2024 elections are ripe targets for foes of democracy
This past summer and fall, thousands of Facebook accounts started posting about U.S. politics and foreign affairs. But their posts were weird — some included what looked like Twitter handles and the term "RT," an abbreviation for "retweet."
When Facebook's parent company, Meta, started digging into them, it found that the accounts were copying posts from Twitter, now known as X, and pasting them onto Facebook. The accounts were pretty obviously fake: While they claimed to belong to Americans, Meta found they were being operated from China, with stolen names and profile pictures.
Another thing stood out. The accounts copied posts from American politicians across the spectrum, from Democrats Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to Republican Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio and the presidential campaign war room of GOP Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. The accounts' subjects included abortion, health care, military funding and aid for Ukraine.
The goal may have been to build an audience in the U.S., said Ben Nimmo, global threat intelligence lead at Meta.
"It might just be a preparatory stage. It might also be that they are trying to push on really emotive issues to drive the two sides further apart," he said. "It shows that foreign threat actors are trying to hijack authentic partisan narratives in the countries they're targeting."
The operation wasn't successful. Meta took down almost 5,000 fake accounts and said their posts had not reached real people.
But it's a preview of what's to come in 2024, which is expected to be a record year for voting. Major elections around the world — including in India, Mexico, Taiwan, South Africa and the U.S., as well as for the European Parliament — will bring billions of people to the polls. And those elections are ripe targets for bad actors seeking to disrupt democracy.
Among those efforts are state-backed campaigns targeting voters in many countries — to promote the interests of the states backing the campaigns and to exacerbate divisions. Meta says Russia, Iran and China have become the most prolific sources of foreign influence operations, with China in particular stepping up its efforts in the past year.
Those three countries, as well as Cuba, all tried to meddle in the 2022 U.S. midterm elections, according to a recently declassified U.S. government intelligence assessment. Their efforts focused on undermining confidence in democratic institutions and election integrity, heightening social divisions and targeting candidates based on how their policy positions might benefit or harm the state actor's national interests.
Foreign adversaries aren't the only threats that have tech companies, civil society groups and government officials on edge. Far-right movements are on the rise in Europe, Latin America and the United States. The wars in Ukraine and Gaza are fueling geopolitical tensions. Social media platforms themselves havebacked off some of their efforts to police false and misleading claims, and widespread layoffs in Silicon Valley have also left many trust and safety teams diminished.
"It really feels like the perfect storm," said Nora Benavidez, senior counsel at the media advocacy group Free Press. "We're going to have 40-ish determinative national elections next year. Over 2 billion people globally will be voting or at least have the option to vote ... and social media is still such a pervasive and common way that people get information."
In the years since Russia attempted to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, companies like Meta have become more aggressive at cracking down on foreign threats, focusing on how bad actors exploit their platforms, such as by breaking rules against impersonation.
But as the Chinese operation that Meta disrupted shows, foreign actors often seize on domestic narratives. Political figures and their supporters in the countries that foreign actors target may knowingly or unknowingly pick up false claims pushed by outside forces.
"It's not like you have foreign interference over here and domestic stuff here. They are intertwined," said Katie Harbath, who spent a decade working on public policy and elections at Facebook.
Researchers tracking election discussions online say narratives and tactics are increasingly crossing borders — from attacks on immigration to antisemitic conspiracy theories to AI-generated "deepfakes" purporting to show candidates doing or saying things they didn't.
"What we're seeing is a strong convergence on the disinformation playbook," said Felix Kartte, EU director at Reset, a London-based nonprofit. "Same types of content, same types of narratives, similar tools being used by actors ranging from Russian state-sponsored accounts on social media to extremists in countries like Germany, France, Spain and, of course, U.S. alt-right actors as well."
That includes unfounded allegations of election fraud, many directly echoing former President Donald Trump's false claims that the 2020 U.S. election was stolen.
Harbath said this is her biggest worry for 2024.
"If there's one thing that people need to have trust in, it's that process and that they think that it's free and fair," she said. "If we lose that, then I think we're in real trouble."
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