordingly, state initiatives are meant to foster individuals to act as responsible subjects of state in critical or problematic situations. Arguably, government information and educational material on source criticism are part of the government efforts to provide the population with a script of sorts that guides individual reflection and action in coming to terms with uncertain situations.
This ties in with a development where, since the mid-1990s, Swedish crisis management policy has increasingly stressed the responsibility of individual citizens (Larsson 2019; Rådestad and Larsson 2020). A similar development has been evident in France as well (Bourcart 2015). This form of government is not exclusively about disciplining and controlling. It is also meant to empower the population. Thus, I seek to illustrate that the activation of source criticism in Swedish government programs is a means of producing desired behaviours.
Source criticism is taken as an example of how humanistic knowledge is used in political governance to respond to contemporary challenges. Definitions of the humanities are historically situated and there are also differences between and within countries. Research has underscored the difficulties of distinguishing “the humanities as a whole … from other groups of disciplines, such as the natural or the social sciences, on the basis of a specific method or object of study” (Bod et al. 2016). Other scholars define the humanities as the production of knowledge of history, art, philosophy, language, and many other things that make up the fabric of humanity in academic disciplines such as pedagogics, psychology, philosophy, history, anthropology, and journalism (Holm et al. 2015a).
It is reasonable to talk about source criticism in terms of humanistic knowledge given its origins in history and dissemination in scientific fields such as journalism. But that does not mean, of course, that source criticism never has been used in the social sciences. It is also clear that, in many cases, it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain the distinctions between the humanities and the social sciences (Ekström 2016). Talking about source criticism as an example of humanistic knowledge helps to highlight the importance of the humanities in applied areas. The impact of social sciences on public policy is well documented, while there is more to be done in terms of making the contributions of the humanities visible. The critical potential of the humanities and the importance of assessing and rethinking concepts and understandings that guide, for example, politics and thereby enable new ways of thinking and acting is commonly highlighted (Budtz Pedersen et al. 2018). In Sweden and many other countries, the humanities developed what some have referred to as an “outsider” position, while a closer relationship evolved between the social sciences and the government (Ekström and Sörlin 2015). In recent years, however, the humanities have become a more obvious part of the policy discussion for responding to contemporary global challenges (Sörlin 2018). The article departs from how responding to pressing contemporary challenges requires a broad scientific base, which should also include the humanities (see Holm and Brennan 2018; Kitch 2017). This clearly deviates from a theme in the history of humanities underscoring a lack of impact or even crisis. A transformation of research policy has taken shape over the last decade, framing a new generation of the humanities referred to as the transformative humanities (Sörlin 2018). The significance of human culture, history, language, and beliefs is commonly at the heart of the discussion of the causes as well as the impact of extreme events or crises (Dominey-Howes 2018; Krüger et al. 2015; Riede 2015). These aspects of human life constitute core areas of humanities research and education (Bod et al. 2016; Holm et al. 2015b; Holm and Brennan 2018). Research on the expertise and policy devised for coming to terms with contemporary challenges commonly focuses on the social and the natural sciences (Baez Ullberg and Becker 2016; Deverell et al. 2015). The influence of technology, engineering, natural science, and (quantitative) social science on Swedish public policy is well documented and analysed (Lundin 2014; Lundin and Stenlås 2015; Nordström 2018; Wikman 2019). This mirrors international trends as well. Indeed, integrated into the “policy sciences” that developed in the USA and elsewhere during the second half of the 20th century was an expressed ambition of producing knowledge for guiding public policy and government intervention (Dunn 2019). It is therefore worthwhile to underscore and analyse the examples where humanistic knowledge is used in support of policy and public action to help remedy the view of the lack of policy influence or even marginalisation of the humanities.
