China showed “greater willingness” to influence U.S. midterm elections in 2022, intel assessment says

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Washington — China intensified its efforts to influence political processes in the United States during the 2022 midterm elections, according to a newly released declassified assessment, which suggested Beijing may perceive a growing benefit to exploiting divisions in American society.  

The 21-page assessment, released Tuesday by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said the Chinese government “tacitly approved efforts to try to influence a handful of midterm races involving members of both US political parties.” The specific races were not identified in the report, which also said China believed Congress would maintain an “adversarial” view of Beijing regardless of which party was in power.  

The 2022 findings appear to mark a shift in Beijing’s calculus regarding U.S. elections. A similar intelligence assessment released after the 2020 presidential election found that China “did not deploy interference efforts and considered but did not deploy influence efforts intended to change the outcome of the US Presidential election,” judging the risks of being caught meddling to be too great.   

ODNI’s more recent analysis said Beijing may have been bolder in 2022 because Chinese officials “believed that Beijing was under less scrutiny during the midterms and because they did not expect the current Administration to retaliate as severely as they feared in 2020.” 

It also said Chinese officials saw the exploitation of some of the divisive issues that gained prominence in 2018 races, including abortion and gun control, as an opportunity to portray the American democratic model as “chaotic, ineffective, and unrepresentative.”

The midterm assessment, a classified version of which was previously delivered to Congress, also found that the Russian government “sought to denigrate the Democratic Party” before the elections in an apparent effort to undermine support for Ukraine, primarily using social media influence tactics.  

And while the overall scale and scope of foreign countries targeting the midterms was greater than what was observed in 2018, neither Russia’s leadership nor any other foreign leader ordered an influence campaign in the U.S. akin to the Kremlin’s sprawling, multipronged effort in 2016, the report said.

Intelligence analysts also determined that foreign governments appear to be shifting away from attempting to target U.S. election infrastructure, possibly finding instead that online influence operations have a greater net impact. They also said greater U.S. resilience may have made targeting election infrastructure more challenging, according to the report, which reflects the consensus view of multiple U.S. intelligence agencies.

U.S. officials and private companies have warned that numerous foreign actors, including Russia, Iran and China, have diversified their tactics to include the use of proxy websites and social media influencers to shift political narratives.

“While the activity we detected remained below the level we expect to observe during presidential election years, the [intelligence community] identified a diverse and growing group of foreign actors … engaging in such operations, including China’s greater willingness to conduct election influence activities than in past cycles,” a partially redacted portion of the assessment says. 

American officials and cybersecurity experts believe multiple countries will seek to engage in newly sophisticated influence efforts ahead of the 2024 U.S. presidential election, which they view as determinative in shaping the direction of global conflicts. A Microsoft analysis said influence efforts in 2024 were likely to take place on different online platforms than those targeted in 2016 and 2020.

“As global barriers to entry lower and accessibility rises, such influence efforts remain a continuing challenge for our country, and an informed understanding of the problem can serve as one defense,” Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said in a statement accompanying the report.



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