The 2020 presidential election cycle was abnormally long, with chaos, debate about the outcome, and an insurrection before it finally concluded—at least officially—on inauguration day in January 2021. Now just over a year later, the United States must shift to prepare for the defense of yet another election: the 2022 midterms.
Midterm elections present a complicated target environment for foreign manipulators because, unlike presidential elections, there is no single candidate who can significantly alter U.S. foreign policy. But interference opportunities remain, and adversaries have the potential to advance their strategic objectives—including but certainly not limited to undermining U.S. opposition to Russia’s war in Ukraine—through a campaign meant to create further turbulence within U.S. democracy.
The United States has now experienced persistent electoral interference since 2016, with the most prominent and potentially damaging interference arising from an often opportunistic but sometimes deliberate triad of authoritarian regimes: Russia, Iran, and China. Each has demonstrated an interest and commitment to online influence operations targeting U.S. audiences. Russia, the most well-known foreign manipulator, spearheaded election interference techniques through its active measures campaigns beginning in 2014 and going through the 2016 election. But since that election, a wide set of actors—including other authoritarian nation states and an array of advanced persistent manipulators (APM)—have blurred the lines between nation states and non-state actors, foreign and domestic interference, and online and in-person manipulation.
Today, Russia remains the principle state interfering in U.S. elections, but with their attention diverted by their war in Ukraine and their ability to influence, at least overtly, degraded by the closing of RT America, it remains to be seen if they have the resources to mount a sustained influence campaign. Russia also met challenges from the U.S. government and social media companies in both the 2018 and 2020 elections, resulting in lesser effects and higher costs. Iran, on the other hand, accelerated its election interference in 2020. Unable to tip the vote to a preferred outcome, Iran pursued a blend of cyber and social media operations to incite conflict in the United States, including by disseminating emails masquerading as the far-right group The Proud Boys to stoke conflict at polling places and undermine confidence in the security of voting systems, and by impersonating Senator Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq war veteran, to push a hoax claiming she had blamed the destruction of a navy ship on “Black extremists.” Separately, Iran established “Enemies of the People,” a covert website that doxxed public officials who were known opponents of former President Trump. In each case, Iran imposed mild costs by stoking chaos around the U.S. election. China, despite some accusations from Trump administration officials, “did not employ interference efforts and considered but did not deploy influence efforts intended to change the outcome of the U.S. presidential election,” according to an Intelligence Assessment released on March 10, 2021.
Before diving into the possibilities of election interference in 2022, we should remember that foreign adversaries interfere in Western elections for a reason, not for fun. Routinely over the last five years, analysts have claimed that election interference is cheap for U.S. adversaries; it is a cost effective, asymmetric method to impose costs on Washington. This is true when compared to standing up and sustaining militaries, but conducting malign influence is not free to these countries, all of which face resource challenges in one form or another and therefore must make tradeoffs. For example, Iran, due to U.S. sanctions, struggles to access U.S. audiences through media outlets and clearly lacks the manpower and resources to produce sufficient overt content. Russia’s state sponsored media outlets provide a remarkable range and depth in overt coverage, but public reporting suggests Russia has finite amounts of covert troll farm workers with requisite language experience. China’s massive investments in full spectrum media around the world offer volumes of content, but the reach of their message remains limited by their dearth of convincing messengers. This is a weakness the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) currently seeks to offset in the global information environment but has yet to overcome within the United States. All three of these authoritarian adversaries of the United States must undertake a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether the gains of election interference and influence outweigh the costs—which include the financial burden of the operations as well as the potential counteractions imposed by the United States if the interference is discovered to be significant.
What Is Foreign Election Interference? Degrees and Differences
Electoral interference comes in several forms depending on the adversary’s capabilities and objectives. The most dangerous is the employment of cyberattacks to disrupt the conduct of the election or change the vote. The United States has steadily improved its defenses in this regard since 2016, but with decentralized elections administered at the local level, the ability to scan, detect, and disrupt at a national level is daunting.
Close behind cyberattacks are cyber manipulations that aim to mobilize and incite violence—a tactic successfully executed by Russia several times in the lead up to the 2016 election and innovatively attempted by Iran in the 2020 election.
