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FBI says Iran, Russia behind election misinformation campaign

FBI to hold last-minute news conference on election security
Posted at 10:49 PM, Oct 21, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-22 08:55:38-04

The FBI held an unforeseen news conference on Wednesday to say that Iran and Russia have been leading a misinformation campaign ahead of this year’s election.

Although the sudden nature of Wednesday’s news conference made the announcement seem urgent, intelligence community officials have been warning of interference by Iran, China and Russia for months.

Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe said that the countries obtained voter registration information, and then used that data to direct misinformation toward voters. Ratcliffe, along with FBI Director Christopher Wray, would not take any questions.

Voter registration information is generally public information. Information like voters’ names, addresses and voting history are generally available nationwide. It is unclear if Iran and Russia received information that is publicly available.

"We have already seen Iran sending spoofed emails designed to intimidate voters,” Ratcliffe said.

Ratcliffe claimed that the emails worked to hurt Trump's campaign, but House Democrat Ted Lieu, a member of the Intelligence Committee, questioned how the emails were intended to hurt Trump's campaign.

The content of the emails isn’t clear.

Earlier Tuesday, the Citrus County Sheriff’s Office said they learned of emails sent to voters threatening them, and counting the recipient's name and address. The office said they were allegedly addressed from the group, "proud boys." Investigators said the emails were reported in pockets across the state. However, the group denied involvement.

During the news conference, Wray reassured voters that the election is safe.

"You should be confident that your vote counts,” Wray said. “Early, unverified claims to the contrary should be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism."

Last month, the FBI released a statement saying that cyber criminals and foreign actors are attempting to use online platforms to “manipulate public opinion, discredit the electoral process, and undermine confidence in U.S. democratic institutions.”

These cyber criminals are hoping to sow doubt on the election by saying that data has been “hacked” or “leaked,” the FBI said. Some voter information is generally publicly available, and doesn’t need to be hacked or leaked. While the ballots themselves are secret, absentee ballot requests, names, addresses and similar information is generally public record.

In August, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a statement outlining efforts by Iran, China and Russia to attempt to undermine this year’s presidential election.

“Ahead of the 2020 U.S. elections, foreign states will continue to use covert and overt influence measures in their attempts to sway U.S. voters’ preferences and perspectives, shift U.S. policies, increase discord in the United States, and undermine the American people’s confidence in our democratic process,” William Evanina, director of the United States National Counterintelligence and Security Center, said. "They may also seek to compromise our election infrastructure for a range of possible purposes, such as interfering with the voting process, stealing sensitive data, or calling into question the validity of the election results. However, it would be difficult for our adversaries to interfere with or manipulate voting results at scale.”

As part of Evanina’s assessment, he said that China and Iran were attempting to seek a favorable outcome for Biden, while Russia was working to ensure a favorable outcome for Trump.

“As Americans, we are all in this together; our elections should be our own,” Evanina previously said. “Foreign efforts to influence or interfere with our elections are a direct threat to the fabric of our democracy. Neutralizing these threats requires not just a whole-of-government approach, but a whole-of-nation effort.”

The FBI offered the following recommendations to voters:

  • Seek out information from trustworthy sources, such as state and local election officials; verify who produced the content; and consider their intent.
  • Verify through multiple reliable sources any reports about problems in voting or election results, and consider searching for other reliable sources before sharing such information via social media or other avenues.
  • For information about final election results, rely on state and local government election officials.
  • Report potential election crimes—such as disinformation about the manner, time, or place of voting—to the FBI.
  • If appropriate, make use of in-platform tools offered by social media companies for reporting suspicious posts that appear to be spreading false or inconsistent information about election-related problems or results.

“People will try to politicize it heavily. But for so many social media users they’re very skeptical of misinformation that’s being transmitted almost every day,” said ABC Action News political analyst Susan MacManus.

Just this week, the University of South Florida researchers reported two-thirds of survey respondents said they were very concerned or somewhat concerned about the possibility of foreign government interference in the election.

"It’s very serious business and people expected it and they are grateful I’m sure that the FBI and DHS are on top of it. So far they haven’t really been able to affect any election outcome that’s the great news. And detecting it early and alerting people that’s the best that can be done at this point. It’s really hard to stop this," MacManus said.

ABC Action News asked officials if any of Florida's voter registrations were impacted.

The Florida Department of State said there hasn’t been a breach of Florida’s Voter Registration Database, but noted application information is public record. It released this statement:

“There has been no breach to Florida’s Voter Registration database. Information provided in submission of a Florida Voter’s Registration Application is public record pursuant to Chapter 119 Florida Statutes and is publicly-available. Those public data files do not contain any confidential/exempt voter information nor do they contain information for voters that have filed an Address/Identification Confidentiality Request form with the Department of State or the local Supervisor of Elections."

Additionally, while public data files contain voting history (e.g., whether a voter voted and whether the voter voted on by mail, during early voting or on election day) it does not include any information that discloses how a voter voted in any contest. The secrecy of the ballot is maintained throughout the voting process.

The FBI released this statement:

“Though the FBI’s standard practice is to neither confirm nor deny any investigation, we take all election-related threats seriously, whether it is vote fraud, voter suppression, or threats from cyber or foreign influence actors. We're committed to supporting our election security partners in Florida and protecting our communities as Americans exercise their right to vote.

Help from the public is also vital to our effort. We encourage members of the public to remain vigilant and immediately report any suspicious, election-related activity to their local FBI field office or online at tips.fbi.gov.

To learn more about federal election crimes visit www.fbi.gov/elections [fbi.gov].

For tips and best practices to protect digital devices, social media accounts, private information and more, visit www.fbi.gov/protectedvoices [fbi.gov]."