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Electoral Integrity 2024: Reviewing the analysis

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2024 is set to be a monumental year for democracy”. We’re just hitting the 2024 election cycle halfway mark and the first sentence of PGI’s 2024 Digital Threat Forecast already feels modest.

The number of elections happening this year is staggering. The two most recent to conclude have been India’s titanic six-week long event—officially the largest election ever—and the 6-9 June European Parliament election; effectively 27 different national elections under one umbrella.

Other elections across 2024 include Bangladesh, Taiwan, Pakistan, Indonesia, Russia, South Korea, Mexico, and South Africa. By year’s end, more than two billion people, across 50 countries, will have had the opportunity to vote at local, national and (in the EU’s case) international levels. This is the most extensive voting year in human history. Of course, each country faces different threats and has unique vulnerabilities. But as the UK, France, and the US enter their election periods, it is worth reflecting on common trends.

Is AI really making a difference?

As forecast by the PGI team back in January, this is the year in which AI has exploded on to the election mis/disinformation landscape. However, we would offer a tempered counterpoint to the more alarmist commentary: much AI-generated content remains relatively unsophisticated, easy to spot, does not pose a threat to democracy.

But it is the volume, velocity and the wide range of vectors in AI-generated mis/disinformation that is of most concern. And it’s not just low-quality clickbait. We have observed state-level threat actors increasingly using AI in influence operations, creating networks of disinformation websites at significant scale, ‘writing’ inauthentic copy for those sites (or alternatively mass-scraping ‘real’ content from other sources), and producing video and audio deepfakes for dissemination by throwaway social media accounts. While AI is not a new feature of foreign influence operations, 2024 feels like an inflection point in adoption, if not sophistication and impact. We expect it to feature even more prominently in the months and years to come.

The continued rise of election integrity?

Fringe election integrity mis/disinformation continues to become more mainstream, with potentially harmful real-world consequences. After South Africa’s election in May, in which Nelson Mandela’s ANC lost its majority for the first time since the end of apartheid, former president Jacob Zuma’s new uMkhonto we Sizwe party and its supporters rejected the results and alleged vote-rigging, including on social media. In a development eerily reminiscent of the US Capitol riots (6 January 2021) and the Brazilian Congress attack (8 January 2023), Zuma’s party has threatened to block the South African parliament’s first sitting.

As the US, Brazil, and South Africa’s previous 2021 riots show, social media platforms and instant messaging services are also spaces where anti-democratic unrest is planned and coordinated. With November’s highly polarised US presidential election looming, we expect electoral integrity claims and mobilisation efforts on social media to be more relevant than ever.

A quick gap analysis

To round off on a positive note, it has been encouraging to see an increased focus on electoral mis/disinformation and foreign interference compared with 5 years ago, both in the media and from governments. But more attention is not enough: disruption activity by threat actors still far outstrips the media’s capacity to detect; governments are trying to regulate social media with limited resources (and in many cases, limited expertise); and simple fact-checking is ineffectual when sophisticated threat actors know how to construct complex arguments blending truths with falsehoods, and partisan social media users see conspiracy everywhere.

What does the rest of 2024 hold?

To say that 2024 has kept our Digital Investigations Team extremely busy would be an understatement. We have been tirelessly supporting clients across platforms, governments, and elsewhere to navigate an increasingly complex threat landscape, build digital resilience, and protect national information integrity. We look forward to continuing this momentum throughout 2024 and beyond.

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