Russia’s 2024 election interference has already begun

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26 Feb 2024, 6:22 pm

Moscow is spreading disinformation about Joe Biden and other Democrats to lessen U.S. military aid to Ukraine and U.S. support for NATO, former U.S. officials and cyber experts say.

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Russia is already spreading disinformation in advance of the 2024 election, using fake online accounts and bots to damage President Joe Biden and his fellow Democrats, according to former U.S. officials and cyber experts.

The dissemination of attacks on Biden is part of a continuing effort by Moscow to undercut American military aid to Ukraine and U.S. support for and solidarity with NATO, experts said.

A similar effort is underway in Europe. France, Germany and Poland said this month that Russia has launched a barrage of propaganda to try to influence European parliamentary elections in June.

With Donald Trump opposing U.S. aid to Ukraine and claiming that he once warned a NATO leader that he would "encourage" Russia to attack a NATO ally if it didn't pay its share in defense spending, the potential rewards for Russian President Vladimir Putin are high, according to Bret Schafer, a senior fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy of the German Marshall Fund.

“Not that they didn’t have an incentive to interfere in the last two presidential elections,” said Schafer, who tracks disinformation efforts by Russia and other regimes. “But I would say that the incentive to interfere is heightened right now.”

Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said Sunday on NBC News’ “Meet the Press” that there’s “plenty of reason to be concerned” about Russia’s trying to interfere in the 2024 election but that he couldn’t discuss evidence related to it. He added: “We’re going to be vigilant about that.”

U.S. officials and experts are most concerned that Russia could try to interfere in the election through a “deepfake” audio or video using artificial intelligence tools or through a “hack and leak,” such as the politically damaging theft of internal Democratic Party emails by Russian military intelligence operatives in 2016.

The type of pro-Russia online propaganda campaigns that thrived on Twitter and Facebook ahead of the 2016 U.S. presidential election is now routine on every major social media platform, though it’s rare for individual accounts to go as viral now as they once did.

Those influence operations often create matching accounts on multiple sites, which vary drastically in their moderation policies. Accounts from one pro-Russia campaign that Meta, the owner of Facebook, cracked down on late last year, an English-language news influencer persona called “People Say,” are still live on other platforms, though some are dormant.

A perfect storm
Moscow and its proxies have long sought to exploit divisions in American society. But experts and former U.S. officials said Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen, the country's deepening political polarization and sharp cuts in disinformation and election integrity teams at X and other platforms provide fertile ground to spread confusion, division and chaos.

“In many ways it’s a perfect storm of opportunity for them,” said Paul Kolbe, who worked for 25 years in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations and is now a fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. “I think, for a lot of reasons, we will see the same approach, but amplified and, I think, with some of the constraints that you might have seen taken off."

In the 2022 midterm elections, Russia primarily targeted the Democratic Party to weaken U.S. support for Ukraine, as it most likely blames Biden for forging a unified Western alliance backing Kyiv, according to a recently released U.S. intelligence assessment.

In what appears to be an effort to deepen divisions, Russia has amplified the political dispute between the Biden administration and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott over security at the Texas border over the past month. Russian politicians, bloggers, state media and bots have promoted the idea that America is headed to a new “civil war.”

It was a quintessential move by a Russian regime with a long tradition of trying to manipulate existing political rifts, like immigration, to its advantage, experts said.

But there’s so far no sign that Russia’s disinformation operation in Texas has had any significant impact, said Emerson Brooking, a senior fellow at the Digital Forensic Research Lab at the Atlantic Council.

“So far, Russian operations targeting the U.S. have been opportunistic. They see whatever narrative is rising to the top, and they try to push it,” Brooking said. “Disinformation isn’t created in a vacuum. The more polarized a country is, the easier it is for foreign actors to infiltrate and hijack its political processes.”

The artificial intelligence threat
The bigger Russian threat to the 2024 election, Brooking and other experts said, could prove to be artificial intelligence-created fake audio.

