Apr 23, 2024 - Technology

Get ready for an onslaught of election disinformation

Illustration of a "vote" pin with a long nose growing out of it

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

With about six months until the U.S. elections, researchers say they've seen less foreign-backed disinformation at this point in the cycle than normal.

Why it matters: Things may be moving slowly, but a wave of social media disinformation campaigns is starting to emerge, experts say.

Driving the news: The Microsoft Threat Analysis Center said in a report released last week that foreign influence campaigns are moving at a "slower tempo" than they did in the 2016 and 2020 U.S. election cycles.

  • But Russia, China and Iran are starting to get into the game, experts say.

The big picture: More than 60 countries are holding key elections throughout 2024 — creating a lot of opportunities for foreign influence operations.

  • The European Parliament elections are happening in June, and India is currently in the middle of a monthslong prime minister election.
  • Taiwan faced a barrage of suspected Chinese disinformation and cyberattacks during its elections in January.

What they're saying: "It really is a perfect storm for some of those strategic malign influence operations and disinformation campaigns because there are so many different things going on at one time," Brian Liston, senior threat intelligence analyst at Recorded Future, told Axios.

  • Nation-state groups are "learning and refining their craft from prior election cycles," Liston added. "They're showing more opportunistic behavior and latching onto breaking news stories or things that are coming up in the wild."

Between the lines: Microsoft security researchers are already tracking activity that could foreshadow what kinds of influence operations are to come after a slow start.

  • Over the last 45 days, Russian-backed election influence campaigns started spreading anti-Ukraine narratives related to real breaking news stories, Microsoft found.
  • China has started using generative AI tools to create images, memes and videos targeting Western elections to share on social media accounts.
  • Meanwhile, Iran has remained relatively quiet so far, as expected. However, Tehran could decide to launch more operations sooner as physical attacks continue across the Middle East, the Microsoft report notes.

Zoom in: At least 70 Russia-affiliated actors spread false narratives online in the U.S. about the war in Ukraine over the last two months, according to Microsoft's report.

  • Russia is also facing its first U.S. election cycle since the shutdown of the Internet Research Agency, which operated a Russia-backed troll farm that spread several fake narratives during the 2016 U.S. elections.
  • This means the Russian government is still working out a new structure for launching influence operations, Liston said.

The intrigue: The proliferation of generative AI programs has made it easier for nation-state adversaries to create deepfake videos and audio.

  • These tools are already allowing actors to quickly scale their disinformation and influence operations, although the products aren't nearly perfect yet, Liston noted.

Yes, but: Foreign-backed influence operations could still gain plenty of steam in the U.S. between now and November.

  • "Six months can be an eternity," Liston said. "There are so many different variables about what can happen between now and then — it might entirely change this election cycle."
Go deeper