Foreign Disinformation and Election Interference: What Should We Know?


By Lika Gegenava, Core Writers’ Group

On October 6th, 2022 Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) of the US released a joint public service announcement with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), stating that there was an anticipated interference attempt on US midterm elections, in the form of information manipulation. This was not the first time US elections had become the target of such malicious attempts. Evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections has been discovered, materialising in the form of disinformation campaigns on social media with fake “troll” accounts originating from Russian “Troll Farms” and hacking groups. Although Russia has resorted to disinformation tactics in US elections, it is not the only country that has employed the strategy in its foreign policy. Iran, China, and North Korea have all been suspected of using disinformation tactics, targeting specific demographics on social media to disturb democratic elections and sow unrest, and exacerbate polarisation in Western democratic states.

Perhaps the most notable and widely covered case of foreign intervention through misinformation was the 2016 US presidential elections. An interference campaign led by the Internet Research Agency — an organisation linked to the Russian government — led an effort to tilt the odds in Donald Trump’s favour, and discredit candidate Hillary Clinton. The organisation has been accused of using social media in the form of creating fake accounts impersonating American voters and engaging with forums and discussions on the presidential race. They would, then, express their dissatisfaction with candidate Clinton in an attempt to shift the voters’ support towards Donald Trump, or encourage the voters to vote for third-party candidates instead of Hilary Clinton. Mass criticism of candidate Clinton was also largely fueled by citing conspiracy theories and false claims to elicit hostile reactions from the Republican voter base towards their Democratic counterparts. In this way, the campaign aimed to further polarise the US electorate and undermine the peaceful democratic process of elections.

Although the case of the 2016 US elections was the first to cause alarm in the Western democratic world and the first to be followed by extensive investigations into the roots, impact, and connections with foreign governments, it was far from being the last. There were reports of attempts at disinformation and interference campaigns in the 2020 US presidential elections and in the 2022 Midterm elections as well. On the other side of the Atlantic, the 2022 French elections were also subject to disinformation campaigns and interference attempts. Russian foreign media outlets in France, such as Sputnik France and RT France, were actively involved in election discourse and aimed to play a significant role in the presidential race. China and Qatar have also participated in disinformation campaigns through embassy statements and amplifying Russian foreign media’s key talking points through their platforms.

Yet, the question Western democracies must ask is whether disinformation campaigns are successful, and whether they impact elections in a meaningful way. The most common platforms used for such campaigns are social media outlets, which allow organisations specialising in disinformation tactics to reach large audiences, and target their campaign more efficiently. For this reason, it is true that most disinformation campaigns are successful to an extent in sowing division and discrediting the candidates they are campaigning against. This success can then give rise to further divisions and polarisation amongst the voter base. However, there is little evidence to support that the effects go beyond this. These efforts do not impact the results of the elections, as they are often not successful in changing the voters’ choices- they primarily reinforce already existing voting preferences. They might be successful in fueling hostile attitudes towards the opposing voter base, but the votes remain largely the same. Thus, the disinformation campaigns — according to our current knowledge — cannot meaningfully interfere with democratic elections, though they can exacerbate polarisation amongst the electorate.

So how do the Western democratic states counter the efforts of foreign governments like Russia and China to interfere in and disrupt democratic elections? The European Parliament recently adopted a report which outlines the basic suggestions that can be used as countermeasures to disinformation campaigning. Since the invasion of Ukraine, Russian media outlets have been largely restricted due to spreading misinformation on the war. However, the parliament suggests broader and more specific measures such as public funding for independent media, revoking licences of organisations that lead disinformation campaigns, implementing stricter regulations on social media platforms and improving cybersecurity. Unlike the EU, the concept of restricting and regulating information is more controversial across the Atlantic. With the constitution protecting the right to freedom of speech, the US is more reluctant to introduce information restrictions into legislation. However, to combat foreign influence, the Foreign Influence Task Force (FITF) was established as a branch of the FBI. The goal of the task force is “to identify and counteract malign foreign influence operations targeting the United States,” though the specifics of the task force’s operations are not public, and there is no concrete action plan to combat disinformation campaigns. Nonetheless, social media platforms have begun implementing algorithms to identify and restrict the spread of false information and curb the effects of disinformation campaigns. Such policies are independent of private companies, and, while the US encourages the improvement of electorate literacy in discerning between disinformation and credible sources, it does not anticipate introducing legislation to regulate information or social media platforms.

Even with the steps Western democracies take to combat disinformation and interference in democratic elections, authoritarian states that employ them are expected to ramp up their efforts. To ensure the democratic processes persist and stable democracies remain intact, Western democracies must implement specific strategies and solutions to combat disinformation with concrete action plans. Otherwise, the likelihood of disinformation campaigns destabilising democracies will only increase.

Lika Gegenava is a member of the European Horizons Core Writer’s Team. She is a student at Barnard College of Columbia University, studying Political Science. Her main research interests involve democratisation processes in post-Soviet states, and international and regional security.



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