Certainly, the humanities have a long history in relation to the military and defence. For instance, historical knowledge has played a significant part in relation to military strategy and defence planning (Gat 2001; Gray 2014; Heuser 2010; Howard 1991; Strachan 2013; Trachtenberg 1991). The significance of anthropological research has also been recognised by the US military, both historically and in the present (Mandler 2013; McFate 2018; Price 2016; Wax 2008). This use of scholarship has sparked controversy as research may support military interventions. In both Sweden and, for instance, the USA, a wide spectrum of experts, including humanists, were engaged during and after the Second World War to support the morale and loyalty of the population to the liberal-democratic form of society as opposed to the threats of totalitarianism (see Tubin 2003). This article explores the application of knowledge in explicitly defensive initiatives for supporting the integrity of democracy and critical public debate. This application is closer to the public management of crisis information, which I elaborate on below. This is not saying that this is unproblematic. Further reflection is certainly motivated on how knowledge is used in these policy contexts, not least concerning the issue of maintaining and developing the critical potential of the humanities.
Much scholarship is currently concerned with describing, analysing, and assessing the contemporary as well as historical influence of the humanities (Belfiore and Upchurch 2013; Benneworth et al. 2016; Drakeman 2016; Emmeche et al. 2016). Both research and instruments of research evaluation are commonly underpinned by the notion that the influence of the humanities is slower, more unpredictable, or less obvious than, for instance, the effects of technical knowledge and the natural sciences and medicine (Budtz Pedersen et al. 2020; Donovan and Gulbrandsen 2018; Gibson and Hazelkorn 2017; Reale et al. 2018). The impact of the humanities has been described as a process of subtle interaction between humanities knowledge and politics (Benneworth 2014; Östling 2020; Östling et al. forthcoming; Salö and Karlander n.d.). Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are allegedly better suited for direct application, while the humanities may instead gradually affect ways of thinking and acting, including how political or social problems and solutions are framed and how interventions are motivated. Thus, rather than providing certain services, products, or ready-made solutions, the influence of the humanities concerns the shaping of fundamental understandings upon which problems, possible solutions, and objectives are formulated (Bertilsson 2021; Budtz Pedersen et al. 2018; Ekström 2016; Ekström and Sörlin 2015). However, research within the humanities is also explicitly addressing the problems surrounding “post-truth politics”, misinformation, and deception and has developed principles for active and direct responses, which include countering “alternative facts” and false statements, among other things (Wikforss 2020).
The assessment of the “slower” and processual influence of the humanities, as well as the direct applications in relation to the problems of the contemporary information landscape, both influence this article. In the article, source criticism exemplifies the use of humanistic knowledge for responding to specific concerns, but this knowledge use is also oriented towards long-term changes. It concerns results in terms of specific services where source criticism is introduced through public information and educational material. It also concerns achieving long-term behavioural changes in the population. These changes are at the heart of government operations that seek to safeguard democratic principles and a critical public debate, which is commonly considered a cornerstone of the humanities (Nussbaum 2010). However, this article is concerned with a case where these efforts are carried out by the Swedish government that build on, but are not primarily carried out by, academic scholars.

3. A New Security Concern: The Individual, the Internet, and the Swedish Psychological Defence

This section gives an account of the problems that, according to the Swedish government, have emerged in connection with the internet and social media since the mid-1990s and that have provided the incitement to introduce source criticism as a governmental technology. The Swedish Psychological Defence developed as part of the Swedish Total Defence, which was based on four pillars: the Military, the Civil, the Economic, and the Psychological Defence. The Psychological Defence is commonly considered a function rather than a distinct organisation (SOU 1979, p. 126). The first dedicated government agency in charge of organising this function, the National Preparedness Commission for Psychological Defence (Beredskapsnämnden för psykologiskt försvar), was established in 1954. In 1985, it was succeeded by SPF. In 2002, based on the new security situation evolving after the end of the Cold War, parts of SPF’s operation were transferred to the newly formed public agent for crisis preparedness and civil contingencies, KBM (SOU 2001). In 2009, KBM, SPF, and The Swedish Rescue Services Agency (Räddningsverket, SRV) were brought together and formed MSB, which is the current Swedish civil contingencies agent. The function of the Psychological Defence was distributed across several agents. MSB is a key actor. The Armed Forces and other defence and security agents also have significant responsibilities. However, the Psychological Defence has been considered a task for civilian authorities rather than military ones to stress that it is not concerned with devising offensive attacks against an adversary (MSB 2019b). There is currently a process of re-establishing a dedicated government agent for managing the Psychological Defence (SOU 2020).
