The US government is preparing for its adversaries to step up their efforts to influence American voters next year. Russia has a lot at stake in the presidential elections. China appears willing to back a more aggressive campaign. Other countries, such as Iran, could again try to sow division in the United States.
As Washington looks ahead to the 2024 elections, US intelligence agencies last week released a report on the 2022 midterm elections, a document that gives us some clues about what could be coming.
Spy agencies concluded that Russia favored Trump in 2016. What happens in 2024?
Russia appears to be paying close attention to the elections, as its war in Ukraine will soon enter its third year.
Former President Donald J. Trump, the Republican front-runner, has expressed skepticism about funding Ukraine. President Biden has argued that helping Ukraine is in the United States' interest.
While there remains bipartisan support for Ukraine, Russia is focused on weakening Democrats to prevent the United States from providing more aid in the coming years.
In 2022, according to the intelligence report, Russia attempted to denigrate Democrats, including amplifying allegations of corruption by Biden's family, largely due to his administration's support for Ukraine.
“Moscow blames the US president for forging a unified Western alliance and for kyiv's continued pro-Western trajectory,” the report said.
Russia was distracted by its war in 2022, officials said, but the report explains how the fighting became intertwined with its efforts to influence American politics. Russia, according to the report, considered delaying its withdrawal from the southern Kherson region to avoid giving Ukraine supporters in the United States “a perceived victory before the election.”
Russia finally announced its withdrawal a day after the election.
With Republican opposition to Ukraine funding growing, officials believe Moscow is likely to try to interfere further in 2024.
Has China learned from Russia?
While Russia has long tried to influence American political debates on divisive issues, China has traditionally focused more narrowly, working against local politicians who take stances on Tibet, Taiwan or other similar issues. U.S. officials say that may be about to change.
It's not entirely clear what China is going to do or which side it will take in 2024, but the report suggests that Chinese leaders saw the 2022 elections as an opportunity to present the American model as chaotic.
As President Xi Jinping tightens his control over politics and the economy, ideological differences between the United States and China have become starker. With that, Chinese leaders are more interested in influence campaigns that magnify social divisions in the United States, long the focus of Russian operations.
It is not entirely known how far the Chinese will go. But American spy agencies seem to know more than they let on. The report contains one of those frustrating wordings. He announces that Chinese leaders have “led a new approach” and then crosses the issue out of the sentence.
How could artificial intelligence play a role?
China has already begun experimenting with artificial intelligence in its influence campaigns. Industry experts say new technologies will make it easier for foreign countries to imitate native English speakers and generate messages that amplify existing divisions more quickly.
But government officials are more concerned that AI technologies could be used to create hyper-realistic (but fake) videos — the kind of misinformation that could quickly cause damage.
Are countries still trying to hack local government computer systems?
They are not. This is good news in the most recent intelligence assessment.
The extreme decentralization of the American electoral system is its greatest defense. Russian hackers attacked voting systems in 2016, but foreign countries now believe it is too difficult to significantly affect the vote count by hacking local governments' computer networks.
As a result, a variety of foreign powers have redoubled their efforts to otherwise influence the election.
Beyond China and Russia
In addition to China and Russia, the report analyzes other countries interested in influencing the American vote.
Cuba, hoping that the United States will lift sanctions against its government, attempted to influence some congressional and gubernatorial elections in 2022, according to the report. While details are redacted, the report said officials in Havana focused on Florida politicians because the Cuban-American community in Miami has enormous influence on policy toward Cuba. Iran backed several inauthentic campaigns on Twitter and other social media platforms that sought to boost progressive candidates. Some of those fake accounts also amplified pro-Palestinian sentiment.
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