Dem, Media Claims About Foreign Election Meddling Are Overblown, Hard To Prove: Experts

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  • “Misinformation” spread through foreign internet influence campaigns will likely have a small impact on voting behavior in the 2022 midterm elections and is “challenging” to prove, despite claims from U.S. intelligence officials, Democrats and the media, experts told the Daily Caller News Foundation.
  • Democratic lawmakers sounded the alarm on Chinese and Russian “misinformation efforts” intended to suppress voter turnout and foster distrust in the U.S. election system in the lead-up to the midterms.
  • “Whether or not it changes voter behavior … I haven’t seen a lot of evidence in that regard,” Chuck DeVore, chief national initiatives officer at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, told the DCNF.

Foreign-backed “disinformation” efforts will have a marginal, if difficult to gauge, effect on how people vote in Tuesday’s midterm elections, experts told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

Federal officials have highlighted long standing concerns, especially among Democrats and the media, that propaganda and “misinformation” spread by foreign actors on the internet could alter voting patterns and undermine democracy in the U.S., according to Voice of America. While the extent to which such disinformation operations could influence whether and how someone votes in the 2022 midterm elections is difficult to quantify, the impact is small compared to other threats, experts told the DCNF. (RELATED: ‘Suspicious White Powder’ Sent To Kari Lake’s Campaign HQ, Prompting Police Response)

“The whole point with these autocratic regimes is they want Americans to distrust the process so they can tell their people, ‘you can think it’s bad here, but it’s no better in America,'” Chuck DeVore, chief national initiatives officer at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, told the DCNF. “Whether or not it changes voter behavior … I haven’t seen a lot of evidence in that regard.”

Concerns about dis- and misinformation have only magnified since evidence emerged of Russia’s attempts to meddle in the 2016 election and allegations — including since-debunked collusion claims —of further Russian information operations on behalf of former President Donald Trump.

In June and July, Democrats on the House Administration Committee held hearings on the “growing threat” of foreign and domestic “disinformation” they worried could disproportionately affect minority communities.

The result has been the lowering of the public’s trust and discouraging them from participating in the electoral process,” Philadelphia City Commissioners’ Chairwoman Lisa Deeley told the committee on June 22.

Politico warned Monday that foreign actors could weaponize lies about the elections, allegedly circulating en masse throughout right-wing online networks.

“That’s a really challenging one to pin an answer down,” Brian Cavanaugh, senior director for resilience policy within the National Security Council and Vandenberg Coalition Advisory Board member, said to the DCNF when asked how online misinformation affects voting behavior.

Several states, most of them Democrat-run, created anti-disinformation czars or new initiatives to combat supposed “disinformation” on right-wing and mainstream social media platforms ahead of the midterms, The New York Times reported in March.

Accounts linked to Russia’s Internet Research Agency, to which U.S. intelligence agencies have attributed internet influence campaigns in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, infiltrated Gab, Gettr and other social media platforms to stoke opposition to the Democratic Party, Voice of America reported. In July, the Department of Justice indicted a Russian national for hijacking political groups in Florida, Georgia and California to parrot Russian propaganda, “unlawfully sow division and spread misinformation” through March 2022.

U.S. intelligence officials warned in early October that China would likely seek to thwart the election of candidates “perceived to be particularly adversarial to Beijing,” The Associated Press reported.

Chinese actors have used false personas and fudged news articles spread over the internet in an attempt to dissuade Americans from voting and foster distrust in the U.S. political system, cybersecurity firm Mandiant revealed in October. Recently, Twitter and Meta took steps to disrupt thousands of China-tied posts and accounts targeting both sides of the isle, the Washington Post reported.

“It is difficult to prove directly that Chinese disinformation efforts have impacted U.S. citizens’ voting behavior,” Roslyn Layton, co-founder of China Tech Threat, told the DCNF.

However, foreign-backed internet influence operations will probably have a marginal effect on turnout, DeVore told the DCNF.

“There is a class of voter looking for an excuse not to vote, so anything that would discourage that group of people from voting would probably reduce turnout a small amount, but I don’t see it as being determinative,” he said.

As for influence campaigns intended to encourage voting, the vast ecosystem of political campaigns and millions domestic groups pour into political messaging drown out any foreign efforts, DeVore explained.

It would be much easier for a malign foreign actor to send threatening emails to poll workers across the country using stolen data, for example, or exploit vulnerabilities in the provisional systems that tally night-of results, DeVore added.

He pointed to his own experience in Harris County, which encompasses Houston, where the local election administrator lost the chain of custody for over 100,000 ballots. 

“Our own screw-ups, where the bureaucracy, the system that we have empowered to run our elections isn’t being run to the level you would expect” is a greater threat “by far,” said DeVore.

In addition, some research suggests that the perception of “misinformation” could reduce confidence in the American democratic system, even if that perception is not met by reality.

“Americans need to feel like they have the ability to speak out about how they feel about issues. It’s just getting increasingly hard to protect that freedom of speech in an environment where unverified users are able to manipulate public discourse,” said Cavanaugh.

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