Foreign interference in U.S. elections isn’t old news

by Braxton Taylor

Domestic turmoil may be dominating headlines about the 2024 elections, but threats from abroad have not dissipated. 

During the 2022 midterms, state actors from China, Russia, Iran, and elsewhere increased their attempts to influence the outcomes of midterm races and amplify divisions in American society, according to dual reports released last month by the U.S. national security apparatus. And hostile governments scanned state election websites and copied voter data, although they did not compromise the vote itself.

Americans should understand why foreign actors want to interfere in U.S. elections, how they do it, and what we can do to protect the integrity of our electoral process as we barrel into the 2024 primary season.

Authoritarian governments such as China, Russia, and Iran have three key motivations to interfere in the 2024 election: to diminish the credibility of our democracy, distract our country with internal issues to erode U.S. leadership overseas, and shift our policy to favor their interests. If Americans lack confidence in the integrity of a democratic election or if the country plunges into a political crisis, autocrats abroad can point a finger at us to distract their own citizens from the many shortcomings of their own authoritarian political systems. And American preoccupation with internal election turmoil could weaken our foreign commitments in places like Taiwan, Ukraine, and Israel, regions where these authoritarians have deep and abiding interests counter to our own.

These regimes favor certain political candidates, and in the midterms China (and even Cuba) sought to sway elections toward candidates who aligned with their agendas. A U.S. president less interested in maintaining strong American leadership overseas or supporting our allies would be a strategic win for these countries.

Nation-state actors use a variety of tools and tactics to influence our elections. They wage information-manipulation and online-influence campaigns; conduct cyber intrusions and attacks; put dirty money in our system; and contact candidates, campaigns, and diaspora communities either directly or through cutouts. The advent of generative artificial intelligence enables bad actors to conduct information campaigns and cyberattacks at unprecedented scale and volume.

AI-generated content has played a role in other democratic elections this year, including Slovakia and Argentina, where it was used to malign candidates and spread misleading information, like one viral (but fake) recording of a candidate promising to raise the price of beer. 

Campaigns and political parties are experimenting and grappling with AI in the U.S. elections. Over the past week, a robocall featuring a faked voice of President Biden urged New Hampshire voters to skip Tuesday’s primary. State and local election officials are preparing for increased cyberattacks and more realistic false images, audio, and video that could stoke false claims about election rigging as the Federal Election Commission tries to regulate such misinformation. 

To be clear, these challenges to election integrity are not posed exclusively by foreign actors. Whether in service of money, power, or chaos, anyone can use many of the tools and tactics nation-state actors have at their disposal to undermine the integrity of the election too, especially with AI at everyone’s fingertips. However, in many respects, the United States is a soft target for our foreign adversaries.

The United States is highly polarized. Tens of millions of Americans believe the lies that the election system is rigged already. Our free and open information environment leaves us susceptible to all sorts of campaigns that try to denigrate how the electoral process works. Furthermore, there are over 10,000 election jurisdictions in the country, and although elections are more secure than ever across the board, some jurisdictions still lack the resources to combat a viral image or video created in a basement, to say nothing of deterring a hostile intelligence service.

These vulnerabilities are serious but not insurmountable. Election officials and federal and state officials are working tirelessly to defend against interference in our elections. There are promising technologies that can help officials, media, and the public alike better differentiate between authentic and manipulated content. When appropriate, trusted military and defense leaders can communicate foreign adversaries’ intentions to undermine U.S. military readiness and national security, which is a key reason these adversaries are trying to destabilize democracy in the United States. Finally, if Americans are turned off by the political discourse, now more than ever is the time to participate in democracy directly. Volunteering as an election worker, for example, is an important way to see firsthand all the processes and procedures in place that safeguard the sanctity of the vote from all sorts of threats. By reinforcing our participatory democracy, we provide the best defense against authoritarians who have every interest in destabilizing the United States in 2024 and beyond. 

David Salvo and Rachael Dean Wilson are co-Managing Directors of the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States



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