Perhaps the clearest indication of interference in foreign elections came this week when people across the country reported receiving threatening emails urging them to vote for President Trump. Although many of the emails appeared to have come from a violent group of Trump supporters, the FBI and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said in a press conference Wednesday that Iran was likely behind them. However, they gave few details on how they reached that conclusion, and Iran has denied any involvement.
This is because voter intimidation tactics both domestically and internationally are a growing concern. According to the New York Times, Russia has its own plans to disrupt the presidential election, including hacking government computer systems. Trump has encouraged his supporters to act as election observers, and there are reports that his supporters are gathering around polling stations outside the buffer zones. All of this adds to fears that the disinformation spread on social media will increase in these elections, as in previous years.
What we know about the emails
On Monday and Tuesday, it was reported that registered Democrats in several states, including but not limited to Alaska and Florida, have received threatening emails asking them to vote for Trump or "we'll come after you". Some of the emails contained the recipient's personal information, and many came from an address that appeared to be related to the Proud Boys, a right-wing group known as "Western chauvinists". The group recently received attention after Trump refused to oppose white supremacy during the initial presidential debate, saying, "Proud boys, stand back and stand by." (Trump later said he knew nothing about the Proud Boys and they should "step back".)
The threat of violence against Democrats would not be entirely atypical of the Proud Boys. Some members are reportedly involved in a campaign to “watch” polling stations across America, which has raised concerns that their presence will intimidate voters. Meanwhile, Proud Boys chairman Enrique Tarrio has denied having anything to do with the recent voter intimidation email campaign.
The emails appear to be someone else's work. The "email@example.com" email address that appears as the sender has been spoofed, and the emails themselves came from servers in Estonia, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This does not mean that the emails came from these countries, only that they were forwarded through servers in these countries. In this case, this would indicate that the senders tried to hide their true origin.
Indeed, intelligence officials are now blaming foreign actors for the campaign. FBI Director Christopher Wray and National Intelligence Director John Ratcliffe announced Wednesday that Iran and Russia had received voter registration information and would be using it to disrupt the upcoming presidential election.
They offered few details but appeared to refer to the emails attributed to the Proud Boys, if not by name. Ratcliffe said Iran was sending "fake emails designed to intimidate voters" as well as videos showing how to cast fraudulent ballots – which Ratcliffe said was untrue. He added: "This is not a partisan issue."
It is interesting that Ratcliffe, a Trump appointee, intervenes so aggressively here when the alleged foreign interference, he claims, was an attempt to "harm President Trump." Since 2016, when electoral security and preventing foreign interference became even more important, Republicans have traditionally blocked most attempts to prevent it. Ratcliffe itself stopped holding election security briefings in August. Trump is outspoken against any claims that Russia meddled in the 2016 election and said little about Russian meddling efforts in 2020. There were also allegations that the Trump administration downplayed the threat of Russian interference and exaggerated the threat from China and Iran, which are believed to favor Biden.
Whatever it's worth, Iran has denied that it interfered in the elections or had any plans to interfere, stating that "the highest level" in the country has already done so with its "desperate public attempts at that To question the outcome of his own elections ". – likely a reference to Trump's frequent attempts to spread disinformation about mail-in votes.
There is little to worry about – for now
While it is always alarming when a country is accused of voter intimidation and electoral interference, what little is known about the attempt – Ratcliffe and Wray offered few details – suggests an unsophisticated campaign.
Email address spoofing is relatively easy and common, a technique that scammers often use in phishing campaigns. Voter registration information is publicly available. For example, political campaigns routinely receive and use such lists, and your data may be available online depending on the state in which you live. Whatever techniques those behind the campaign used to cover their tracks apparently couldn't withstand even two days of investigation by government agencies. Several news organizations quickly discovered that the emails likely weren't from the Proud Boys.
However, this does not mean that the emails did not have the intended effect. A threat accompanied by identifying information and a home address would be an understandably scary email that anyone can receive, no matter how unlikely the threat is to get carried out.
At Wednesday's briefing, Wray urged the American public to view disinformation about electoral infrastructure "with a healthy dose of skepticism" and encouraged everyone – especially state election officials – to "obtain election and election information from reliable sources".
"We stand before you now to give you the confidence that we are beyond that and to give you the most powerful weapon with which we can fight these efforts: the truth, information," said Ratcliffe. “We ask every American to do their part and to defend themselves against those who want to harm us. The way you do this is very simple: don't let these efforts produce their intended effects. If you received an intimidating or manipulative email in your inbox, don't be alarmed and don't spread the word. "
It seems that 2020 voter disinformation and repression won't be limited to social media websites.
Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All open sourced content is editorially independent and is produced by our journalists.
Are you helping keep Vox free for everyone?
The United States is in the middle of one of the most momentous presidential elections of our life. It is important that all Americans have access to clear, concise information about what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives and the lives of their families and communities. This is our mission at Vox. However, our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism is resource intensive. Even if the economy and the news advertising market recover, your support will be a vital part of keeping our resource-intensive work going. If you've already contributed, thank you. If you fail to do so, please help everyone understand these presidential elections: Contribute from $ 3 today.