The preponderance of electoral interference, as commonly discussed in the media, refers to information operations aimed at influencing votes and/or the outcome of an election. In this regard, Russia remains the only country with the track record and ability to infiltrate and nudge audiences in a targeted way; they do this through hack-and-leaks, overt propaganda, and covert disinformation, as was evidenced in the 2016 election. But Russia’s ongoing aggression in Ukraine has severely damaged its ability to influence U.S. audiences through overt channels, both due to private industries’ restrictions on Russian state media and its own decision to shutter RT America, its most influential U.S. outlet. Its covert capabilities remain a threat, though to what extent is unclear given the diversion of resources and attention to Ukraine. Iran and China lack the supply of content, audience access, or even a preferred candidate to push towards the finish line in the way that Russia can and does—at least for presidential elections.
As we seek to anticipate and deter electoral interference in 2022, we should consider each adversary’s track record and modus operandi, but also take note that this year’s U.S. contest is for congressional seats—a more difficult challenge for foreign meddlers. Presidential elections remain easier to influence because the focus is on a single race, the electoral college clearly maps out the decisive points in the contest, and exhaustive public polling and deliberation about the contest’s outcome are broadcast in all media types for a year or more, offering free reconnaissance for any foreign manipulator.
Midterm Elections: A Tougher Target than Presidential Contests
Local and statewide candidates, their boundaries, and the issues that matter to different voting precincts represent a tough challenge for Russia, Iran, or China to understand and navigate. Due to heavy gerrymandering in some states, the normal differential in voting between parties can easily be in excess of 10 percent, making any influence activity seeking to tip a congressional election improbable. From the foreign manipulators’ perspective, polling would have to be within the margin of error to justify the costs in time and money to push for one congressperson’s victory. The question then becomes, why interfere in a midterm election?
Presidential elections are about people: a single candidate can shape U.S. national security priorities, deploy military force, or issue economic punishments against adversaries. Congressional races are about policy and money, namely through actions that a member of Congress might influence, depending on their committee assignments, that lead to favorable economic or foreign policy outcomes for a foreign country. With so many electoral contests in play, authoritarian adversaries would need to nimbly select where to focus their electoral interference to achieve a beneficial outcome.
Foreign Interference Election 2022: Different Goals and Different Opportunities
The 2022 midterm elections will likely be different from the 2020 election in four major ways. The first difference is the Chinese government’s interest level: Russia cares about interfering in U.S. presidential elections, China less so. But with the United States’ purse strings up for grabs, the CCP may be more inclined to wield its influence to promote candidates favorable to its economic and political interests. The second difference is the likely continuation of a messaging trend observed in previous election influence campaigns by foreign adversaries—namely that U.S. domestic issues and divisiveness will feature prominently in messaging and even cyber activity. Propaganda, disinformation, and cyber-fueled operations will play off of our turmoil at home, seeking to further enrage Americans using our own divisions. The third difference is the war in Ukraine, which has created a clear incentive for Russia to interfere, while simultaneously damaging its informational capabilities. The final difference is the role of Iran, which, as previously noted, was the surprise player in election 2020. Without a clear political objective, Iran will likely have a lesser role to play, though it may still seek to opportunistically create election chaos. In summary, the midterm election for China is about economics and tech; for Russia it’s a continuation of years of political warfare energized by its war in Ukraine; and for Iran it’s an opportunity to amplify U.S. social fissures and potentially sow chaos closer to or on election day.
For China, midterms are as valuable as presidential elections.
China’s interests in the 2020 election were more about its global agenda rather than a preference for which candidate won. As Trump versus Biden debates raged in the United States, the CCP pushed its agenda globally, seeking to re-write the history of COVID-19’s origins, denigrate Hong Kong protestors, deny Uyghur mass detentions, and elevate China’s authoritarian approach as superior to Western democracy. Two consistent areas of interest persist in China’s messaging to the West: economics and technology. These focal points should guide the United States’ concerns about potential election interference in congressional races, as Congress has the power to determine U.S. government spending and regulations for U.S. trade and technology. It is therefore in Beijing’s interest to have members of Congress on any committee related to commerce, trade, and technology who hold, if not friendly, at least sympathetic views towards China. Separately, the CCP would ideally like to sideline any China hawks that threaten war over Taiwan or the sanctioning of China’s tech powerhouses, like Huawei. Thus, if the CCP wanted to sustain their influence in a midterm, they’d likely focus on congressional candidates with outsized influence in Big Tech, trade negotiations, or overseas manufacturing.
