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As the United States prepares for the upcoming 2024 presidential elections, it is imperative to address the growing threat of cyber disinformation. Cyber disinformation is a serious threat to democracy. It can undermine public confidence in the electoral process, and it can be used to manipulate voters and influence the outcome of elections. The recent US presidential and congress elections show that cyberspace is vulnerable against the foreign (by state and non-state actors) and domestic interference in the US electoral process. In 2016 elections, FBI report confirmed that Russia is behind varied digital meddling operations including cyber disinformation campaigns to influence to influence the outcome of the elections and undermine the US democracy and its political institutions. While in 2020, the Russian cyber operations continued including disinformation campaigns using internet and social media networks to influence the voters. In 2021/22, China also was accused in meddling in 2022 US midterm elections through the cyberspace including disinformation campaigns to influence the outcome of the elections and undermining the US institutions and political system.
The source of cyber disinformation campaigns to influence the voters and the outcome of the election could be conducted by both foreign and domestic actors. Interestingly, foreign actors such as Russia and China could have contradicted interests in the favorite winner. For instance, Russia might prefer the republican’s candidate Trump to be reelected as his approach based on “America first” could see less interest of America to support to Ukraine in its war with Russia. In contrast, China might prefer a democrat president that might be not aggressive as Trump was during his presidency between 2016-2020. Domestic actors that might be interested in launching cyber disinformation campaigns such as the political parties´-or-the candidates themselves to undermine the competitors´-or-even the national institutions and electoral system and process if they lost the elections as Trump did during after 2020 elections that led social media networks such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to suspend his accounts which is pushed Trump to create his own social network “Truth Social”.
Cyber information manipulation and cyber disinformation campaigns in particular, due to its wide and rapid impact could lead to a serious threat on the US national security. Such campaigns are usually designed to undermine public confidence in the election process, and it may have contributed to the violence that erupted at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. Such incidents, if not handled well by the authorities, could be a serious threat to national security as this false information could be spread fast and widely creating violence and instability in a polarized society.
Cyber disinformation techniques and capabilities evolve rapidly. So, if we add new technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), and deep fake technologies, countering cyber disinformation becomes more challenging.
Therefore, and as the intelligence agencies expect the foreign interference especially form Russia and China to continue their cyber attempts to influence the upcoming US elections. The US government must consider interference in its elections as a national security threat and develop a comprehensive strategy to counter such interference whether from external´-or-internal actors. Regardless of the validity Trump’s fraud allegations of 2020 elections, the US government must take the initiative to -restore- the public confidence in the electoral system and process by handling some issues in the elections process such as “votes of died citizens” in 2020 elections that even democrats admitted. The US government also can enhance the monitoring process in the ballot stations, including installing cameras and should handle controversial voting by mail.
This policy memo presents three options including pros and cons of each option for countering cyber disinformation in the US before 2024 elections:
Option 1: Promoting Cyber Literacy
The focus on educating the consumers of social media contents by promoting cyber literacy is a fundamental approach that will help to increase the citizens’ awareness of the cyber threats in general and on the national security. The pros of this option are: (i) Ability to reach out with most of the society. (ii) Create a public debate that increases awareness and knowledge exchange. (iii) It decreases the number and the cost of the cybercrimes and attacks. While the cons of this option are: (i) It might be costly and ineffective due to the gap of cyber literacy between the citizens. (ii) It takes time to convince and educate people on issues that might not be in their priorities. (iii) The cyber environment including cyber disinformation techniques and capabilities are evolving rapidly, therefore cyber literacy needs continuous awareness follow up.
Option 2: Increase Funding to the State Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC)
GEC, which is specialized in combating foreign disinformation is the most expert agency in countering foreign cyber disinformation and investing in its staff and capabilities is vital for protecting the US form such interference. The pros of this option are: (i) It’s an investment in the national capabilities. (ii) Experts are the most capable to counter foreign cyber dissemination. (iii) Increases on time detection and responses. While the cons of this option are: (i) Increasing funds alone won’t guarantee effectiveness. (ii) It takes time as bureaucratic process and might face disagreement. (iii) Covers the foreign interference only, domestic cyber dissemination not within GEC mandate.
Option 3: Close Cooperation with Social Media Networks
Social media networks are the main platforms of spreading cyber disinformation and close cooperation and exchange information will help to remove disinformation from their platforms and developing new tools to counter cyber disinformation effectively. The pros of this option are: (i) Promotes partnership between public and private sectors experts. (ii) Enhancing transparency and monitoring mechanisms of social media platforms which create mutual trust. (iii) Close cooperation allows establishing mechanisms for reporting and swift takedown of misleading content can minimize the impact of disinformation campaigns during critical election periods. While the cons of this option are: (i) It could harm citizens’ privacy and liberties. (ii) It could create disagreement´-or-contradict interests on judging contents. (iii) Social media networks might be reluctant´-or-late in sharing information.
Conclusion and Recommendation:
The US democracy is facing a serious challenge in front of its citizens and the world. The upcoming 2024 presidential elections are a critical time for the government to take action to counter foreign and domestic cyber disinformation. To effectively counter cyber disinformation in the US, a combination of the above options is recommended.
Countering cyber disinformation is crucial for upholding the integrity of the democratic process in the US. By adopting a comprehensive approach that combines the three options, the United States can build a more resilient society and mitigate the impact of disinformation on the upcoming 2024 presidential elections and beyond.