Information is at the heart of the Psychological Defence. A key task of the Swedish Psychological Defence is to safeguard, organise, and distribute the flow of information in all directions between the government, media, and the population in crisis or war, which was also a key task of SPF (SFS 1988; SOU 1996, pp. 162, 204–5, 237). This concerns responding to what is now referred to as information campaigns, disinformation, or other attempts to use information to affect, e.g., the attitudes and actions of the Swedish population, the public debate, and democratic processes and political decision-making.
In the 1990s, the public communication operations of SPF were rethought in the light of the increasingly intense competition over the understandings of reality that evolved in relation to the internet (SOU 2000, p. 66). SPF studies even portrayed the internet as a “battlespace” (Riegert 2002, p. 7). SPF reports also stressed how digital media enabled new ways of combining and manipulating language, sound, and images for influencing public opinion and political action (Nordlund 1995; Nordström and Åstrand 1999; Pettersson 2001). Both on a national and an international level, and in academic and public settings, the question of how to evaluate internet information sources came to the fore (Fritch and Cromwell 2001; Wilkinson et al. 1997). The discussions of SPF subsequently focused on where individuals retrieved their information and what consequences this had rather than on how nationwide public information campaigns should be organised (Nordlund 1995).
Several investigations carried out in the 1990s by Swedish Defence Research at FOA and FOI stressed how the internet facilitated new forms of affecting population behaviour through information operations and psychological warfare (Fylkner et al. 2000, 2003; Grennert and Tham Lindell 2002; Mittermaier and Westrin 1999). This further blurred the boundaries between war and peace, ushering in new forms of “grey zone” politics. The government noted that the vulnerabilities were exacerbated by Sweden’s dependence on well-functioning ICT and the relative accessibility of the Swedish ICT structure (Government of Sweden 1996, pp. 104–5, 174; Government of Sweden 1999, p. 147). The problems related to technological advances but could not be solved merely by technological means. Instead, the benefits of behaviour-oriented interventions were underscored in responding to the complex security issues that were now emerging (Eriksson and Fylkner 2000). The individual became a key security concern:
In the end, security is therefore very much depending upon the individual recipient being prepared and given the conditions for preventing and detecting deception on the internet, and to act as adequately as possible if he or she is subjected to deception. The most important contingency task of [the Swedish] society should be to spread information and knowledge about the internet and about how deception operations are structured, how they work and what kind of effects they may have. That is, to promote increased insight into and a critical evaluating attitude [in the population] to the new media environment, including the internet.
Individual competence and behaviour had always been a concern to the defence and even more so in relation to propaganda and psychological warfare. Propaganda during the Cold War usually targeted the population which required individual responsibility and vigilance (SOU 1953, p. 18). However, the problem intensified as the internet facilitated a kind of direct access to the population. Established media channels had previously functioned as gatekeepers assessing the accuracy of the information that was broadcasted. There was no such function on the internet. In the early 2000s, the then Defence Minister, Social Democrat Leni Björklund, noted how interpretative skill sets were becoming increasingly important, stating that, “You always have to ask the question—where does this information come from and why is it coming right now? Everything must be interpreted” (Björklund 2003, p. 4). A problem of government thus emerged that focused on the capacity of the population to gather, interpret, and act on information. Individual recipients of information were activated in a new way as they became the target of both information operations and government strategies to prevent these actions. This set the stage for SPF to commission dedicated studies on how source criticism could be integrated into the Psychological Defence.
