Russia is starting to try to influence US presidential race, intelligence official says

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Russia has begun attempting to influence the outcome of the 2024 U.S. presidential election, a U.S. intelligence official said on Tuesday, with Moscow’s preferred candidate seemingly being former President Donald Trump.

“We are beginning to see Russia target specific voter demographics, promote divisive narratives and denigrate specific politicians,” an official from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told reporters during a press call.

“We have not observed a shift in Russia’s preferences for the presidential race from past elections, given the role the U.S. is playing with regard to Ukraine and broader policy toward Russia,” the official later added.

The clandestine community eventually concluded that the Kremlin’s efforts to sway the 2016 and 2020 presidential races were undertaken to tilt the contest in favor of Trump.

A second ODNI official told reporters “we have conducted outreach with the presidential campaigns and with the candidates.”

The first ODNI official said Moscow is ”using a variety of approaches to bolster its messaging and lend an air of authenticity to its efforts,” including outsourcing work to commercial firms to conceal its involvement. Influence actors are also planning to covertly use social media to amplify narratives in American swing states to diminish U.S. support for Ukraine.

In one instance, officials observed a Russian influence organization try to appeal to U.S. audiences through encrypted direct messaging channels — though the official did not specify which ones.

The assessment comes the same day as two other election security-related efforts by the federal government. 

In a statement, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said Iranian actors are penetrating pro-Gaza protests in the U.S.

“We have observed actors tied to Iran’s government posing as activists online, seeking to encourage protests, and even providing financial support to protesters,” according to Haines, who was pressed on the issue when she testified before the Senate in May.

Americans being targeted by Tehran’s campaign “may not be aware that they are interacting with or receiving support from a foreign government,” she noted. “We urge all Americans to remain vigilant as they engage online with accounts and actors they do not personally know.”

In addition, U.S. and international authorities seized a Russian artificial intelligence bot farm that spewed disinformation.

Speaking on the Tuesday call with the ODNI official, an FBI official described the action as “election adjacent,” noting one of the examples given by law enforcement was one of the bots commenting on a candidate’s post. Rather, much of the activity was “focused on Ukraine discussions and trying to produce a favorable outcome with respect to that for the Russian government.”

The ODNI official said Moscow’s approach to U.S. elections has become “more sophisticated” after the 2016 and 2020 cycles, including understanding that “targeting swing state voters is particularly valuable to them.”

“That doesn’t mean to say that they’re perfect or fully successful,” the official told reporters, adding the spy community doesn’t track the actual effectiveness of foreign influence campaigns.

“It’s more to just say that they recognize the limitations of their own approach.”

While Russia has started making moves against Election Day, China likely does not plan to influence the presidential race “for now” because “it sees little gain in choosing between two parties that it perceives as both seeking to contain Beijing,” the ODNI official said.

Still, Chinese officials will follow whether either major political party changes its platform or makes a particular statement that China believes is “significant enough to risk the potential blowback that they may face if they were to influence or seek to influence the election.”

U.S. officials are also watching if China might seek to influence select down ballot races, as it did in the 2022 midterm elections, ranging from the federal and state level all the way, potentially, to local contests, the ODNI official said.

In addition, Beijing is looking to expand its ability to collect and monitor data on all major U.S social media platforms “probably to better understand and eventually manipulate public opinion.”

Meanwhile, the official labeled Iran a “chaos agent” — a moniker used by another intelligence official last month.

The clandestine community will provide additional election security updates heading into November, including the 100-day mark later this month, as well as at 60 and 30 days out from Election Day.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Mark Warner (D-VA), who has been critical of the spy community’s public outreach efforts on election security, praised today’s briefing.

“There is no doubt that these updates – in addition to efforts by civil society and the private sector – will serve to better inform and prepare the public,” he said in a statement.

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Martin Matishak

is the senior cybersecurity reporter for The Record. Prior to joining Recorded Future News in 2021, he spent more than five years at Politico, where he covered digital and national security developments across Capitol Hill, the Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence community. He previously was a reporter at The Hill, National Journal Group and Inside Washington Publishers.

 

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