Russian information operations to likely increase in 2024 amid global election activity, CrowdStrike says

peshkov/Getty Images

The findings should come as no surprise with the advent of generative AI tools, ongoing geopolitical conflicts and a busy year for elections in the U.S. and Europe.

Kremlin-backed influence operations that seek to distort public discourse and disseminate propaganda across social media platforms will likely increase in 2024 as governments around the world plan to hold a record number of major elections this year, according to a report out Wednesday from cybersecurity giant CrowdStrike.

Some 40 democratic elections are scheduled to take place around the world, including the U.S. presidential election in November, and hacking groups from nation-states and the cybercrime underworld will be attempting to launch mis- or disinformation operations that would dismantle both trust and infrastructure of elections, the company said.

Generative AI tools will only enhance these efforts among Russian and other major state-linked hacking groups, the report says. “AI’s continuous development will undoubtedly increase the potency of its potential misuse — particularly within the scope of information operations and especially for less digitally literate audiences,” it said under an explainer of how AI systems have been used in social engineering and information operations.

Iran and Russia are likely to deploy “lengthy IO campaigns” against major world powers including the U.S. and European Union, the latter of which is expected to hold parliamentary elections in June.

“Given the ease with which AI tools can generate deceptive but convincing narratives, adversaries will highly likely use such tools to conduct IO against elections in 2024. Politically active partisans within those countries holding elections will also likely use generative AI to create disinformation to disseminate within their own circles,” CrowdStrike notes.

Election interference risks are not as novel as first reported nearly a decade ago, but officials and researchers fear that consumer facing AI tools or similar offerings available on the dark web will supercharge hackers’ attempts to breach election infrastructure or craft realistic-sounding, English language social media campaigns that seek to sway voters away from the polls or instill distrust in election outcomes.

U.S. voters got a taste of this last month when a Texas-linked robocalling operation allegedly disseminated phone calls featuring an AI-generated voice of President Joe Biden in the New Hampshire primary, urging Democrats to “save” their votes for the November ballot. The fallout ended in a total ban on AI voices being used in robocall schemes in the U.S.

Election workers worry they will face threats of violence from voters who don't accept the polling results, a dynamic that might be fueled further by disinfo operations. 

Hackers seeking to harm election processes have mainly targeted campaign staff through emails, as well as identity-based attacks that abuse password recovery features to breach political media accounts or related targets. They have also attempted to disable election-facing sites that display voter information or turnout results, the analysis notes.

Targeted intrusion efforts like denial of service attacks that overload a website with traffic until it is disabled may also be expected. Notably, the most direct but least frequent effort would involve hacks into the software or hardware used to count and transmit votes.

Staff reductions of content moderators at social media companies are also named as a major risk to election integrity. 

Additionally, a pending Supreme Court case would consider whether Biden administration agencies have the ability to stay in contact with social media companies about removing posts that could display disinformation. The case was fueled by allegations that agencies such as the Cybersecurity and Information Security Agency were unfairly pressing for the removal of content related to vaccine safety and election results. CISA earlier this month published election security resources aimed at state and local governments, as well as election workers.

“The overall polarization of the political spectrum in many countries amid continuing economic and social issues will likely increase the susceptibility of those countries’ citizenries to IO — particularly IO campaigns targeted at reinforcing those individuals’ negative opinions of political opponents,” said CrowdStrike.