The Swedish Psychological Defence has always, to some extent, depended upon the critical capacities of the population, as noted by Stig Fredriksson, Director-General of SPF 1993–1995. Specifically, Fredriksson also underscored the importance of source criticism (Tubin 2003, p. 38). The concept of source criticism was made part of the rationale of the Swedish Psychological Defence in relation to the internet through a study that was commissioned by SPF and carried out by Göran Leth and Torsten Thurén (Leth and Thurén 2000), who, at the time, were media and communication and journalism scholars at Stockholm University. A shorter version of the report was produced for KBM, the predecessor of MSB (Thurén 2003). Leth and Thurén, as well as SPF leadership, noted that the principles of source criticism were crucial to everyone seeking information and knowledge on the internet. The significance of source criticism was thus highlighted in the context of the Swedish Psychological Defence that stressed the politicisation of information and how information should always be considered a means of reaching certain political objectives.
The purpose of the report was to provide guidance for the assessment of internet sources based on “the common methods of source criticism used in journalism and historical scholarship” (Leth and Thurén 2000, p. 11). The traditional criteria of source criticism (authenticity, dependency, tendency, and time) were still considered valid. However, the application was different compared to older historical research. On the internet, it was not about assessing one or a few, but virtually an indefinite number of sources. People’s everyday encounters with cultural differences were also intensified online, which called for cross-cultural understandings and insights into how cultural differences influenced and set into motion diverging views and opinions (Leth and Thurén 2000, pp. 30–31). As the internet advanced a reformulation of what it meant to be knowledgeable and of knowing, sharper tools of interpretation were required in addition to a general “openness to new perceptions and recognition of uncertainty” (Leth and Thurén 2000, p. 133).
Leth and Thurén discussed the application of source criticism to conditions brought about by the internet in general. In another report commissioned by SPF, Gunnar Sjöstedt and Paula Stenström (Sjöstedt and Stenström 2002, p. 18) stressed the significance of source criticism especially as an instrument against digital misinformation, propaganda, or deception campaigns. Both reports underscored the responsibility of the individual for interpreting and assessing information. The concrete manual for the application of source criticism that is presented on MSB websites about the role of source criticism in the Swedish Psychological Defence builds on these reports (MSB 2020).
The connection between source criticism and the humanities is evident as MSB also notes how source criticism initially was a “scientific method that was developed in the historical sciences as a means of assessing the credibility of a source” (MSB 2020). MSB, too, reproduces the traditional criteria (authenticity, dependency, tendency, and time) of source criticism, which are condensed in short bullet point lists and made concrete through tips for how the public should approach information online. The information on source criticism thus resembles that which is commonly produced in textbooks and educational material in history and journalism, but it is simplified and shortened. The reports produced by Leth and Thurén are available for download so the public can also engage with the in-depth literature that the Swedish government has produced on the subject of source criticism in relation to the problems that the contemporary digital communication landscape gives rise to.
Educational and information material on source criticism is distributed through the websites of MSB and other public agents. As mentioned, it is also distributed to the Swedish population through major information campaigns. In addition, it is also used in the education of personnel and staff in public crisis management and crisis information operations. In these contexts, source criticism is not considered a solution once and for all, nor is it perceived as a way of reaching absolute truths. For instance, it is acknowledged that source criticism cannot provide explanations for certain events but is rather viewed as a means of critical assessment and of “thinking systematically” (Thurén 2003, p. 76). This is especially underscored in relation to critical events or crises when different opinions and truth claims are put into circulation and where the consequences of these statements may impact on the ultimate consequences of the events.
