From the meddling of the Russian Intelligence Research Agency (IRA) in the 2016 US elections to a hack and leak operation targeting Emmanuel Macron, whose design and timing showed a determination to disrupt the election, several spectacular attempts at electoral interference have made the headlines in recent years.
On the heels of the German federal election and in the lead-up to the French presidential election, in an era where disinformation has become a common political strategy, Nicolas Hénin, an EU DisinfoLab External Researcher focuses on verified cases of foreign interference during elections that involved disinformation.
A distinction is commonly made between state and non-state actors. As for the latter, a further nuance should be introduced between truly non-state actors and actors that could be described as “sub-state” or “para-state”, namely that are not structurally dependent on a state but have interests very close to those of the state, and are either associated with it or act as its proxy. In this category fall the electoral interference attempt of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in the US 2020 elections, and the clandestine operations conducted by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a controversial businessman associated with Russian president, Vladimir Putin.
Henin explains that not all electoral interferences come from abroad. In the latest report published by Facebook on assets taken down for coordinated inauthentic behaviour (CIB), many concern political disinformation around “highly-targeted civic events like elections” that often originate in the target country, suggesting that election disinformation in the 2020 US Presidential election was broadly a domestic issue.
A good standard to assess the degree of publicity of foreign electoral interferences is offered by the Australian Department of Home Affairs, which considers “foreign influence” and “foreign interference”. The former consists of open and transparent activities conducted by governments to influence certain matters. An example is President Erdogan’s call for German citizens of Turkish descent not to vote for the coalition led by chancellor Merkel during the 2017 parliamentary election, while labelling Germany’s three main political parties as “enemies of Turkey”.
Foreign interference on the other hand includes “activities going beyond routine diplomatic influence practised by governments, that may take place in isolation or alongside espionage activities” (European Parliament, 2020). This definition draws a line between some visible soft power strategies, e.g. making openly supportive partisan statements, and interference, e.g. tampering with the authenticity of the democratic debate, relying on hidden actors or proxies, behaving in an inauthentic manner, and propagating doctored or fabricated material.
A 2019 European Parliament resolution framed the notion of foreign interference in elections as part of a broader strategy of hybrid warfare that affects the right of citizens to participate in the formation of a government. Therefore, this is a complex, multi-stakeholder issue that should be addressed through the frames of counter-disinformation, security, and foreign policy.