US intel officials warn Russia plans to target swing states in 2024 election with influence operations

Jul 9, 2024, 6:18 PM

Voters arrive to cast their ballots at the Phoenix Art Museum on November 8, 2022, in Phoenix, Ariz...

Voters arrive to cast their ballots at the Phoenix Art Museum on November 8, 2022, in Phoenix, Arizona. (Kevin Dietsch, Getty Images, File via CNN Newsource)

(Kevin Dietsch, Getty Images, File via CNN Newsource)

(CNN) — Russian operatives and propagandists are planning to “covertly use social media” in an attempt to sway public opinion and undermine support for Ukraine in swing states during the 2024 US elections, US intelligence officials said on Tuesday.

“We are beginning to see Russia target specific voter demographics, promote divisive narratives and denigrate specific politicians,” an official from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence told reporters in a call conducted on the condition that the official not be named.

Russia’s preference for presidential candidate

Russia is “undertaking a whole-of-government approach to influence the election, including the presidential race, Congress and public opinion,” the official said, adding that Russia’s preference for US presidential candidates has not changed from previous election cycles.

The official declined to elaborate, but US intelligence previously assessed that in the 2020 US election, Russia conducted a range of influence operations to denigrate Joe Biden’s candidacy and support Donald Trump’s candidacy.

Tuesday’s briefing was perhaps the clearest public statement yet from US intelligence agencies on their assessment of how Russia, China and Iran may try to influence a highly polarized American public during a 2024 election.

“Russia is a preeminent threat. Iran is a chaos agent, and China is holding fire on the presidential race,” the ODNI official said.

“We assess China, for now, does not plan to influence the outcome of the presidential race, because it sees little gain in choosing between two parties that it perceives as both seeking to contain Beijing,” the official said.

Countries deny influence

All three countries have denied trying to interfere in or influence US elections.

ODNI officials did not reveal many specific examples of what they see as Russian election influence activity, but they said it has included familiar tactics such as amplifying influential US voices online to promote the Kremlin’s agenda.

Artificial intelligence is making the job easier. AI allows Russian operatives to mimic an American Southern or Midwestern accent in ways that native Russian speakers would fail to, the ODNI official said.

Separately on Tuesday, the Justice Department announced the disruption of nearly a thousand social media accounts that officials said Russia operatives were using to pose as US residents and parrot Kremlin propaganda about the war in Ukraine.

Iran, meanwhile, “seeks to stoke social divisions and undermine confidence in the US democratic institutions around the elections,” the ODNI official said at the press briefing. “Iran has demonstrated a longstanding interest in exploiting US political and social tensions through a variety of means, including social media.”

Iran is attempting to covertly stoke protests in the United States related to the conflict in Gaza, US Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said in a statement on Tuesday.

China’s ‘unwieldy’ foreign influence apparatus

Historically, China has shown less interest than Russia in sowing divisions among Americans during US elections, according to intelligence officials. But there have been recent indications that Chinese operatives have become more willing to directly target American voters.

Since 2020, senior Chinese officials have issued broad directives to Chinese operatives to “intensify efforts to influence US policy and public opinion in China’s favor,” and senior Chinese officials have aimed to “magnify US societal divisions,” according to a US intelligence assessment declassified in December. Those influence efforts have included using fake social media accounts to attack US politicians online.

The subject has become a source of tension in US-China relations. Chinese leader Xi Jinping told US President Joe Biden that China would not interfere in the 2024 US presidential election when the two men met in November, CNN previously reported.

But US officials have been skeptical of Xi’s ability to control the vast Chinese bureaucracy when it comes to potential election influence efforts.

“Even if Beijing sets limits on its activities … the PRC’s influence apparatus is very large and at times unwieldy, and individuals that are not under its direct supervision may attempt to influence election activities that they perceive are in line with Beijing’s goals,” the ODNI official said Tuesday, using an acronym for the Chinese government.

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US intel officials warn Russia plans to target swing states in 2024 election with influence operations