The key role of source criticism in Swedish politics and especially in relation to the Psychological Defence is evident in, for instance, how MSB stresses that, “The [Swedish] Psychological Defence is based on the fact that each individual Swede is source critical (är källkritisk) and is able to judge whether information is credible or not” (MSB 2015). Source criticism is also turned into an essential vehicle of the Swedish defence by the Armed Forces as well, which emphasises the responsibility of the population of defending the country: “Part of everyone’s responsibility for the Total Defence is to learn more about source criticism, to be vigilant, and seek facts from several credible sources” (Försvarsmakten 2020a). Source criticism is also viewed as a vital part of Swedish democracy and in the Swedish national strategy for cyber security (Justitiedepartementet 2017, p. 7). The importance of source criticism has been increasingly stressed in relation to the security concerns of the digital realm. The then Minister for Home Affairs, Social Democrat Anders Ygeman, highlighted at the national conference Folk och Försvar (Society and Defence) that, “If the words of 2016 were post-truth and filter bubbles, I hope that 2017 will instead be defined by an open conversation, source criticism, and the questioning of myths and seemingly simple truths” (Regeringskansliet 2017).
Several Swedish governmental commissions have argued for including source criticism in elementary education as a way of safeguarding fundamental democratic principles (SOU 2016a, pp. 536–537; SOU 2016b, p. 277; SOU 2016c, pp. 80, 407–409). Indeed, source criticism is considered a means of fulfilling one’s democratic rights and obligations as a citizen. Specifically, the ability to “review and critically assess information” is deemed necessary “to be able to safely use the internet for knowledge acquisition and to be able to assimilate knowledge necessary to participate in democracy” (SOU 2016a, p. 536). State information actors also have an important role to play in the context of Swedish crisis management. They collaborate with several agents to implement policy goals. There is also a further need for dialogue and learning between them (Boholm 2019). There are websites for confirmed government information (e.g.,, which also reproduce the criteria and advice on source criticism (Sä 2017). Newspapers and other news actors are also significant. Swedish public service radio and television further distribute MSB’s advice on the significance of source criticism, especially in times of crisis, currently concerning the COVID-19 pandemic (P4 Värmland 2020).
There is much government information on source criticism and much public information on certain problems, such as the COVID-19 pandemic at present. A problem nevertheless emerged as source criticism entails a critical stance towards all information, which also includes information produced and distributed by the government. This implies that source criticism advances a critical view of the population on government information and the statements of political parties and actors as well. The Swedish government is, of course, not supporting a total disbelief in information. Implicitly or explicitly, then, this means that there are limits as to the criticism or even scepticism that source criticism fosters where public, governmental, or recognised expertise can and should be trusted.

4. Source Criticism and the Responsibility of Individuals to Uphold and Protect Democracy

This section illustrates how source criticism is deployed by the Swedish Psychological Defence in relation to upholding and protecting democracy and what is referred to as the open society, which also entails a higher level of individual responsibility. MSB views source criticism as one of three key measures for protecting democracy. This is intimately connected with individual responsibility. For instance, in relation to the 2019 European Parliament election, MSB noted that it was cooperating with other authorities to protect the election from the influence of foreign powers or antagonistic actors. MSB stressed how cooperation and awareness of threats and vulnerabilities were two crucial factors. These efforts took place on the level of international politics and political representatives and organisations. However, the third component concerned “thinking source critical—and that is something that we all can do” (MSB 2019a). Individual citizens are at the centre of government interventions. Indeed, according to MSB, the Swedish Psychological Defence to a large extent hinges upon the individual:
This also means that the [Swedish] Psychological Defence consists of each of us and our ability to be source critical. This ability is in many ways what constitutes our mental resilience (motståndskraft)… The individual’s responsibility is therefore great, and of course there must be conditions to assume this responsibility. Schools have an important role in educating students in source criticism, and adults have an important role to talk to children about it.
