With over 100 elections set to take place in at least 64 countries, 2024 is set to be the year of elections. However, the shadow of misinformation and disinformation looms large, threatening to manipulate public opinion and undermine the integrity of these elections. Previous elections including those in the United States (US) in 2020 and in the UK in 2019, have demonstrated how misinformation and disinformation can polarize public opinion and exacerbate political and societal tensions. Moreover, elections that have already taken place in 2024, including the Taiwan presidential election, the Indian general election and European Parliament election, highlight that the spread of misinformation and disinformation is not a new phenomenon, but one that continues to persist. As numerous countries prepare for elections this year, the potential for misinformation to influence outcomes remains a significant concern, underscoring the need for vigilance and proactive measures to protect the electoral process.

Examples of Misinformation and disinformation in previous elections

2020 US Presidential Election

The US faced considerable challenges maintaining the legitimacy and integrity of the 2020 presidential elections amid extensive misinformation and disinformation campaigns. False claims about COVID-19 origins, treatments, and mail-in ballots’ legitimacy significantly influenced election discussions. Conflicting narratives emerged, with some advocating for mask-wearing and mail-in voting, while others promoted anti-mask sentiments and voter fraud allegations.  Russia-affiliated actors played a crucial role in disseminating false information. 

The Wagner Group was reportedly found to be hiring workers in Mexico to spread divisive messages and misinformation online in the lead up to the elections. Similarly, Russia also targeted the presidential elections through a campaign which involved the use of social media platforms such as Gab, Gettr, Parler, and Truth Social, to spread political messages. Common narratives included allegations of voter fraud in the 2020. ‘Supersharers’ played a key role in disseminating misinformation and disinformation. A study by Science Magazine researchers determined that a sample of 2,107 supersharers were responsible for spreading 80% of content from fake news sites during the 2020 US presidential election.

2019 UK General Election

Misinformation and disinformation also played a significant role in the 2019 UK general election, prompting fact-checking organisations to act, with Full Fact publishing more than 110 fact checks to address the surge in false claims that flooded the election period. The Conservative Party faced considerable criticism for its use of misinformation and disinformation tactics, with one controversial incident involving the rebranding of the party’s X account to ‘FactCheckUK’ during a live televised debate, a move widely condemned as deceptive and misleading.

Already a divisive topic, Brexit was also the focus of multiple misinformation and disinformation campaigns during the 2019 UK general election. Claims about the economic repercussions, border control, migrant crisis, and trade agreements lacked verification and were often outright false. This barrage of misinformation further added to Brexit’s complexities and contributed to a polarised electorate. The spread of misinformation not only distorted public perception but also raised serious concerns about its impact on democratic processes, with Full Fact reporting that 77% of individuals believed truthfulness in UK politics had deteriorated since the 2017 general election.

Misinformation and disinformation in elections in the first half of 2024

Whilst there are many elections still to take place in 2024, it is essential to recognise the impact of key electoral events that have already unfolded, particularly those in Taiwan, India and the European Parliament. These elections, while concluded, have left a lasting imprint on the political landscape, as they were both marred by significant misinformation and disinformation campaigns.

Taiwan Presidential Election

In the run-up to the 2024 presidential election, Taiwan faced persistent threats of disinformation and misinformation from China and concerns over foreign interference. On January 9th, 2024, Mandiant’s head of cyber espionage analysis, Ben Read, warned of a significant increase in China-linked espionage operations targeting Taiwan’s government, technology, and critical infrastructure prior to the presidential elections. These operations aimed to infiltrate systems and post degrading statements, known as an ‘embarrassment campaign, to undermine Taiwan’s standing. Since May 2022, Taiwan was also targeted by a coordinated influence campaign that attempted to manipulate online conversations about Taiwanese politics prior to the 2024 presidential election. The campaign involved the dissemination of Chinese-language videos and memes about Taiwanese political parties across Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok. In addition to misinformation and disinformation campaigns, the Taiwanese presidential election was also targeted by a spear phishing campaign linked to the China-affiliated threat actor Earth Lusca. The campaign was active between December 2023 and January 2024, and leveraged geopolitical lures related to China-Taiwan relations to target and undermine trust in politically related entities.

