Russian influence ops are the ‘preeminent threat’ to November’s elections, US officials say

by Braxton Taylor

In the months leading into this November’s presidential election, Russian influence operatives have already begun targeting specific voter demographics, promoting divisive narratives and denigrating specific politicians in an effort to undermine the integrity of the election process and sow further domestic divisions, intelligence officials say.

It means Moscow is now seen as the “preeminent threat” to U.S. election security in 2024, an official in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence told reporters Tuesday in a briefing that included staff from the FBI and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

Former president Donald Trump — returning as the expected Republican presidential candidate — was not explicitly named by officials, but they noted that Russia has not changed its stances since its past 2016 and 2020 election interference attempts.

“We have not observed a shift in Russia’s preferences for the presidential race from past elections, given the role the U.S. is playing with regard to Ukraine and broader policy toward Russia,” the official said.

ODNI officials said Russian spin doctors plan to covertly use social media to amplify narratives that could sway public opinion in election swing states and diminish U.S. support for Ukraine. Pro-Russian messaging and influence attempts have also been made through encrypted direct messaging channels, they added.

Russia’s war on Ukraine is one such flash point. Some GOP lawmakers have echoed Russian propaganda in criticizing the Biden administration’s hefty financial support for Kyiv. Donald Trump was impeached for withholding congressionally authorized military aid to coerce Ukrainian officials to make politically damaging statements about Joe Biden in the runup to the 2020 presidential election.

Officials said China and Iran are also threats, though they said the former may not be seeking to influence this coming presidential election directly because both Democratic and Republican party leaders run on platforms critical of Beijing.

Iran will serve as a “chaos agent” in the election space, and has “demonstrated a longstanding interest in exploiting U.S. political and social tensions” that have since accelerated since Israel declared war on Hamas in October, the ODNI official said. Just Tuesday, ODNI director Avril Haines said an Iran-backed influence campaign is taking advantage of U.S. protests over Israel’s war in Gaza.

Russia and China are the top adversaries using AI tools to carry out their missions, the ODNI official said, with the caveat that China is turning to AI more for broad exploration of U.S. political themes that can be used to Beijing’s advantage later.

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