Interviews

Digital threats to 2024 elections

by Mark Rowe

Beth Hepworth, Director, Protection Group International, pictured, offers a digital threats forecast given that 2024 is set to be monumental year for democracy; with over two billion people across 50 countries going to the polls to elect representatives at local, national, and intra-continental levels. This includes elections in some of the world’s most populous countries, such as India, Brazil, Indonesia, and the United States.

While this election year will certainly be a milestone in the long evolution of democracy, many of these elections take place amid a backdrop of increasing divisions in international relations, an uptick in illiberal democratic practices masked as free and fair elections, and a widespread disenchantment with political representation in some of the world’s most developed democracies.

All of these issues transcend real-world and online spaces, creating distorted and muddied political landscapes prime for exploitation.

Misinformation and disinformation targeting integrity

Electoral misinformation and disinformation will likely remain highly prevalent in elections across the world in 2024. Online threat actors, such as pseudomedia entities, will likely continue sharing content designed to sow distrust in the electoral process for both ideological and commercial gain. Across geographies, false narratives are likely to target voting systems and the integrity of electoral institutions, particularly in closely contested elections.

Upcoming elections in the United States, Brazil, and India are at high risk of this type of disinformation at scale due to having highly volatile political environments and a history of false fraud claims in previous elections. Such narratives played a significant role in elections across the world in 2023, including in Nigeria, Spain, and Turkey, often pushed by politicians and candidates themselves – a behaviour which is likely to continue over the coming year.

Disinformation targeting the integrity of elections can influence dangerous real-world behaviours, including disrupting democratic processes and triggering post-election violence. This has been witnessed over the past year in countries such as Brazil – where supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro stormed Congress in January 2023 alleging institutional election fraud.

Mobilisation of the far-right

Far-right organisations and political parties — who often share egregious content in online spaces — will likely pose a significant risk to elections across the world, particularly in the US, Europe, Brazil, and India.

For example, there is a high risk of far-right mobilisation in the upcoming June 2024 European Union elections, particularly in light of the growing popularity of ultra-nationalist ideologies and politicians across the continent in 2023, including: the entrance of the new extremist Spartans party into parliament in Greece; the ongoing mainstream influence of the Vox party in Spain; and the electoral success of far-right politician Geert Wilders in the Netherlands. Supporters of these far-right ideologies are likely to exploit wedge issues such as immigration and LGBTQ+ policies to share disinformation and hate speech, as well as to recruit and mobilise users in less-monitored digital spaces, which could result in real-world violence.

Around the October US election, we are likely to see an increased presence of far-right groups and armed militias who claim to protect electoral integrity while sharing ultranationalist viewpoints and encouraging civilians to take up arms. Similarly, in India, the far-right Hindutva ideology—which has millions of supporters who could incite hatred against civilians and political candidates belonging to minority religious communities both online and offline—will likely impact the April-May general election.

Foreign influence operations

Foreign state-backed influence operations (IOs) targeting elections are highly likely to be a persistent and significant threat in 2024. The aim of foreign IOss targeting elections is to create a divisive and distorted information environment. This in turn triggers confusion and fuels voter polarisation, while instilling public distrust in leaders and the electoral process.

Growing hostilities between the US and its allies, and states such as Russia, China, and Iran, will likely lead to an uptick in inauthentic behaviours aimed at influencing the outcome of elections in the coming year. Recent reports have outlined how Russia and China linked IOs have targeted the US to exploit domestic socio-political divisions. Similar state-linked campaigns will likely increase in prevalence in the coming year, capitalising on wedge issues, such as US spending on Ukraine, to sow discord ahead of the October US election.

Foreign IOs will also likely target governments with a mutual ideological alignment in an attempt to strengthen bilateral relations. For example, there is an increased risk of Russian interference targeting the upcoming South African elections—a fellow BRICS nation—set for Q2-Q3 2024. The Kremlin-linked RT News will build on the physical base in South Africa which they established in 2022, and covert influence operations have been found to inflame inter-racial and intra-African National Congress tensions, as well as promote pro-Russian propaganda in relation to the war in Ukraine.

AI-generated content

AI-generated content will likely play a greater role in elections in 2024 as threat actors and political campaigns continue to embed AI techniques within their content-producing toolkits. AI-manipulated and generated media will likely be used by inauthentic entities to deceive voters, as well as by official election campaigns as promotional material.

However, the use of sophisticated AI-generated content and technically manipulated media aimed at sowing distrust in candidates and electoral processes will likely be limited, with the majority of AI-generated media being low-quality in nature and easily discernible by ordinary online users.

As a result, the risk of AI to elections in the medium term is often overstated. Threat actors certainly have the ability to weaponise AI effectively, as shown over the past year in America where the Republican Party released an ad with AI-generated images visualising a ‘dystopian world’ with a re-elected President Joe Biden, and in Moldova where President Maia Sandu was forced to refute claims in a Russia-made deepfake video of herself. However, AI-generated content has yet to play a significant role in an election, and current disinformation campaigns are currently succeeding organically by exploiting societal rifts.

At present, the risk of AI to elections is centred more on the intrinsic uncertainty of its potential, rather than on its current impact.

Targeted harassment and doxxing

Heightened levels of targeted harassment and doxxing are likely in 2024, following a spike in threats against election workers and politicians over the past year in countries including New Zealand, Sweden, the US, and Japan. Going forward, targets of online harassment campaigns are likely to include political candidates, election workers, journalists, activists, and members of the judiciary. This is most likely to manifest in highly polarised political environments, such as the US, Mexico, India, and Brazil.

These threats will likely entail the dissemination of Personally Identifiable Information online —such as targets’ home addresses, family members, and phone numbers—as well as online harassment campaigns designed to undermine their legitimacy. In the US, this has manifested in a phenomenon known as ‘swatting’ – a form of harassment where false calls to law enforcement trigger an armed police raid on the target’s house; which most recently targeted Secretary of State for Maine, Shenna Bellows, in December 2023.

Digital forms of harassment can also be a precursor to inciting physical violence against journalists and civil society members. We have already seen this in the recent 7 January 2024 election in Bangladesh, where Awami League supporters attacked reporters at voting stations. Separately, in Mexico, high-profile politicians and criminal groups frequently attack and harass media workers, making it one of the most violent countries in the world for journalists.

The 2024 election threat landscape is complex. Misinformation, disinformation, polarised ideologies, state-backed influence operations, and doxxing are likely to impact the electoral integrity in many of the 50 countries going to vote.

In the year ahead, vigilance and critical thinking will be vital in democracies being able to navigate the nuances of these digital threats and knowing what these threats are is just the first step.

Digital security and intelligence experts can help make sense of the whole information environment. Clients are given insight into the whole information supply chain, letting them see how content is sourced, packaged, distributed and consumed to undermine critical national processes and services. Through research, intelligence reporting and capacity-building programmes, digital security and intelligence experts help clients boost information resilience.

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