(MSB 2020, my translation)
This entails a vast engagement by, e.g., schools, parents, and government agencies, which illustrates the efforts of the Swedish government of making source criticism a vital part of all levels of Swedish society. Government agencies that organise public crisis information are key to the Swedish Psychological Defence as well. In the context of this article, it is especially noteworthy that they connect the responsibility of the individual, the problems of the media landscape, and source criticism. They also note the roots of source criticism in academic research and journalism:
Source criticism has in recent years become a widely spread knowledge. Not so long ago, it was a knowledge that was mainly important for researchers and journalists. But in today’s media landscape, it has become increasingly important for individuals to sift through information. When the established media are just one of many sources of information, responsibility has been transferred to the individual to a greater extent.
Source criticism is thus utilised as a form of behavioural scheme that, according to the Swedish government, should be used by the population for dealing with problematic situations. This scheme also influences the coming about of these problems. Paraphrasing Thurén (2003, p. 76), to solve a source critical problem, one must first be aware that such a problem exists. One must also be aware of its conditions and potential consequences. Source criticism sets a demanding standard for how people should engage with contemporary problems and information that are not rarely global in scope. It is arguably not merely a situation where the government is retreating from a position that it previously had (cf. Rose 1999). Instead, it also is a situation where governments are seeking ways to establish themselves and manage population conduct in this emerging security environment.
The individual responsibility is further increased as the internet and social media usher in a new form of uncertainty. This is connected to the changing infrastructure of public information. Rather than a centrally organised public information operation, the new information domain is described as a self-organising, complex system of information and communication with unpredictable patterns of distribution and effects (Odén et al. 2016, p. 17). The dividing line between users and producers of information and content is blurred, most evidently through social media. Hence, the problem of government is of hindering the voluntary as well involuntary spread of false information. Certainly, this problem of information is facilitated by the technical development, but it cannot be reduced to a technical issue that can be solved by technical means. Clearly, government responses are not only about developing new risk technology to control the present and/or the future. Instead, in relation to present uncertainty, the responses of human individuals and collectives are increasingly the focus of government operations (see Boholm 2015; Samimian-Darash and Rabinow 2015). Source criticism has thus been integrated in an attempt by the Swedish government to influence human behaviour in difficult situations.
The use of source criticism in government initiatives is an integral part of the broader work of safeguarding what the Swedish government refers to as the open society. This concept of society is based on democracy and freedom of thought and expression. It follows that this society is vulnerable to the spreading of rumour, disinformation, and propaganda but is also resilient since many voices can be heard, independent media scrutinise governments, and citizens engage in the political discussion and the free flow of information. This society should, in the view of the Swedish Psychological Defence, be underpinned by source criticism, which, as a governmental tool, underscores how one should approach information not guided by ideological convictions or act on information on emotional grounds. Indeed, MSB points out that a common method of disinformation is precisely “to use emotional arguments that affect our ability to think source critical” (MSB 2019a). What thus emerges is the application of source criticism as part of the very foundation of the democratic, open society, based on critical public discussion and political debate.
The efforts of the Swedish government of instigating behavioural changes and capacity development are self-reportedly related to global initiatives as well. More specifically, to the UNESCO initiative Media and Information Literacy (MIL) (SOU 2016a, p. 537), which is meant to support and strengthen the ability of individuals of finding, analysing, evaluating, and producing information in different media and online contexts (UNESCO). This capacity of dealing with information is deemed essential for navigating the contemporary information landscape and the asymmetries that it informs in terms of unequal access to reliable information, among other things. From the perspective of the impact of the humanities, it is certainly noteworthy that source criticism is advanced in contemporary initiatives on this scale.
The redistribution of agency to individual users and producers also relates to how agency is now placed in the hands of the public rather than specific experts. Computer and software experts, technicians, engineers, or other STEM-related experts certainly have important parts to play but are not in themselves sufficient for solving present security concerns pertaining to the digital environment. Instead, the introduction of source criticism as a tool of government is an example of how the knowledge and competence that are developed within the humanities are adopted in the public efforts of safeguarding democracy and building safe and secure societies. The need for this knowledge is arguably exacerbated by the technological development that gives rise to issues beyond the scope of technical competence. Instead, the technological development is intertwined with political, social, or human issues that advance new demands of knowledge for guiding government activities.
