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Worldwide, 2024 elections are a target for bad actors trying to disrupt democracy

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

2024 will be a record year for voting. Billions of people all around the world are expected to head to the polls. Among others, India, Mexico, Taiwan, South Africa, the European Parliament and, of course, the U.S. will hold major elections. As NPR's Shannon Bond reports, these elections are a ripe target for bad actors bent on disrupting democracy.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Last summer and fall, thousands of Facebook accounts claiming to be Americans started weighing in on U.S. politics and foreign affairs. But their posts were weird, says Ben Nimmo, who leads global threat intelligence at Facebook's parent company, Meta.

BEN NIMMO: They had very peculiar markers. Like, some of them were marked as retweets. Retweeting is not a thing that happens on Facebook, but it happens on Twitter. And what these accounts had been doing was copy-pasting the content of tweets by real Americans and then posting them onto Facebook.

BOND: The accounts were pretty obviously fake. They were being operated from China, not the U.S. And another thing stood out - they didn't take sides. They copied posts from both Republican and Democratic politicians. Nimmo says the goal may have been to build an audience here in America.

NIMMO: So it might just be a preparatory stage. It might also be that they are trying to push on really emotive issues to drive the two sides further apart.

BOND: This Chinese operation wasn't successful. Facebook took down almost 5,000 fake accounts and said their posts had not reached real people. But Nimmo says it's a preview of what to expect in 2024. State actors, including China, Russia and Iran, are expected to target voters in many countries to promote their own interests and exacerbate divisions.

NIMMO: It shows that foreign threat actors are trying to hijack authentic partisan narratives in the countries they're targeting.

BOND: Those aren't the only threats that have tech companies, civil society groups and government officials on edge. Far-right movements are on the rise in Europe, Latin America and the U.S. The wars in Ukraine and Gaza are fueling geopolitical tensions. And the social media platforms themselves have backed off some of their efforts to police false and misleading claims. Layoffs have also left their trust and safety teams diminished.

NORA BENAVIDEZ: It really feels like the perfect storm.

BOND: Nora Benavidez is senior counsel at the media advocacy group Free Press.

BENAVIDEZ: We're going to have 40-ish determinative national elections next year. Over 2 billion people globally will be voting or at least have the option to vote, and social media is still such a pervasive and common way that people get information.

BOND: Over the years, companies like Meta have become more aggressive at cracking down on foreign threats, focusing on how they exploit their platforms, such as by breaking rules against impersonation. But as that Chinese operation shows, foreign actors often seize on domestic narratives. And political figures and their supporters in the countries they target may knowingly or unknowingly pick up false claims pushed by outside forces. Katie Harbath spent a decade working on public policy and elections at Facebook.

KATIE HARBATH: It's not like you have foreign interference over here and domestic stuff here. They are intertwined.

BOND: Researchers tracking election discussions online say narratives and tactics are increasingly crossing borders. Felix Kartte is European Union director at Reset, a London-based nonprofit.

FELIX KARTTE: Same types of content, same types of narratives, similar tools being used by actors ranging from Russian state-sponsored accounts on social media to extremists in countries like Germany, France, Spain and, of course, U.S. alt-right actors as well.

BOND: That includes misleading claims about election fraud, echoing former President Donald Trump's big lie that the 2020 U.S. election was stolen. Ahead of Brazil's 2022 presidential contest, incumbent Jair Bolsonaro spent months sowing distrust in the results. After he lost, his supporters stormed Brazil's capital. Recently, as Argentina and Spain held national elections, some candidates and their supporters also made baseless claims of fraud. Harbath says that's her biggest worry for 2024.

HARBATH: If there's one thing that people need to have trust in, it's that process and that they think that it's free and fair.

BOND: If we lose that, she says, democracy is in trouble.

Shannon Bond, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.