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Foreign Election Meddlers: The Players, Their Motives and How to Disrupt Them

By Saige Draeger | Nov. 8, 2022 | State Legislatures News | Print

It’s Election Day. That means news, news and more news on everything from process to results—which don’t always come on election night. As you wade through the sea of election information today and in the coming weeks, it’s worth asking, how good are your sources?

Election officials are the gold standard. And they’ve been hard at work this year—like every election year—beating back the pervasive flow of mis-, dis- and mal-information, collectively known as MDM, from increasingly sophisticated actors, including nation-states. Just yesterday, an associate of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin admitted to influence operations going back several U.S. election cycles. As foreign adversaries refine their playbooks to maximize the reach and impact of false and misleading information, intelligence analysts are learning how to detect and disrupt their efforts.

Presidential election cycles are about people and power—the people are the candidates while power is who controls the country. Midterm election cycles are about policy positions and money. —Colin Eide, Microsoft’s Digital Threat Analysis Center

“It’s useful to bifurcate between election cycles [presidential and midterm] because they’re about different things, and because they’re about different things, there are different incentives for foreign adversaries to interfere,” Colin Eide, senior manager of Microsoft’s Digital Threat Analysis Center, said during a recent NCSL webinar on election MDM.

Eide’s team identifies trends that help to both spot MDM and understand the motivations and aspirations of foreign entities, providing a broader context for the global threat landscape.

For nation-state actors, the difference in focus translates to different outcomes for influence. “Presidential election cycles are about people and power—the people are the candidates while power is who controls the country,” Eide said. “Midterm election cycles are about policy positions and money.”

If a presidential election cycle is about who, then potential targets for MDM will coalesce around relations between nation-states, including national security alliances, military disposition and trade deals or a lack thereof. In midterm elections, about policy and resources, the goals might be to influence financial outcomes for individuals or nations, or the allocation of resources.

Eide has shed light on who the major players are in this malevolent space and what they want. In 2016 and 2020, for instance, Russia’s MDM operations sought to shape narratives and spread chaos to weaken trust in U.S. elections, thereby elevating Russia’s position on the world stage. In this midterm cycle, Russia’s interests have shifted to sustaining global allies. Iran, on the other hand, holds a narrow national security focus in presidential years but will pivot to all-out campaigns of information warfare for midterm contests. China exclusively focuses its operations on midterm election cycles because it is motivated by economics, staying out of presidential contests for now.

While the threat of global interference in U.S. elections remains pervasive, the good news is twofold: The international threat level remains steady (Eide reports no significant uptick this year), and MDM can be combatted through a variety of strategies, whether you’re a legislator or a keen consumer of information.

Saige Draeger is a policy associate in NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program.

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