An influence operation commissioned from Amsterdam has attempted to make extensive use of Norwegian media and authorities to create an alternative reality about Brunstad Christian Church (BCC). The influence operation has been ongoing since 2015 to damage the reputation of the faith community by planting disinformation at many levels.
The strategy was to establish an unchristian picture of the faith community via the media, with stories about leaders enriching themselves, child labour and tax evasion, in order to get the authorities and various parties to follow up further and investigate the faith community. In the long run this was intended to “bring an end to the organisation’s existence”. Board member and communication responsible, Berit Hustad Nilsen, states that the operation has to some extent succeeded.
– We did not know what was happening, but experienced that incomprehensible accusations were coming from all directions, so when in 2019 we found out that we were actually the target of an influence operation, we realised how serious it was, and could begin to work systematically to uncover the impact it had had.
– A complete clearance of all suspicion
Both BCC and central members were named as targets for the operation, which has succeeded in setting the agenda at the top of Norwegian society. The Norwegian financial crime authority has investigated the Christian personalities Kåre J. Smith and Bernt Aksel Larsen based on money laundering reports and other material which probably is a result of the influence operation. Several months ago, after a thorough investigation, the financial crime authority Økokrim closed the case with the code “considered proven that no criminal actions occurred”. Lawyers Erling O. Lyngtveit and Pål Sverre Hernæs of Hjort represented BCC, Smith and Larsen in the case, and Hernæs says the result is completely as expected.
– Our assessment after a review of the case showed that there was no basis for either suspecting or charging, and therefore it is completely as expected that the case was closed with the code ‘considered proven that no criminal actions occurred’. This code states that the evidence very strongly speaks against any criminal actions having taken place and therefore means a complete clearance of all suspicion”, says lawyer Pål Sverre Hernæs.
Attempted to use Norwegian and Dutch media
Psy-Group have attempted to use Norwegian and Dutch media to spread disinformation. So far it is evidenced that Tønsbergs Blad was exposed to such influence in 2017 and 2018; they themselves reported on this over a year ago. In 2016, Dagens Næringsliv wrote a series of reports about BCC which included the same accusations which the financial crime authority has now refuted. BCC has, via its lawyers Hjort, made contact with the newspaper with questions regarding which sources Dagens Næringsliv has used in recent years, and what research and reviews they have done regarding the information provided and the source itself. So far, they have not answered our questions.
These press reports have led to serious consequences in Norwegian society. Berit Hustad Nilsen says it has been a surreal experience, and that it has taken a lot of resources to follow up all the parties who have been exposed to influence, whether directly or indirectly.
– What we have done is to deliver documentation on everything we have been asked about; this concerns both customer checks from the bank, investigation by our auditor, documentation for the financial crime agency Økokrim and several others. This has demanded resources from us professionally, practically and financially and they are resources we would so much rather have used in our Christian activities.
Hustad Nilsen underlines that there is little a Christian fellowship can do to stop such influence, but hopes that parties in society will use what BCC has experienced as a lesson for increasing their level of competence in relation to influence operations.