The focus of government on individual behaviour relates to changes in the Swedish politics more broadly, and in crisis and catastrophe management more specifically, Swedish public crisis management has increasingly underscored the responsibility of individuals since the mid-1990s (Larsson 2019; Rådestad and Larsson 2020). This also entails changing risk priorities. Following the end of the Cold War, focus was transferred from military threats to civil contingencies such as natural disasters, large-scale accidents or industrial failures, and problems associated with functioning infrastructure of transport, information, and energy supply. As shown above, the risk assessment also increasingly included the essential but also problematic role of information. This also transferred the focus of public risk and crisis management onto the civilian population. Improving the risk awareness of the population was a major objective that was advanced by the large governmental commission investigating the risks that Sweden would face after the end of the Cold War (SOU 1995). The capacity of the civilian population to interpret and act on information was, according to this commission, a central concern.

5. Concluding Remarks

This article has been concerned with source criticism as a technology of government focusing on the Swedish Psychological Defence. The article departs from how so-called information operations are presently becoming a key security concern. This security issue is advanced by the technological development and more specifically the internet and social media. New forms of “grey zone” and “post-truth” politics are emerging. Evidently, this is not merely a technical issue. What instead emerges is a problem space where security actors underscore the need of critical thinking and the ability to interpret and act on information from a large variety of sources, which are conditioned by different cultural, social, and political contexts. Especially in Sweden, source criticism has become a crucial technology of government.
The behaviour of the population is at the centre of this emerging problem space of government. Everyone who is using and producing information online is part of both the problem and the solution, as the causes and consequences of crises, risks, and threats are increasingly tied to the shared capacity of the population of acting responsibly and critically to the spread of information. The individual is both the object and subject of information operations. What emerges is a political struggle over the foundations of society that is acted out on the level of individual behaviour and capacities. Equipping the population with a critical disposition is an essential part of the work of government of safeguarding national security and the state of democracy. Source criticism has become a tool in the governmental effort of managing the conduct of the population and fostering responsible citizens and subjects of state. This includes a transfer of responsibility from the state to the individual. Indeed, source criticism becomes a demanding set of actions in the formation of political subjects acting in support of certain political objectives. In this view, source criticism becomes much more than a method for assessing the reliability of sources of information developed by historians and journalists. As a technology of government, source criticism directs the conduct of individuals in critical situations in line with certain ends. As a “technology of self”, source criticism provides the guidelines by which individuals are to work on themselves to assess and improve their conduct. It becomes an ethical script for guiding behaviour in an unpredictable security environment emerging in relation to digital technology and the security matters that the internet and social media give rise to. This technology of self has become a key means of the Swedish government and especially the Swedish Psychological Defence in the present security environment of digital communication.
This suggests that, to the Swedish government, the proper competence and behaviour of the population cannot be taken for granted but requires active intervention. Crucially, the government is also conducting an information campaign for affecting population behaviour. Source criticism as a technology of government is applied to all topics of politics. The work of the Swedish government also implies a kind of limit of source criticism. On the internet, it is rarely possible to find the original source of information. It is hardly possible to arrive at an undisputable truth about how a certain event should be interpreted. There can be no simple guidelines for instructing the population on which sources are reliable and which are not. Populations must thus retain some measure of trust in some official or recognized sources of information. The Swedish government is not advancing radical scepticism of public information but rather supports the critical reflection of the population. Nevertheless, the problem emerges: who is recognising the “recognised” authorities? Which sources of information should ultimately be trusted?