India General Election

Misinformation and disinformation played a significant role in the general elections in India, particularly through the widespread use of WhatsApp. With over 400 million active users in the country, WhatsApp has emerged as India’s largest platform for political messaging and the dissemination of false information. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leveraged this platform extensively, operating a vast network of WhatsApp groups aimed at influencing voters through campaign messaging and propaganda. Rest of World researchers estimate that the BJP controls at least 5 million WhatsApp groups across India, allowing for rapid dissemination of information from Delhi to any location in the country within 12 minutes. Specifically, the BJP used WhatsApp to disseminate misinformation aimed at exacerbating existing religious and ethnic tensions. False information about election dates, polling locations, and voter ID requirements were also disseminated in an attempt to disenfranchise segments of the population. Independent hacktivists groups also targeted the elections in India, with groups including Anonymous Bangladesh, Morocco Black Cyber Army, and Anon Black Flag Indonesia aiming to take advantage of geopolitical narratives and tensions to influence the election.

European Parliament Elections

The European Parliament elections were heavily targeted by sophisticated misinformation and disinformation campaigns, with Russia seeking to influence public opinion and sow discord among European Union (EU) countries. Active since November 2023, the Pravda Russian disinformation network has targeted 19 EU countries, along with several non-EU states and nations outside of Europe, including Norway, Moldova, Japan and Taiwan. Pravda websites leverage Russian state-owned or controlled media such as Tass, Lenta, and Tsargrad, as well as Russian and pro-Russian Telegram accounts, to disseminate pro-Russian content. Furthermore, Vignium researchers uncovered a related Russia-based disinformation network, dubbed Portal Kombat, which comprised 193 fake news websites targeting Ukraine, Poland, France, Germany and other countries. The campaign aimed to influence the European Parliament elections by spreading false information such as claims about French soldiers operating in Ukraine, pro-Ukraine German politicians being Nazis, and Western elites supporting a global dictatorship intent on waging war with Russia. These efforts highlight the extensive and malicious strategies employed to manipulate public opinion and undermine the democratic processes across multiple nations.

Likewise, in January 2024, Germany was the target of a significant pro-Russian disinformation campaign, dubbed Doppelganger. Doppelganger disseminated propaganda and disinformation through news articles focussed on current socio-economic and geopolitical issues, aiming to influence public opinion prior to the European Parliament election. Doppelganger also utilized X accounts to coordinate activities, enhance visibility, and boost audience engagement, and has continued to grow in prominence as more elections in 2024 take place.

Mentions of the Doppelganger campaign from 01. January. 2024 to 12. June. 2024

The German Federal Foreign Office uncovered over 1 million German-language tweets sent from 50,000 fake user accounts targeting the German government. Additionally the campaign’s reach extended to news feeds relevant to the United States, France, Israel, and Ukraine, underscoring the sophisticated and widespread nature of the disinformation strategy aimed at influencing political landscapes across multiple countries.

The 2024 European Parliament elections were also targeted by cyberattacks carried out by self-proclaimed hacktivists, with parties such as the Christian Democratic Union of Germany and multiple Dutch political parties having their websites and networks attacked. Several pro-Russian hacker groups, including NoName057, People’s CyberArmy, Cyberdragon, CoupTeam, Root@kali, Usersec, 22C, and IAMKILLMILK, also announced plans to launch cyberattacks on European internet infrastructure to disrupt online voting. While these cyberattacks are not examples of misinformation and disinformation, they are likely to undermine trust in the legitimacy of the electoral system and process.

Despite the conclusion of the elections, the threat of misinformation and disinformation persists, with a disinformation crisis unit, established in April 2024, set to remain operational for weeks after the elections to counter anticipated attacks on the legitimacy of the European Parliament election results.

