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posted on 2020-10-22 19:59:00 .
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We now have less than two weeks to go before the federal voting deadline for the presidential election on November 3, and basically everything is, as many expected, hitting the fan at once. Now, intelligence officials and lawmakers are all but begging Americans to be less credulous with what they see and hear online amid new allegations that actors from Iran emailed individual voter-intimidation efforts.
Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe and FBI Director Christopher Wray joined forces at a hastily announced press conference Wednesday night to issue a warning that foreign actors “have taken specific actions to influence public opinion relating to our elections.” Specifically, Ratcliffe said, actors from Iran and Russia had separately obtained “some voter registration information” and were using it “to communicate false information to registered voters that they hope will cause confusion, sow chaos, and undermine your confidence in American democracy.”
Ratcliffe was referring to an email campaign that started earlier this week, when some voters in Florida, Arizona, and Alaska started receiving threatening messages.
“Vote for Trump… or we will come after you,” the emails read. “Change your party affiliation to Republican to let us know you received our message and will comply. We will know which candidate you voted for. I would take this seriously if I were you. Good luck.”
The emails purported to come from the Proud Boys, a known US-based right-wing extremist group that has become increasingly active since its founding in 2016 and which President Donald Trump has tacitly supported. The Proud Boys reportedly denied involvement, however, and Vice Motherboard reported on Tuesday that the messages originated from a server in Estonia and were likely using a spoofed email address.
Some voters also received videos, with Proud Boys branding, that showed how someone could allegedly commit voter fraud using the recipient’s personal information. Motherboard today published a redacted, labeled copy of the video to demonstrate what a disinformation campaign can look like.
Ratcliffe on Wednesday said that Iran was behind the spoofed emails and videos, which he claimed were “designed to intimidate voters, incite social unrest, and damage President Trump.”
“We’re not going to tolerate foreign interference in our elections or any criminal activity that threatens the sanctity of your vote or undermines public confidence in the outcome of the election,” Wray added in the press conference.
Iran denied any involvement. “Unlike the US, Iran does not interfere in other country’s elections,” Alireza Miryousefi, a spokesman for the Iranian Mission to the United Nations, told NBC News late Wednesday. “The world has been witnessing US’ own desperate public attempts to question the outcome of its own elections at the highest level. These accusations are nothing more than another scenario to undermine voter confidence in the security of the US election and are absurd.”
Chaos-causing data easy to get
Neither Wray nor Ratcliffe provided evidence explaining why intelligence officials believe Iranian actors to be the source of the emails. However, some independent researchers as well as other government officials are supporting the claim.
Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.), respectively the chairman and vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, released a joint statement today confirming Iran’s involvement.
“It is clear that Iran is now actively seeking to sow dissent and divide us, much like Russia did in 2016 and continues to do today,” the senators said. “To the American people and the media, we reiterate the need to be skeptical of sensationalist, last-minute claims about election infrastructure. State, local, and federal officials, and partners in social media and tech, should be proud of joint efforts to shut down Iranian and Russian efforts.”
“Undermine the winner’s legitimacy”
“Above all, Russia and Iran want the losing side to reject the election outcome in order to undermine the winner’s legitimacy and spark a constitutional crisis,” Rubio added in a tweet last night. “Staging fake voter intimidation and sensationalist last-minute claims of widespread election fraud lays the groundwork for this.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in an interview Wednesday night after the press conference that “it was clear to me that the intent of Iran in this case, and Russia in many more cases, is to basically undermine confidence in our elections.”
Although Ratcliffe mentioned both Iran and Russia, his remarks focused primarily on Iran. Nonetheless, according to The Washington Post, US officials speaking privately also stressed that Russia remains a concern.
It’s not a particular hardship for either nation—or in fact, anyone else— to access the voter registration data that the entity behind the emails apparently used. Such lists are generally a matter of public record, and campaigns, advocacy groups, and other organizations acquire them legally all the time.
Please be smart
Above all, the FBI, DNI, Senate, and just about everyone else involved share one common message to Americans: please, please don’t be gullible in this high-tension, disinformation-rich environment.
“You should be confident that your vote counts,” Wray said in his remarks. “Early, unverified claims to the contrary should be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism. We encourage everyone to seek election and voting information from reliable sources—namely, your state election officials. And to be thoughtful, careful, and discerning consumers of information online.”
Rubio and Warner, in a statement released last night, echoed the feeling. “As we enter the last weeks before the election, we urge every American—including members of the media—to be cautious about believing or spreading unverified, sensational claims related to votes and voting,” the senators said.
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