In the article, source criticism is taken to illustrate how and why knowledge that is produced within the humanities is used in contemporary defence and security policy. Source criticism was developed by historians in the 19th and 20th century and was a key feature of historical scholarship. It has also had a wide influence on the theory and practice of journalism. Examples of direct use of humanistic knowledge, methods, or research findings are more uncommon in the literature on the impact of the humanities that usually refer to certain generic capacities commonly associated with the humanities such as critical thinking or the importance of rethinking concepts and ideas that organise policy and social organisation. Source criticism provides an example of how specific concepts are used by the Swedish government to address certain problems and reach certain ends. This illustrates a more direct use of humanistic knowledge but it also implies a processual form of impact happening in a loosely defined target population over a largely unspecified period of time, which resonates with the more common way of accounting for the impact of the humanities. As the government cannot fully control public behaviour, this furthers both the responsibility and agency of the target group as well as the unpredictability of the intervention. It follows that it is considerably more difficult to assess the effects that are ultimately produced by this application of knowledge. This ties in with research pointing out precisely the slow, processual, or even unpredictable nature of the influence of the humanities. Moreover, the scope of the intervention is also remarkable. It engages core parts of the Swedish public sector and government and is essentially targeting the entire Swedish population. Indeed, it is even going beyond the national domain through tying in with UN aspirations of increasing “digital literacy” worldwide, which evidently suggests wide-reaching aspirations. Hence, more actors, such as the UN and the EU, could be included in the inquiry of the policy application of source criticism.
Studying source criticism as a technology of government also opens a window onto larger contemporary processes. The ability of interpreting and acting on text and information from a wide array of sources is fundamental in the present communication society. It is also rendered necessary for upholding both democracy and, depending on how it is defined, national security. The effort of improving digital literacy and producing critical debate about information and information operations and propaganda also provides a backdrop for an understanding of the broader processes advancing the significance of humanistic knowledge. What is currently emerging is arguably a broader problem that is characterised by a vanishing knowledge base upon which public discussions and political debates are founded (Sörlin 2020). This foundation is not merely about facts. Rather, it is about values and shared basic understandings of how to approach knowledge and truth. In this light, source criticism as a government technology illustrates an attempt to produce shared ways of approaching and acting on information in uncertain situations to uphold the bases of the democratic society. Source criticism thus becomes part of a process of establishing a critical public discussion and political debate in relation to the problems sparked by the contemporary digital landscape of information. The principles of source criticism, and arguably the humanities at large, fit the agenda of governments seeking to manage contemporary security problems by education and information rather than legislation and rules; indeed, this article shows how source criticism is even conceptualised as a prerequisite for democracy, a precondition for citizens of fulfilling their democratic rights and duties. This suggests certain general preconditions of the emerging significance of source criticism, which may also address some of the general conditions and consequences of turning the humanities into “applied” knowledge of government. This may be linked to the contemporary remit of the humanities in relation to public policy, which is also illustrated in present research calls in Sweden and the Nordic countries for responding to global challenges. The potential impact of the humanities in defence and security contexts merits further research and discussion based on empirical examples about what happens with the democratic and critical potential of humanities scholarship when it is enrolled in government operations.


This research was funded by Riksbankens Jubileumsfond, grant number P18-0780:1. The APC was funded by KTH Royal Institute of Technology.


I wish to thank the three anonymous reviewers of this article for constructive criticism and advice.

Conflicts of Interest

The author declares no conflict of interest.


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Bertilsson, F. Source Criticism as a Technology of Government in the Swedish Psychological Defence: The Impact of Humanistic Knowledge on Contemporary Security Policy. Humanities 2021, 10, 13.

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Bertilsson F. Source Criticism as a Technology of Government in the Swedish Psychological Defence: The Impact of Humanistic Knowledge on Contemporary Security Policy. Humanities. 2021; 10(1):13.

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Bertilsson, Fredrik. 2021. "Source Criticism as a Technology of Government in the Swedish Psychological Defence: The Impact of Humanistic Knowledge on Contemporary Security Policy" Humanities 10, no. 1: 13.

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