Studying Psychological Defence: Lessons Learned from the Cold War

Psychological defence is back on the agenda. A proposition to reintroduce a Swedish authority for psychological defence inspired Fredrik Stiernstedt and Peter Jacobsson to study Sweden’s discontinued authority that was established during the Cold War. We talked to Fredrik Stiernstedt about direct military influence on research, inaccuracies with funding and the need for Nordic comparisons.

Should we as researchers put ourselves in the service of defence or not? It’s not a simple question, says Fredrik Stiernstedt, associate professor and media researcher at Södertörn University in Sweden.

Fredrik Stiernstedt. Photo: Anna Hartvig

– Early American academic media research has received strong criticism for being too closely tied to its [military] clients and for having taken the theories and methods to which they have been assigned. They were uncritical and focused on the interest of preserving society. But it is not the same as it is always wrong to cooperate with the military, in Sweden, there is reason to be less critical.

Stiernstedt and Peter Jakobsson, both at Södertörn University, have recently conducted a study on the media research that was carried out on behalf of the Swedish Board for Psychological Defence during the 1950s and early 1960s, and the impact of defence and national security interests on the formation of Swedish academic media.

The Board for Psychological Defence was established in Sweden in 1954 with two main tasks: to prepare an organisation that could spread information if the country ended up in war, and to gather knowledge in various ways about public opinion, propaganda and the population’s willingness to defend the country. At the same time, similar organisations were set up in almost all Western European countries.

Although American media research was an evident model for The Board for Psychological Defence, and theories and methods were drawn from it, the direct influence from defence and national security interests was limited in Sweden.

– We have read the reports that the Board’s researchers did in-house in the early 50s. Even though it is quite instrumental, it is good research, it is solid and interesting to read. The researchers who worked with them seem to have been free to seek answers to the questions they had, says Stiernstedt.

The Board for Psychological Defence conducted opinion polls and went further and investigated how opinions are formed. They sought information influence from external powers and studied how opinions are influenced by the mass media, news reporting and local opinion leaders.

Nordic Organisations for Psychological Defence

  • In Sweden there was the Board for Psychological Defence (In Swedish: Beredskapsnämnden för psykologiskt försvar, later changed to Styrelsen för psykologiskt försvar) (1954-2008). Sweden is now planning a new authority for psychological defence (in Swedish: Myndigheten för psykologiskt försvar).
  • In Finland, there is the Advisory Board of Defence Information ABDI (in Swedish: Planeringskommissionen för försvarsinformation PFI).
  • In Denmark, there was the Defence Agency of Information and Welfare (Forsvarets Oplysnings- og Velfærdstjeneste) (1941-2006).
  • Norway has no authority responsible for defence information. The responsibility falls directly upon the military organisation. Morten Jerntoft has, however, documented the work of the Norwegian Coordinating Committee of the Joint Committee on National Security, which bears some similarities to the Swedish Board for Psychological Defence.

  • Funded research at universities

    The Board for Psychological Defence chose between conducting its own research and giving assignments to external researchers, and decided on the latter. Jörgen Westerståhl, a long-time member of the agency’s board and influential professor of political science at the University of Gothenburg, was a driving force in the research commissioned by external researchers at the universities. Stiernstedt explains:

    Westerståhl sat on two chairs. The University of Gothenburg received the most funding from the Emergency Management Committee and Westerståhl was the one who received the largest grants for his research. But the research was also conducted at other universities, for example in Lund.

    Through Westerståhl, the Board for Psychological Defence gained some influence on early media research at the University of Gothenburg. Westerståhl contributed to establishing research on public opinion, mass media and propaganda at the University of Gothenburg, and he introduced the method quantitative content analysis used in American media research. Stiernstedt says:

    – For a period, the research funds from the Board for Psychological Defence were of great importance for the media-related research he conducted. I think he was driven by a combination of his own research interests and assignments from the Board.  

    A New Swedish Authority

    In 2008, the Board for Psychological Defence was abolished, and today, another agency is responsible for the tasks related to crisis information and psychological defence. At the end of May 2020, the Swedish government inquiry submitted a proposal for a new authority to strengthen the psychological defence in Sweden. The proposal is now out for remittance.
    Read the preposition (in Swedish) arrow_forward

    Looking forward to Nordic comparisons

    Stiernstedt calls for more Nordic comparisons of direct influence from defence and national security interests on the early academic media research.

    The Nordic countries have different experiences of war and occupation during World War II, but also different relations with the parties during the Cold War. Norway and Denmark joined NATO after the war, while Finland had to handle being a part of the Soviet sphere of interest.

    – It would be a very interesting area for comparative studies. We hope that more basic research will be available from the other Nordic countries. In Sweden this topic is little studied and research on this area has just begun, says Stiernstedt.

    Peter Jakobsson and Fredrik Stiernstedt:

    Swedish Media Research in the Service of Psychological Defence During the Cold War?

    Published in Nordic Journal of Media Studies no 2: 2020
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