An orchestrated deepfake or leak may not unfold on the national stage; instead, it could target a particularly crucial swing state or district, experts said. It might aim to discourage some voters from going to the polls or sow distrust about the accuracy of ballot counting.

The most likely disinformation scenario will be “hyper-personalized, localized attacks,” said Miles Taylor, a senior Trump administration homeland security official who has warned of the risks of another Trump presidency.

Deepfake audio, which is easy to create and difficult to detect, has been used in recent elections in multiple countries. In the U.S. last month, a fake Joe Biden robocall told New Hampshire Democrats not to vote in the state's primary. In the United Kingdom in November, a fake audio of London Mayor Sadiq Khan called for pro-Palestinian marches.

And two days before Slovakia’s parliamentary elections in September, a fake audio clip purported to show the leader of a pro-Western political party discussing how to rig the election. The audio was eventually debunked, and it’s unclear what effect it had on the election. But a pro-Russia party opposing aid to Ukraine won the most votes.

While an emerging cottage industry claims that software can identify whether audio or video is authentic or a deepfake, such programs are often wrong.

Past Russian efforts
Alleged Russian information operations against Ukraine over the past two years open a window into some of the Kremlin’s tactics.

A study published Wednesday by the Slovakian cybersecurity company ESET found that a pro-Russia campaign has been spamming Ukrainians with false and dispiriting emails about the war with claims of heating and food shortages.

In a coordinated effort near the start of Russia’s invasion in 2022, cyberattacks temporarily knocked key Ukrainian websites offline, while residents received spam texts telling them that ATMs in the country were down.

ther apparent Russian efforts to sow division are much simpler.

Last year, celebrities who sell personalized videos on the website Cameo, including Priscilla Presley, Mike Tyson and Elijah Wood, were tricked into inadvertently recording messages that denigrated two major enemies of the Kremlin, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Moldovan President Maia Sandu.

The messages were overlaid with text falsely claiming that the celebrities were calling for those leaders to step down.

In the American mainstream
In the U.S., though, Russia’s propaganda themes are now often echoed in comments from some Republican lawmakers and pro-Trump commentators, including the portrayal of Ukraine’s government as deeply corrupt.

The adoption of Russian state rhetoric in America’s political debate is a victory for Moscow, experts said. Putin’s goal is to spread doubt and division among Americans.

“An equally nice outcome for them is just what we had last time, where a third of the country doesn’t believe the vote,” Schafer said. “Democracy is questioned; the system gets questioned. So they don’t necessarily need to see their guy win to have it be a good outcome for them.”

It remains extraordinarily difficult for a remote cyberattack to take over voting systems in the U.S. and change vote counts. The American intelligence assessment of the 2022 midterms found no indication that Russia had tried to hack into election systems or ballot counting that year.

But Kolbe, the former CIA directorate of operations official, said the Kremlin would most likely see trying to penetrate U.S. voting systems as a low-risk undertaking.

“I don’t see any reason why they wouldn’t,” he said. “You’d be hard-pressed to find where they would see the risk part of the equation. It gets close to zero.”

Such interference could come with plausible deniability. On the day of the 2022 midterm elections, the Mississippi secretary of state’s website, which hosts the official polling place finder for voters in Mississippi, was knocked offline most of the day after pro-Kremlin hacktivists on Telegram called for supporters to join in a low-level cyberattack against it.

Still, U.S. officials and disinformation analysts say Russia’s ability to manipulate voters shouldn’t be overstated. When it comes to spreading disinformation and fueling distrust in election authorities and election results, the biggest threat comes from within America’s fractured, polarized society, not from the outside.

“I am very skeptical, whether it’s 2016 or 2024, that the United States political and media culture needs any push from Russia,” said Gavin Wilde, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who specializes in Russia and information warfare.

“The Kremlin has every interest in seeing an American public, or American leadership, that’s less inclined to support Ukraine, that’s less inclined to punish Russia. Those incentives are certainly there,” he said. “But we’re already doing a pretty good job of that at home. I don’t know how much of a nudge the Kremlin thinks it needs to lend it.”


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