November 8, 2022
IntelBrief: Foreign Influence, External Meddling, and the 2022 U.S. Midterm Elections
Today, November 8, the United States is hosting midterm elections to select state and federal legislators in a number of local elections across the country. Over the course of the past several weeks, federal and local law enforcement have published intelligence bulletins warning about the potential for political violence leading up to, during, or in the aftermath of the elections. Thus far, the U.S. government has not identified any credible threats to election infrastructure and reassured the American public that they should have full confidence in the integrity of the election. However, warnings have been issued over the past months about how foreign actors—like Russia, China, and Iran—may seek to influence American voters by utilizing disinformation and other forms of foreign influence tactics to spread or amplify distrust in the integrity of the election. In recent weeks, several foreign disinformation campaigns targeting U.S. voters on social media platforms have also been disrupted, signaling the resolve of foreign adversaries to attempt to influence the American democratic process, as well as the threat it poses to U.S. national security.
Reports indicate that China has sought to utilize disinformation to influence U.S. audiences ahead of the election. In an unclassified September intelligence advisory, the U.S. government warned that China may seek to influence the 2022 midterm elections; specifically, that China may seek to influence select races to “hinder candidates perceived to be particularly adversarial to Beijing.” On September 27, Meta (Facebook’s parent company) announced that they had taken down a small Chinese-operated network across multiple social media platforms—including Facebook and Instagram—that focused on “US domestic politics ahead of the midterm elections.” On October 26, researchers with Google’s Mandiant announced that they had uncovered a pro-China influence campaign on multiple platforms that, among other things, attempted to spread narratives discrediting the U.S. political system and discourage U.S. citizens from voting in the 2022 midterm elections. Twitter recently released data on a China-based influence operation of almost 2,000 user accounts—some purporting to be in the U.S.— primarily operational between April and October before it was disrupted by Twitter. According to the data, it appeared to amplify political extremes in the United States, with two networks spreading narratives favored by individuals on the right, and one network spreading narratives favored by individuals on the left of the U.S. political spectrum. Historically, this is an influence tactic used by Russia, which China-backed/aligned actors now appear to be attempting to emulate. Notably, some of the Twitter accounts in the China-based networks had large followings and thus attracted high levels of engagement. For example, one account catering to right-wing audiences had over 26,000 followers, while another left-leaning account attracted around 7,000 followers.
The potential shift in likely China-backed/aligned influence attempts is concerning and comes at a time when Chinese foreign policy has become more assertive on the global stage. Moreover, the emulation of historically Russia-deployed tactics is also concerning as it suggests China may not only be interested in influence operations that undermine the confidence in democracy as a governance model, as well as the U.S.-based system globally, but that China-backed/aligned actors may also seek to sow discord and chaos in the United States. However, the fact that these multiple operations were detected and disrupted prior to the elections, casts doubt on the level of sophistication, for now, of China-backed/aligned disinformation campaigns.
Iran has also been actively attempting to influence U.S. online users ahead of the midterm elections. As part of the data released by Twitter, three Iran-based networks that were removed from the platform and at least one account was endorsing candidates in local races. This specific account also appeared to operate on multiple other platforms, including Reddit and TikTok. Iranian influence efforts surrounding U.S. elections have also historically focused on cyber-criminal activities in conjunction with disinformation campaigns. Last year, the Treasury Department sanctioned six Iranian individuals and one Iranian entity for attempts to influence the 2020 U.S. presidential election. The state-sponsored Iranian cyber operation included attempts to obtain U.S. voter information from state election websites and spread disinformation online. On October 20, the FBI warned that Iran-backed/aligned actors may attempt to conduct so-called “hack-and-leak” operations targeting U.S. entities, in which there is a “theft and subsequent leak of data, followed by amplification through social media and online forums, and in some cases the deployment of destructive encryption malware.”
Russia has historically attempted to utilize disinformation to influence U.S. elections, most notably the 2016 election. Russia has commonly utilized the tactic of amplifying divisive and polarizing content. According to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s report on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) operationally focused its disinformation efforts primarily on racially divisive content. For example, 96 percent of the IRA’s YouTube content was targeted at racial issues and police brutality and 66 percent of the IRA’s Facebook advertisement content contained a term related to race. In the unclassified September intelligence advisory, the U.S. government warned that Russia is working to amplify doubts about the integrity of U.S. elections. Comments by a senior FBI official in news reporting suggest that Russia is not necessarily creating its own content, but rather is seeking to amplify divisive topics and narratives already circulating online.
Attempted influence operations—such as foreign state-backed/aligned disinformation campaigns—targeting the 2022 midterm elections pose a national security threat to the United States. As the government and experts sound the alarm about the potential for political violence this election cycle, sophisticated disinformation campaigns online that go undetected have the potential to fuel distrust in the elections and democracy writ-large, which can lead to offline violence. It is also apparent that, compared to 2016, more state-backed/aligned actors are now attempting to operate in this space—making the threat more multifaceted for the U.S. government. At the same time, countering disinformation campaigns and the proliferation of misinformation online is an inherently complex issue for liberal democracies seeking to safeguard human rights and freedom of speech. One of the key long-term challenges for the United States is to institute educational programs for digital and media literacy to improve critical thinking for current and future generations. In addition, the U.S. government must work with civil society and the private sector to re-establish trust in U.S. institutions and democracy. In the immediate future, however, the United States may witness conspiracy and disinformation-driven acts of political violence. As the midterms get underway, it will be critical for the government and other stakeholders seeking to counter disinformation to work with civil society and trusted voices in different communities to communicate trust and integrity in the election process, even in the weeks following the results of the elections. However, as the “trusted voices” in disenfranchised communities shift from historically influential institutions to increasingly decentralized, partisan personalities, finding leaders who can effectively partner in countering disinformation will remain a long-term challenge. It is highly plausible that foreign actors may amplify conspiratorial and false allegations of election irregularities once results have been called to stoke more chaos and division in the United States.