America Could Get Caught Flat-Footed by Russian Interference in 2024 Election, Analysts and Scholars Warn

After evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 and 2020 elections, one former defense department official says, ‘we can’t say we weren’t aware this time.’

AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko
President Putin arrives to give his state-of-the-nation address at Moscow, February 29, 2024. AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko

Washington is ill-equipped to counter a growing threat of Russian intelligence operations in the run-up to the 2024 election. That is the increasingly urgent warning from foreign policy scholars and analysts in recent weeks.

President Putin, such experts tell the Sun, is poised to unleash information warfare calculated to erode Western support for Ukraine, with his eyes on the election in November. This has grown more dangerous and difficult to detect due to the help of artificial intelligence, which is increasingly available, nearly costless to deploy, and easy to use.

Moscow’s disinformation campaigns will likely work to bolster the campaign of President Trump, Emerson Brooking of the Atlantic Council says. He cites Mr. Trump’s intention to overhaul aid to Ukraine. Russian intelligence agents may seek to hack and leak sensitive government material in an “October surprise” that targets political campaigns, Mr. Brooking, who led an initiative to secure the integrity of the 2020 election, warns.

“In 2024, Russia has far more incentives than in the last two elections to interfere,” he tells the Sun.

Also, it’s easier than ever. “With advances in AI and deep fake technology, the capacity to produce more sophisticated and possibly more harmfulness and disinformation is not something you can discount,” a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, Matthew Baum, who focuses on misinformation and election interference, tells the Sun. “Anybody can be fooled.” 

The technology makes it difficult to discern what’s real and what’s false. A phishing email that appears like an offer for tech support or a bounced check could be a sophisticated operation to give the Russian military access to material on American networks. That information could be thrown into a breaking news story to damage perceptions about a particular candidate or cast doubts on the electoral process. 

“The real aim of these disinformation campaigns is less about persuasion than it is about confusion,” Mr. Baum says. “Confusion can yield passivity, washing your hands of it, maybe not turning out the vote.” 

There’s no evidence that Russia could actually change votes in America. Yet purveyors of disinformation might target swing states where they think they could affect voting outcomes, Mr. Baum says. They aim to dissuade opponents of Mr. Trump from voting and to boost support for third-party candidates by, say, sowing skepticism over vaccine efficacy, which could push voters toward Robert Kennedy Jr. and away from Mr. Biden. 

“There are numerous organizations working on behalf of the Kremlin whose job it is to undermine our elections, to undermine the people involved, even to provoke threats and physical violence against people working these elections,” Mr. Brooking says. “None of this is speculative. This is happening.” Having just worked for a year with the Department of Defense, he ventures that tens of thousands of election volunteers are being harassed.

What appears to be the first attempt by AI to interfere with the upcoming election came in the form of an AI-generated robocall mimicking the voice of President Biden that discouraged Democrats from voting in the New Hampshire primary in January. U.S. authorities issued cease-and-desist orders to the two Texas companies believed to be linked to the call.

“Russians don’t have magic mind control powers. They can’t change people’s opinions,” a professor at the University College London, Mark Galeotti, who specializes in Russian intelligence services, tells the Sun. “What they can do is radicalize. They can take existing disagreements and try to stir them up to a point where they’re much more dangerous.” In other words: “The more bitterness, the better.”

It’s tough to assess the potential reach of Russia’s campaign, the global head of investigative research, Kyle Walter, at Logically, which tracks disinformation campaigns, tells the Sun. He looks at Russian channels for indications of the messaging that could be replicated on platforms in America. For a sense of what could come, he points to the 10 million out of 15 million subscribers he identified on Russian channels who were advocating for a Texas secession.

Moscow also appears to be sowing seeds of discontent abroad, targeting Ukraine’s backers to fracture Western support for Kyiv’s offensive. France’s foreign minister, Stéphane Séjourné, said that a network of “at least 193” websites had been set up with the aim “to spread Russian disinformation.” The Washington Post has leaked communications between officials at Moscow and St. Petersburg who were strategizing how best to target Europe and the United States through propaganda.

Mr. Putin has already toyed with the elections of his neighbors whom he sees as changeable in their positions on Ukraine. AI-generated disinformation has hit Moldova, Bulgaria, and Slovakia, where a deep fake video released before its election aided the victory of a party that campaigned to withdraw military support for Ukraine. “That’s a clear warning sign for what to expect this year,” Mr. Brooking says. 

Yet any kind of regulatory response seems to be held up by the political environment. “They’re directing fewer and fewer resources at the problem,” Mr. Baum says, “which suggests that it’s going to be harder to respond to it.” There also appears to be a general fatigue around the topic. Federal agencies, election security officials, and social media seem to have fewer tools at their disposal than they did in 2020 to understand the false information spreading around election processes. 

The American government is eyeing cuts to its military information support operations, commonly referred to as “Psyop units.” The Department of Homeland Security’s agency tasked with combating cyberattacks, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, is facing funding pressure. That agency is also under scrutiny by a federal lawsuit against the Biden administration for its alleged “Orwellian” censorship of conservative content on social media.

Policymakers should avoid banning too much, or they risk amplifying paranoia of government censorship, Mr. Galeotti warns. He compares the information issue to illegal drugs. Stopping the drugs from getting on the streets won’t end people’s desire to consume them. “Likewise, we can clamp down on Russian bots and Russian operatives, but so long as people are happy to consume paranoid conspiracy theories, we are fighting a losing battle,” he says.

Facebook owner Meta is setting up a team to combat the threat AI poses in the European parliamentary elections in June. Many platforms, though, have reduced the footprints of their internal groups responsible for combating disinformation. “There’s not a large appetite in some ways to make active contributions towards fighting the problem,” Mr. Walter says. “From a think tank and a governmental level, there’s significantly more that needs to be done ahead of the election.”

The American, British, and Canadian governments announced in February a new strategy to counter “foreign information manipulation,” a weapon increasingly deployed by America’s adversaries to paint “an alternative vision” of the international order. 

Although a step in the right direction, the effort may be a little too late to preserve people’s confidence in their governments and their elected leaders, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Ivana Stradner, tells the Sun: “The West is not winning the information war against Russia. Meanwhile, China is learning from Putin, and they already cooperate in this field.”

America could instead take a page from Russia’s playbook and use information as ammunition, Ms. Stradner says. She urges Washington to combat lies by spreading the truth. Within the parameters of what the recent joint statement describes as “the rules-based order,” the government can combat “foreign malign influence aimed at undermining our safety and security, with disregard for universal human rights and the rule of law.”

A return to this combative strategy could revive America’s superpower status in information warfare, one enjoyed by President Reagan during the Cold War. “Moscow and Beijing are ahead of us. We have to find creative solutions to win this war,” Ms. Stradner says. “We need to go on the offensive and turn the tables on Russia’s and China’s games.”

Mr. Brooking prefers a more defensive strategy. “Going on the offense doesn’t mean you are actually protecting yourself more,” he says. He points to unique tools within the arsenal of American military intelligence that can identify foreign misinformation campaigns early on and build “information resilience.”

After evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 and 2020 elections, America has had its fair share of warnings. As Mr. Brooking puts it: “We can’t say we weren’t aware this time.”

The New York Sun

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