How Russia and China are Trying to Influence the 2024 Election


Although Russia and China eye each other suspiciously over their shared border, they do have a common interest: to clip the American eagle’s wings. Their shared goal of having America retreat from the world stage also aligns with the Republican party’s support of an America First isolationist foreign policy.

Both countries are using “soft power” to try to manipulate our democratic election process – to usher out a liberal Democratic administration and replace it with a conservative GOP administration that benefits their economic interests and foreign policies. In other words, getting what they want without the use of coercion or force.  

Both countries, as well as the U.S., also haven’t hesitated to use “hard power” to pursue regime change. Russia, whether as a monarchy, a communist state, or an autocracy, has repeatedly intervened in Eastern Europe and the Caucuses. China is waiting for an opportunity to get its hands on Taiwan. And America has repeatedly pursued efforts to replace the leadership of countries that obstruct our military and economic interests, especially in Central and South America.
The U.S. dominates in this regard. Despite Russia’s more extensive nuclear arsenal, it is weaker economically and militarily than China or the U.S. But China has a larger army and an economy that is growing faster than ours. They lack our military presence (about 750 U.S. military bases in more than 80 countries) and our financial clout (the dollar, the world’s reserve currency, allowing the U.S. to impose unilateral, effective sanctions against other countries).
In the last few years, Russia in particular, and increasingly China, are getting more sophisticated in their use of “soft power.” They have been effective at penetrating our democracy’s open portal of social media to support electing politicians who advance their goals. And in this regard, America cannot defend itself as easily. Russia and China tightly control access to their domestic internet and they do not hold democratic elections.

Russian electoral interference first came to light in the 2016 presidential election. In a bipartisan 2020 report, the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded that Russia had conducted a sophisticated and aggressive campaign to influence the U.S. election to help Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton. They also identified associates of Donald Trump who were willing to accept help from the Russians. 
Subsequently, former FBI director Robert Mueller led a special counsel investigation and released his Mueller Report. It concluded that Russian interference was “sweeping and systematic” and “violated U.S. criminal law.” Mueller then indicted three Russian organizations, which also led to the indictments and convictions of Trump campaign officials. Trump called Mueller a “true never-Trumper” and said his report was “horrible.”

Mueller showed that the Russian-controlled Internet Research Agency (IRA) sought to “provoke and amplify political and social discord in the United States” to Trump’s advantage. In the 2016 election, sham Facebook groups were created by the IRA supporting Trump and attacking Clinton in more than 3,500 advertisements. Other research identified 470 phony Facebook accounts tied to Russia that were active during the 2016 campaign. Six of them were shared at least 340 million times. 
A 2018 Brookings Institute report found that “For now, there is no public evidence that China has sought to leak private information or access electoral systems to manipulate U.S. elections.”

But after losing reelection in 2020, Trump accused China of manipulating the vote. A 2021 report released by Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines found otherwise, concluding that China “considered but did not deploy influence efforts intended to change the outcome of the U.S. Presidential election.” But the Russians did, according to Haines, with an influence campaign “denigrating” President Biden and “supporting” Trump.
This year, China and Russia are both working to influence the outcome of the 2024 presidential race. For instance, this month, an Institute for Strategic Dialogue report identified a Chinese influence campaign known as “Spamouflage.”It uses AI and a network of social media accounts to amplify American discontent and division ahead of the U.S. presidential election. 
Meta announced that just in the second quarter of 2023 it removed nearly 8,000 accounts attributed to Spamouflage. Google, which owns YouTube, said it shut down more than 100,000 associated accounts in recent years, 
By describing the U.S. as rife with urban decay, homelessness, fentanyl abuse, and gun violence, China pushes the idea that the November vote could damage and potentially destroy our democracy. Not coincidentally, this is the same message that Republican party’s candidates are using against the Democrats. For example, in a March 2024 speech to Ohio supporters, Trump said: “If we don’t win this election, I don’t think you’re going to have another election in this country.” 

China’s efforts seek to amplify a distrust of big government held by many Americans. Recent surveys by the Pew Research Center found that more than half of Americans are angry with the U.S. political system. 
More disturbing, a recent PRC survey showed that support for democratic institutions has slipped over the last decade. The report said 32 percent of Americans would support a form of governance led by a “strong leader” or the military without interference from Congress or the courts.

These efforts by Russia and China underscore the threat posed by authoritarian leaders who use digital media to distribute false, hateful, and violent materials. According to a report by the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights on the upcoming elections, this inflammatory content is also more prevalent now because “major social media platforms have retreated from some of their past commitments to promote election integrity.”
Russia is getting quite creative in weaving false information  into the tapestry of our media landscape. The New York Times has reported on a string of Russian-controlled fake news websites with names like D.C. Weekly, the New York News Daily, the Chicago Chronicle, and the Miami Chronicle that create the impression of legitimate local news organizations. The NYT wrote that these entities push the Kremlin propaganda agenda by including some authentic news stories with false stories about crime, politics, and culture.

According to Professors Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren, co-directors of Clemson University’s Media Forensics Hub, Russia has also crafted the art of narrative laundering. These narratives spread false or misleading information by concealing their source. One such effort led to The Nation picking up a fake story about Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s wife spending $1,000,000 on Cartier jewelry. 
At the end of March, blogger Heather Cox Richardson identified an essay from the Study of War explaining how Russia’s disinformation operation is key to winning the war against Ukraine: the objective is to get Americans to believe in a false reality.  

There’s no doubt that November voters will be deluged with an onslaught of disinformation.
And as Clemson’s Linvill and Warren conclude, it is becoming more difficult for people to discern which news stories are fake because advancing technology can distort reality.

As previously noted, Russia and China cannot win a global economic or military
contest with America. However, they can create social conditions within America that pose a serious threat to our democratic process.

America has had a peaceful transfer of executive power for more than three centuries.
But in March, during a CNN town hall, Trump refused to commit to accepting the results of the 2024 presidential election. As he has claimed so many times before, Trump said the last election was rigged despite no proof that it was. Unfortunately, more than 40 percent of Republicans believe there is evidence that Biden didn’t legitimately win enough votes to be elected.

Thus, Trump has again set the stage to claim the presidency was stolen from him if he loses the November election. And this time, he is warning of “a blood bath for the country” if the outcome isn’t to his liking. Russia and China would like to see his supporters taking to the streets, posing a further threat to the American eagle, the symbol of fundamental American values like unity, freedom, and self-determination.

Nick Licata
Nick Licata
Nick Licata, was a 5 term Seattle City Councilmember, named progressive municipal official of the year by The Nation, and is founding board chair of Local Progress, a national network of 1,000 progressive municipal officials. Author of Becoming a Citizen Activist. Subscribe to Licata’s newsletter Urban Politics


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