Malign Influence Operations Increasing Ahead of Midterms, Report Finds

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A report from cybersecurity firm Recorded Future found that nation-state adversaries and domestic extremists are engaged in efforts to influence the outcome of the November elections.

Influence campaigns designed to interfere in U.S. elections have “likely only intensified” since the 2020 presidential election, according to a report released by cybersecurity firm Recorded Future’s Insikt Group on Thursday.

The report, “Malign Influence During the 2022 U.S. Midterm Elections,” assessed disinformation campaigns from nation-state adversaries—specifically Russia, China and Iran—and examined “disruptive influence and election security threats from U.S. domestic extremists.” 

Researchers with the firm found that “the backdrop of conventional and hybrid warfare in Ukraine, broad international ramifications of said conflict, lingering effects of a global pandemic and a broadening distrust in traditional democratic institutions” will likely lead to an increase in the spread of disinformation and misleading claims designed to impact the results of the 2022 midterm elections.

The Recorded Future report said that Russia, in particular, “views U.S. electoral interference and voter influence as an appropriate response to the U.S.’s defensive military support of Ukraine and the international isolation of Russia’s economy.” 

While researchers noted in the report that Russia’s struggling war in Ukraine “has very likely imposed significant costs on the strength, capabilities and reach of both overt and covert Russian influence networks,” they also warned that “influence operations at the coordination and direction of Russian intelligence services almost certainly remain an innovative, resourceful and ultimately a formidable challenge to U.S. election integrity and the democratic process.”

The researchers added that they “are almost certain that personas linked with the Internet Research Agency”—the Russian troll farm that was involved in online influence operations during the 2016 election—are “coordinating renewed attempts to engage in malign influence targeting U.S. conservative audiences ahead of the 2022 US midterm elections via alternative social media platforms.” 

The report also said that the Chinese state-sponsored influencers are “actively conducting malign influence operations targeting English and Chinese-speaking U.S. audiences with divisive political content on social media.” The Chinese influence campaign, which researchers said they discovered in September, has targeted audiences on social media platforms such as “Facebook, Instagram, Tiktok, Douyin, YouTube and others.” And while these efforts largely criticize both Democrats and Republicans, in addition to amplifying extremist views from both ends of the political spectrum, the report said China seems focused on promoting its own national interests ahead of the midterms by attacking candidates perceived as unfriendly to Beijing. 

“We believe that China’s malign interference activities, including harassment, surveillance and physical threats, will likely target congressional candidates and members who are outspoken opponents of the [Chinese Communist Party] and legislators who support policies that will negatively affect China,” the report added.

This finding mirrors similar warnings from federal officials in an unclassified intelligence advisory sent to state and local officials in September. In that advisory, which was previously reported by the Associated Press, officials warned that China likely sees a lower risk in meddling in the midterm elections and is potentially moving to “hinder candidates perceived to be particularly adversarial to Beijing.”

The report said that the scale of Iran's malign influence operations ahead of the midterms, meanwhile, “will likely be affected by progress on renewing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” or JCPOA—the nuclear deal from which former President Donald Trump officially withdrew in 2018. 

“We assess that if JCPOA negotiations trend toward a positive outcome according to Tehran (which includes a deal that guarantees lifting all U.S. sanctions), Iran will likely conduct limited malign influence activities focused on increasing U.S. domestic polarization,” the report said, noting that a more negative outcome in talks is likely to lead to Iran conducting “broader malign influence operations.”

Beyond foreign influence operations, the report warned that domestic extremists and organizations “are very likely to engage in malign influence efforts to undermine various elements of the U.S. midterm elections during and leading up to November 2022 by proliferating mis-, dis- and malinformation.” 

“Violent anti-law enforcement sentiment has proliferated on message boards such as Patriots[.]win and alternative social media platforms such as Gab and Truth Social, where comments about a new civil war and suggestions to execute FBI agents are now commonplace,” the report added. 

The Recorded Future report came after cybersecurity firm Trellix released a report on Wednesday which found that county election workers in Arizona and Pennsylvania experienced a sharp increase in malicious email activity ahead of their states’ respective primaries earlier this year. While security researchers with Trellix are still analyzing the emails to determine their origin, a researcher with the firm told Nextgov that it’s “more than likely it’s foreign adversaries” who are behind the majority of those malicious messages.