When it comes to election interference, where Russia is strong, China is weak, and vice versa. China lacks the message and messengers to tip the outcome of a difficult-to-calculate congressional race. Only in districts with a substantial Chinese-speaking diaspora would the CCP be able to reach U.S. audiences and potentially message to undermine a China hawk or elevate someone willing to negotiate with China on tech or trade. Separately, China has thus far not shown much inclination towards hacking-and-leaking candidate secrets. Even if they did steal privileged information, it remains unclear how they would launder it into the U.S. audience space in a way that could change an electoral outcome. The only, and potentially small, openings the CCP might pursue in the information space would be the contracting of social media influencers to tout or suppress candidates, the opening of Chinese language news sites with reach into U.S. diaspora communities, and perhaps the creation of inauthentic social media groups that help elevate support for a couple preferred candidates or members of Congress on essential congressional committees.
But China has a strength where Russia does not: money. The CCP may overtly seek to degrade some opponents in the information space, but it’s more likely that interference might arise from financial donations to campaigns or the insertion of directed agents into the staff of campaigns, candidates, and congressmembers (for example, see the FBI’s disruption of an alleged Chinese spy targeting California politicians). Detecting foreign interference in a midterm election should focus as much on campaign contributions, corporate cutouts, and digital currency transfers from overseas as on spotting bots on Twitter or rooting out fake news sites. China’s money can do far more to affect the outcome of a midterm race than a swarm of inauthentic social media posts and fake profiles.
Russia has four goals during the midterms: sustain a U.S. audience, elevate supporters, defeat detractors, and, above all, find candidates and voters supportive of its invasion of Ukraine.
Prior to their war in Ukraine, the 2022 congressional election offered Russia few beneficial opportunities beyond sustaining and cultivating a sympathetic audience they could potentially leverage heading into the 2024 presidential election—a political contest in which the United States should absolutely expect Kremlin interference. But Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine—and the United States’ critical role in opposing it—has created an obvious incentive for Russia to subvert U.S. democracy. Its current capabilities, however, are less clear. According to an April 22 Department of Homeland Security bulletin, Russia’s adventurism in Ukraine “has spurred Western governments, social media companies, and individuals to limit or disengage from Russian state media outlets, likely degrading many outlets’ ability to directly message to Western audiences through 2022.”
Without the ability to overtly reach a large swatch of the American public, Kremlin political warfare in 2022, if it were to occur at all, would likely focus on a small number of congressional candidates. Russian President Vladimir Putin and his information armies might attempt, in particularly tight electoral contests, to boost ”fellow travelers,” office holders, and candidates that a) are particularly sympathetic to Russia’s foreign policy agenda and national security goals, b) advance Kremlin disinformation about Ukraine, or c) are against military and humanitarian aid packages that support Ukraine.
We’ve seen Russia enter the local political fray in each of the last two election cycles. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher of California in 2018 offers one example where the Kremlin may have undertaken actions to keep a longtime U.S. congressman in office. Two years later, an alternative information outlet known as the Strategic Culture Foundation, which has been connected to Russia’s foreign intelligence services, published an article online that was placed into a local Yonkers, New York newspaper maligning Democratic congressional candidate Evelyn Farkas, a former deputy assistant director of defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia, prior to her Democratic primary. If the past is a representation of the future, the Kremlin’s interest in 2022 would likely extend to no more than a small number of competitive congressional races where a supporter might be elevated or detractor undermined. The congressional races would need to be close, likely no more than a 2-3 percent margin between the competitors, meaning the primaries might be an equal or better opportunity for the Kremlin to achieve their preferred outcome rather than the general election.
Even then, if the Kremlin were interested in boosting a fellow traveler or opponent, tipping the outcome of a congressional vote through covert social media messaging or gray area outlets will be extremely difficult. The most effective way for Russia or any foreign manipulator to change the outcome of a congressional race would be through the employment of targeted hacking that results in the dumping of information that could tarnish a campaign. Russia has repeatedly employed this approach to malign detractors, as evidenced by their attacks on the Democratic National Committee, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and many other public figures in 2016 (and their alleged attempts to strike the Ukrainian energy firm Burisma in 2020). Compared to Iran and China, Russia remains the only country willing and able to undertake surgical hacks to influence political outcomes.
Regardless of what Russia, Iran, or China seek to do in the 2022 midterm elections, we should remember that the U.S. government and Silicon Valley social media companies have gotten much better at spotting and disrupting election interference. As long as these efforts expand upon the incremental improvements made in election defense the last two election cycles, while taking into consideration how the influence battlespace has changed and may continue to change prior to the upcoming election, foreign interference in 2022—at least in the information space—likely won’t be as worrisome as it was in past elections.