Published on November 8, 2023, 3:30 pm
Russia, Iran, and China are anticipated to utilize increasingly advanced methods of influence and interference leading up to the 2024 U.S. presidential election as well as in other crucial elections worldwide, according to a new analysis by Microsoft. The report suggests that all three nations will attempt to shape geopolitical outcomes in their favor amidst major ongoing or potential regional conflicts. However, Russia is deemed “the most committed and capable threat” to the upcoming American federal election.
The analysis, issued by Microsoft’s Threat Analysis Center (MTAC), states that “For Russia, Iran, and China, the next U.S. president will define the direction of conflict – whether wars might occur or peace might prevail.” It predicts that all three governments are unlikely to sit out next year’s contest due to the high stakes involved.
Furthermore, Microsoft’s analysis suggests that the 2024 presidential election could be the first where multiple authoritarian actors simultaneously attempt to interfere with and influence the outcome. The report highlights that interference efforts are likely to occur on different online platforms compared to those targeted in previous elections. Today’s social media landscape is far more visual than before, with memes, gifs, podcasts, video clips, and influencers being employed as means of influence operations rather than bots and short-text posts.
The analysis also notes that following the sale of Twitter, several other platforms have emerged with audiences and nation-state actors transitioning between them. Although this fragmentation poses a challenge for foreign actors seeking to sow discord through social media, each country – especially Russia – appears prepared to engage in such activity.
Russia specifically remains the greatest committed and capable threat to the 2024 election. According to Microsoft’s report, Moscow views next year’s contest as a must-win political warfare battle that will impact support for Kyiv and determine the outcome of the Ukraine War. Current Kremlin activity focuses on propaganda and disinformation related to Western military aid in Ukraine.
The report also mentions that Russian-based actors are likely to utilize generative AI in order to create more sophisticated multimedia content aimed at Western audiences. This use of artificial intelligence aligns with existing efforts to delegitimize Ukraine and shift blame for the conflict in Gaza onto both Washington and Kyiv.
Regarding Iran, the analysis suggests that it will continue to act as a “spoiler” by intervening late in the 2024 election cycle in a more targeted manner. The authors note that they have not observed significant election influence or interest from Iran-affiliated actors thus far, but they expect this to change due to increased tensions in the Middle East.
China, while refraining from meaningful engagement in the 2020 election, has intensified its activity since then. Microsoft’s report highlights how the Chinese Communist Party has significantly expanded both overt and covert influence campaigns worldwide, including light influence activity during the 2022 US midterm elections. The company’s analysts have detected China-affiliated inauthentic social media personas and accounts infiltrating U.S. audiences to post divisive and inflammatory content about American candidates. Although this content has gained little traction so far, it suggests that Beijing is positioning itself for greater engagement leading up to 2024.
As Election Day 2024 approaches, foreign actors are predicted to shift from influence campaigns towards interference tactics targeting election processes and infrastructure. Moscow, Tehran, and Beijing may potentially employ hack-and-leak operations as part of their influence operations against the U.S.
Microsoft is taking several steps to safeguard electoral processes in critical elections worldwide. These include introducing a tool for digitally authenticating content, establishing a “campaign success team” dedicated to advising political campaigns on AI, foreign influence efforts, and authentication issues; launching an election communications hub for troubleshooting major security challenges; supporting legislative and legal initiatives aimed at boosting election security; and providing authoritative election information through Bing. Additionally, Microsoft plans to release regular reports on foreign malign influence efforts.
In conclusion, Microsoft’s analysis warns that multiple authoritarian nation-states may seek to interfere in electoral processes using traditional techniques combined with AI and other new technologies to compromise the integrity of electoral systems. As such, it is essential to prioritize election security measures and remain vigilant against foreign malign influence efforts.