How Worried Should We Actually Be About Election Interference?

As voting day approaches, are British authorities doing enough to prevent "hostile actors" and AI disinformation?
Should we be worried about election interference?
Should we be worried about election interference?
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Shortly after Rishi Sunak announced the general election, a committee of parliamentarians warned him that hostile states could reach the “British public far more easily than ever before”.

Fears of interference in democratic processes are nothing new, but the National Security Committee said the UK is a particularly “attractive target” to malicious actors looking to disrupt the country this summer.

As election day creeps closer, what threats could we realistically face, where are they coming from and are we doing enough to stop them?

What triggered these national security concerns?

The National Security Committee told Sunak in May that hostile actors could be tempted to interfere with the UK.

It formally attributed malicious activity targeting UK institutions and individuals to hackers working for Russian intelligence services and China.

Moscow is a particular cause for concern, considering the UK government said in 2020 that it was “almost certain that Russian actors sought to interfere in the 2019 general elections”.

According to the committee, we can “expect to see the integrity of our systems tested again” now, five years later.

The MPs and peers suggested cyber-attacks, ransomware targeted against UK institutions, AI-generated disinformation and targeted phishing attacks were all possible ahead of the election.

And it was not long until some of their predictions appeared to come true.

In early June, London hospitals were hit by a cyber-attack expected to take “many months” to resolve. More than 800 planned operations and 700 outpatient appointments had to be rearranged.

The former head of National Cyber Security Centre quickly blamed a Russian cyber group.

Meanwhile, AI tools have been used to produce fake audio recordings of politicians such as Labour leader Keir Starmer and London mayor Sadiq Khan.

Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting was also mimicked in a “deepfake” – a digitally-doctored video – which was shared widely online.

Here’s an example of how easy it is to produce fake content now:

Why would Russia want to interfere with British politics?

Senior consulting fellow at Chatham House, Keir Giles, told HuffPost UK: “There shouldn’t be any doubt that Russia is interested in interfering in our elections.”

Similarly, Pia Huesch, a research analyst at the British defence and security think tank Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) said Britain’s vocal support of Ukraine means the elections are “naturally at the receiving end of Russian information operations”.

Both experts agreed Moscow is not looking for a particular outcome – it only wants to cause disruption.

As Giles noted, the Conservatives and Labour, “are basically indistinguishable” in their opposition to Russia and support for Ukraine amid the ongoing war.

“Russia wants to undermine faith in government institutions, faith in democracy, faith in democratic processes,” he said. “By placing the suggestion that they might have influenced the results of one of those processes, the effect is a win as far as Moscow is concerned.”

Giles pointed out there is little solid proof of Russian interference in UK politics.

The government’s 2020 Russia report said “credible open-source commentary” suggested Moscow ran “influence campaigns” related to the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.

But, despite speculation about the 2016 EU referendum and 2019 general election, it’s unclear if either event was subject to Moscow meddling.

And that’s still the situation years later.

Giles said: “There are a lot of unknowns about the extent to which Russia is operating at the moment, because finding that out takes a big investment in resources and manpower and government attention, which it does not always get.”

What form of interference is likely to come in?

Imran Ahmed, chief executive of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, Centre for Counting Digital Hate (CCDH) told HuffPost UK that “online misinformation about elections” has always been a threat to democracies.

“Introducing sophisticated yet unsafe AI technology is just going to pour petrol on the fire.””

- Imran Ahmed, CCDH

But he noted it is even tougher now because leading generative AI platforms have “insufficient guardrails to stop bad actors using them to produce political misinformation”.

Ahmed said: “Social media companies have never got to grips with the problem.

“Introducing sophisticated yet unsafe AI technology is just going to pour petrol on the fire.”

CCDH warned that AI platforms have become highly sophisticated already, and quality is constantly improving, making it harder for the ordinary user to differentiate between what’s real and what is not.

In fact, Reuters’ 2024 Digital News Report found 59% of people are concerned about identifying what is real and what is fake when consuming online news.

That’s an increase of three percentage points in the last year.

Ahmed warned that over time, the “risk that elections will be adversely impacted” will only become more severe.

He said: “AI image and audio generators are readily available to anyone, making them a potential tool for foreign governments interested in disrupting democracy.

“Just last month, OpenAI reported intercepting Russian groups using AI to advance their agendas.”

Huesch told HuffPost UK that while bots and AI are causing more disruption, she believes it does not have to be that sophisticated to “further feed into people’s fears and beliefs”.

“For many, these campaigns reaffirm and perhaps amplify existing beliefs but it does not take a sophisticated AI-generated deep fake to do so,” the researcher explained.

As the Alan Turing Institute explains in this clip, there are many subtle ways voters can be confused by AI ahead of the election.

What about Russia’s wider information warfare?

Russia’s disruption is not just limited to large events like elections.

Giles warned: “Russian information warfare is a constant.

“They can lay the groundwork for years and decades for influencing specific events at later dates in one direction or another.”

He referred to Jeremy Corbyn’s use of classified documents as evidence that the Tories were planning to sell off the NHS ahead of the 2019 general election.

The government claimed this paperwork had been distributed by “Russian actors” online.

The ex-Labour leader vehemently denied Labour may have benefited from a Russian operation, and Moscow denied any involvement. The source of the dossier remains unclear today.

Further confusion followed when the Conservatives were accused of delaying the publication of a government report into Russia’s interference.

When it was eventually published in July 2020, it spotted that some members of the Russian elite had connections to British politics, and liked to keep their money in the UK.

As Giles said: “It’s a mistake to think that this is all just about trolls and bots on social media, because a lot of the highest value interventions are humans influencing decisions taken behind closed doors.”

Is enough happening to deter such intervention?

The general consensus is: no.

Giles said: “What it requires is security, counterintelligence and police forces being given the political direction and instructions to prioritise that, which is not something that we’ve seen happening publicly in this country today.”

Yet a planned public consultation on reforming the approach to the ransomware crisis was postponed when Sunak called the snap election.

Ahmed also pointed out the lack of action from social media platforms, which he said need to “enforce their own rules”.

He said at the moment they have an “abysmal track record of combating misinformation designed to mislead voters and undermine trust in the democratic process.”

He said: “Generative AI is exciting and transformative – but in an online world dominated by vastly wealthy, unaccountable and irresponsible social media and AI companies, this technology also has the potential to turbo-charge the hate, lies and division that plague our societies.”

Huesch had a more sympathetic approach.

She said Russia’s goal of general disruption “makes it challenging” for anyone to respond: “How do you protect an abstract notion of trust that is neither easily measured, understood, nor [easy to] build?”

She said the government has been taking it seriously, but warned that had not always been the case – as the 2020 Russia report found it had failed to properly assess Russian interference with the EU referendum of 2016.

She added that the private sector needs to act because “it take the whole of society”, and we need to train ourselves to be “resilient against any disinformation”.

How has the government responded to such warnings?

In response to the parliamentary committee’s warning in May, a government spokesperson said: “Security is paramount and we are well prepared to ensure the integrity of the election, with robust systems in place to protect against interference.”

Parliamentarians and election candidates were granted access to an “enhanced cyber security offer”, developed by the National Cyber Security Centre to protect against phishing attacks and foreign-influenced operations.

Through the Defending Democracy Taskforce set up in 2022, the government said it announced ”£31m to protect our democratic processes and institutions”.

“The National Security Act [of 2023] has additionally delivered a range of measures to strengthen the UK’s efforts to detect, deter and disrupt state threats,” the spokesperson added.


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