By Olivia Gazis
November 8, 2023 / 12:20 AM EST / CBS News
Russia, Iran and China are likely to engage in newly sophisticated influence and interference efforts ahead of the 2024 U.S. presidential election and in other pivotal elections worldwide, a new analysis by Microsoft has found. All three countries are expected to seek to shape geopolitical outcomes in their favor amid major ongoing or potential regional conflicts, though Russia remains “the most committed and capable threat” to the upcoming American federal election, it said.
“For Russia, Iran and China, the next U.S. president will define the direction of conflict — whether wars might occur, or peace might prevail,” the new report, issued by Microsoft’s Threat Analysis Center (MTAC), says, predicting all three governments are “unlikely to sit out next year’s contest — the stakes are simply too high.”
Microsoft’s analysis also suggested that the 2024 presidential election could be the first in which “multiple authoritarian actors simultaneously attempt to interfere with and influence an election outcome.”
Interference efforts are likely to take place on different online platforms than those targeted in 2016 and 2020, the report says.
“America’s social media ecosystem today is far more visual than in previous years,” the analysis says. “Memes, gifs, podcasts, video clips, and influencers are the means of today’s influence operations — not bots and pithy text posts.”
It notes, without mentioning Twitter by name, that the sale of “the world’s largest micro-blogging platform” spurred the creation of a number of other platforms, “with audiences and nation-state actors transiting between them.”
While the fragmentation of social media users among platforms poses a challenge for foreign actors, each of them, and especially Russia, appear poised to engage in influence activity, according to the analysis.
Moscow “remains the most committed and capable threat to the 2024 election,” the report says. “The Kremlin likely sees next year’s contest a must-win political warfare battle determining the trajectory of support to Kyiv and the outcome of the Ukraine War.”
Microsoft has already detected Kremlin activity centered on “propaganda and disinformation on Western military aid to Ukraine and messaging against candidates committed to it.” Some stems from entities affiliated with the late Yevgeny Prigozhin, former Wagner Group chief and head of the Internet Research Agency, whose efforts were central to Kremlin-led interference campaigns unspooled in 2016. Microsoft says two Prigozhin-affiliated groups “remain persistently focused on the U.S. election.”
Russia-based actors are also likely to use generative AI to create more sophisticated multimedia content to target Western audiences, the analysis says, making note of existing efforts to delegitimize Ukraine and cast blame for the conflict in Gaza on both Washington and Kyiv.
The authors say Iran is likely to remain a “spoiler,” intervening at a late stage and in a more targeted fashion in the 2024 election cycle. “Thus far, we’ve not witness any significant election influence or interested from Iran-affiliated influence actors, but we expect that will change with increased tensions in the Middle East,” they write.
And while China refrained from engaging meaningfully in the 2020 election, it has ramped up its activity since then, the report notes. “[I]n the last three years, the [Chinese Communist Party] has dramatically scaled up the scope and sophistication of its overt and covert influence activity around the world and expanded its covert social media operations, undertaking light influence activity during the 2022 US midterm elections,” it says.
Microsoft’s Threat Analysis Center “has observed some China-affiliated inauthentic social media personas and accounts infiltrating U.S. audiences and posting divisive and inflammatory content about American candidates,” the analysts write, adding that the content has gotten little traction to date, but it suggests Beijing is positioning itself for greater engagement ahead of 2024.
The group predicts that foreign actors will shift from using influence campaigns to interference tactics — targeting election processes and infrastructure — as Election Day 2024 draws closer. It also says Moscow, Tehran and Beijing may each consider using hack-and-leak operations as part of their influence operations against the U.S.
“[T]he world in 2024 may see multiple authoritarian nation states seek to interfere in electoral processes,” Microsoft president Brad Smith writes in a blog post accompanying the report. “And they may combine traditional techniques with AI and other new technologies to threaten the integrity of electoral systems.”
The company is announcing five election security steps it is taking to protect electoral processes in the U.S. and other countries where critical elections will take place in 2024, including a tool to digitally authenticate content; a “campaign success team” dedicated to advising political campaigns on AI, foreign influence efforts, and authentication issues; an election communications hub available in the run-up to elections to troubleshoot major security challenges; support for select legislative and legal efforts to boost election security; and offering authoritative election information to voters on Bing.
Microsoft says it will also release regular reports on foreign malign influence efforts.