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  • Daria Kosack

From Bytes to Bullets: Russian Information Operations and 2024 Electoral Interference

Image by Brett Sayles


In the face of evolving global political dynamics, the potential Russian interference in the upcoming 2024 US presidential elections has become a significant concern. Information resilience is a crucial aspect of our digital era. Humanity has reached a critical juncture where social media has become a weapon of war. Electoral campaign periods in democratic nations often provide fertile ground for disseminating false information online. This phenomenon underscores the pressing threat of foreign influence operations. 


Russia, particularly, has attempted to manipulate the US political decision-making process. Understanding the historical roots and evaluating the tactics of Russian influence operations is crucial. Lessons can be drawn from the 2016 and 2020 US presidential elections on the impact of such operations on democratic discourse, highlighting potential vulnerabilities and consequences for the upcoming election this November. 


New technologies have made Russia’s information efforts more accessible to implement than the propaganda campaigns that the Soviets conducted during the Cold War. In the 2016 US elections, Russian influence operations encompassed a multifaceted approach, ranging from disinformation campaigns on social media to cyber intrusions targeting electoral infrastructure. Efforts included hacking online voting systems alongside a cyberattack resulting in controlled email data leaks through Wikileaks. Moreover, pervasive social influence operations targeted US citizens with disinformation tactics designed to sway political influence and exacerbate social divisions in American culture.


While political parties leveraging media manipulation was not unprecedented in 2016, Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) executed a broad, well-funded, sophisticated social media campaign that began in 2014 and expanded each subsequent year. The IRA disseminated content across various platforms, including Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram, experimenting with content on select platforms and amplifying messages that resonated. Their messaging heavily relied on shareable memes to target specific groups, considering political orientation, religion, ethnicity, and location factors. Initially focused on fostering trust and group cohesion, these messages gradually shifted towards highlighting external threats to group identity.

As Russia’s IRA is well-versed in American history and culture, existing sociopolitical divisions are ripe for exploitation. Russia’s IRA experimented with content on select platforms and amplified messages that resonated. In 2016, the IRA targeted many issues and interests, aiming to sow divisions by targeting the political spectrum on both ends. The top issues most frequently discussed in the IRA’s campaigns consisted of race, US nationalism and patriotism, immigration, gun control, and LGBTQ+ issues. At the core of these endeavors is a broader strategy of disseminating falsehoods to sow confusion, push groups towards extreme viewpoints, and induce collective fatigue within American society.


The effects of false information on voter behavior and election outcomes encompass various consequences, such as voter confusion, which can lead to apathy or erroneous voting decisions. Exposure to false information also reduces support for candidates associated with fake news, decreased voter turnout, diminished political engagement, heightened polarization, and a deterioration of civil discourse. These trends frequently culminate in political tensions, confrontations, and a decline in trust in the electoral process.


In 2024, less than half of Americans expressed concern that news organizations might report inaccuracies or misinformation during the election. Additionally, while Americans who predominantly rely on social media for political news exhibit lower awareness and understanding of various news events and topics, they are more likely to have been exposed to several false or unverified claims than others. Moreover, Americans who primarily obtain political news from social media platforms tend to show less concern regarding the influence of fabricated news than those who rely on other platforms. 


Media and information literacy is an evidence-based strategy proven effective for combatting false information. The aim is to equip all students with media and digital literacy skills. The absence of such education is linked to a tendency to believe in debunked conspiracy theories. The importance of this becomes even more pronounced due to the growing trend of traditional news outlets adopting digital methods.


A US study reveals that most individuals did not receive formal education in critically analyzing media content during their schooling, particularly when assessing the news. Yet, respondents who received education on evaluating news articles were less inclined to embrace discredited conspiracy theories. Moreover, a general education in media literacy equipped participants with the necessary skills and knowledge to evaluate such prevalent theories critically.


Ultimately, the threat of Russian interference in the 2024 US presidential elections looms large, underscoring the critical importance of understanding and addressing the multifaceted challenges of information warfare. Social media has become a battleground for influencing public opinion. Russia’s tactics continue to evolve and adapt to exploit existing societal divisions and vulnerabilities. The consequences of such interference extend beyond immediate electoral outcomes, corroding the fabric of American democracy and eroding public trust in the electoral process. By investing in education and fostering critical thinking skills from an early age, societies can empower individuals to navigate the complexities of the digital landscape and resist manipulation.


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