Elections still to come in 2024 – What have we seen and what to expect

2024 US Presidential Election

With many elections still to take place in 2024, evidence from previous elections indicates that misinformation and disinformation campaigns will again seek to influence public opinion. Similar to 2020, the 2024 US presidential election has already been the target of considerable misinformation and disinformation campaigns, with various false claims surrounding election fraud widely circulated. Research by Monmouth University revealed that almost one-third of US citizens believe the 2020 Presidential election was subject to fraud, with Donald Trump actively pushing the narrative to promote his candidacy. The promotion of such narratives is dangerous as they legitimise conspiracy theories and false claims, allowing them to become more commonplace in mainstream politics.

Artificial intelligence (AI) tools are likely to exacerbate the spread of misinformation and disinformation in the upcoming elections. Specifically, voters in New Hampshire were targeted by an audio deepfake pretending to be Joe Biden, urging them not to vote. Despite the Federal Communications Commission’s ban on AI-generated robocalls in February 2024, the impact of AI on the dissemination of misinformation remains significant. Various AI-generated images, such as Donald Trump being arrested and Joe Biden in a military uniform, have been circulated, with social media platforms doing little to moderate this content. These developments highlight the growing challenge of combating AI-driven disinformation and its potential to mislead voters and distort democratic processes.

Misinformation and disinformation surrounding ongoing geopolitical issues are also likely to have considerable implications on upcoming elections. The dissemination of misinformation and disinformation related to Pro-Palestinian protests and the Israel-Hamas war have been particularly concerning, with various pro-Palestinian voices on social media circulating false narratives. Some researchers observed Russia, China, and Iran promoting such pro-Palestinian influencers to sway public opinion and undermine Western democracies, with the Doppelganger campaign having shifted its focus to such narratives.

2024 UK General Election

Although announced only recently, the 2024 UK general election has also been targeted by AI-generated misinformation. TikTok has been particularly effective in spreading divisive and misleading content to young people, ranging from satirical videos involving Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer to serious claims that young people would be sent to fight in war zones in Ukraine and Gaza. These early instances of misinformation underscore the potential for widespread disinformation to influence voter perception and behaviour as the election approaches.

Mentions of disinformation related terms from 01. April. 2024 to 12. June. 2024

Consequently, we are again likely to witness an increase in sophisticated misinformation and disinformation efforts aimed at influencing the outcomes of upcoming elections. Such efforts are increasingly utilising AI-generated content to conduct coordinated campaigns on social media platforms, facilitating a toxic online environment vulnerable to exploitation.

So, what can be done about misinformation and disinformation in elections?

Although the influence of misinformation and disinformation is likely to persist in future elections, recent elections in Argentina, Canada, and Australia have employed new strategies to combat their effect. Prior to the 2023 general elections, Argentina’s National Electoral Chamber (CNE) collaborated with Meta to increase transparency in political campaigning on their platforms. The CNE also worked with WhatsApp to create a chatbot that provided accurate election information, offering a proactive solution to counter misinformation and disinformation by offering voters access to reliable information.

Additionally, Canada established a Social Media Monitoring Unit prior to the federal election in 2019, whilst the Australian Electoral Commission launched the ‘Stop and Consider’ campaign to reduce election-related disinformation in 2023. The influence of the ‘Stop and Consider’ campaign is particularly noteworthy, as it involved the use of YouTube and other social media channels to address electoral information almost in real-time.

While new election strategies in Australia, Canada, and Argentina show promise in mitigating the dissemination of misinformation and disinformation, past and contemporary elections demonstrate their malign influence continues to have a sustained effect on the electoral landscape. The rapid advancement of AI, coupled with social media companies’ struggle to control the dissemination of misinformation, means current countermeasures are largely ineffective. Nevertheless, investing in media literacy education offers a more impactful solution. Although it will not stop the creation of false content, equipping the public with critical thinking skills will help them challenge and resist misinformation. As innovation outpaces control, the fight against misinformation in elections will persist, requiring constant vigilance and adaptation. Ultimately, safeguarding electoral integrity depends on the ability of the public to critically analyse and resist the information they digest online.

This blog post was written using open-source intelligence gathered on the Silobreaker threat intelligence platform. If you would like to learn more about how Silobreaker can be leveraged for open-source investigations, please get in touch here.