Russia and China have been the most prolific in using cyber means to interfere with foreign elections and referendums in the US, Europe and other countries, finds a new report by an Australian think tank.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute has identified 41 elections and seven referendums over the last decade where foreign interference was reported, with a “significant uptick” in such activity since 2017.
Such foreign interference has involved hacking operations – for instance, attempts to gain access to systems to plant bugs or for espionage purposes – as well as online misinformation campaigns that “covertly distort, confuse, mislead and manipulate targets through deceptive or inaccurate information,” wrote Sarah O’Connor, lead author of the report.
“Electronic and online voting, voter tabulation and voter registration systems are often presented as the main targets of cyber-enabled interference,” said Ms O’Connor.
“It is important to recognise that the level of trust the public has in the integrity of electoral systems, democratic process and the information environment is at stake.”
Russia is the worst actor, interfering in the most number of election and referendum cycles involving 26 states, focusing most efforts on Europe, including during last year’s EU parliament elections and referendums.
Russian-backed activity also played a role in the UK during the 2016 Scottish independence referendum, primarily in the form of disinformation campaigns.
This year, Moscow is interfering in the 2020 US election, including by sponsoring trolls to generate and disseminate false information on social media to Ghanaian and Nigerian nationals.
In previous years, Russia has been involved in phishing attacks in attempts to get into email accounts of US politicians and government officials, and efforts to tamper with online voting systems.
China’s foreign interference activity has increased significantly over the last two years, engaging in a Russian-style approach by seeding disinformation attacks and planting conspiracy theories, finds the report.
Beijing’s main target has been Taiwan, a democratically governed island of 23 million with its own military, currency, passport and foreign policy that Beijing has long considered a renegade province.
Attacks have been directed against president Tsai Ing-wen, with disinformation campaigns supporting her opponents and also hacking attempts targeting her political party.
In the last three years, China has expanded its efforts across the Indo-Pacific region, and is also now interfering in the US presidential election.
Google and Microsoft have both confirmed that state-backed hackers from China tried to gain access to personal email accounts of high-profile individuals linked to the election, including campaign staffers working for Joe Biden, notes the ASPI report.
All of this appears to be part of a broader strategy to defend its "core" national interests – maintaining stability for the ruling Chinese Communist Party, advancing economic development, exercising territorial claims and boosting power and influence globally – including by pressuring political figures that challenge those priorities.
Iran and North Korea have also sought to meddle in foreign elections, including the US presidential election, and are driven by an interest to counter or silence critics and discredit narratives that undermine national objectives.