Iran used the guise of the far-right Proud Boys to send threatening emails to voters earlier this week, U.S. intelligence officials claimed late Wednesday.
At a hastily called evening press conference, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe spelled out what he said were concerted foreign efforts to sow chaos in the ongoing presidential election.
“We would like to alert the public that we have identified that two foreign actors, Iran and Russia, have taken specific actions to influence public opinion relating to our elections…. We have already seen Iran sending spoofed emails designed to intimidate voters, incite social unrest, and damage President Trump,” Ratcliffe said.
“Although we have not seen the same actions from Russia, we are aware that they have obtained some voter registration information,” he added.
In the past, law enforcement and intelligence agencies have taken months to finger a foreign actor behind a disinformation or election interference campaign. Wednesday’s announcement came just a day after authorities in Florida and Alaska sought help from the feds to investigate a flurry of emails sent to Democratic voters demanding they vote for Trump and switch their party affiliation. The emails, which had been made to look like they were sent from the Proud Boys, a right-wing paramilitary group, warned recipients that the group had all their private information and suggested that any attempt to disobey the directive would have nasty consequences.
“You will vote for Trump on Election Day or we will come after you,” the messages read.
Asked late Wednesday if he had seen the FBI announcement about Iran being behind the spoofing operation, Enrique Tarrio, the chairman of the Proud Boys, told The Daily Beast: “Yes. I’m absorbing it into my veins.”
The Proud Boys have been a magnet for trolls since Trump ignited controversy by nodding at them in the middle of his first debate against Democratic opponent Joe Biden last month. One internet hoaxer openly admitted to The Daily Beast that he’d sent out phony Proud Boys recruitment texts in an attempt to “help drive voter turnout” and even set up a fake “assault rifle” raffle.
That trolls tied to Iran might seize on the group’s notoriety and very real concerns across the country about possible Election Day violence should come as no surprise.
Ratcliffe and FBI Director Christopher Wray did not supply specific evidence connecting Iran to the Proud Boys impersonation. But pro-Iranian and Iranian-linked trolls on Twitter have been active over the past year in efforts to meddle in American politics on issues ranging from the election campaign to the coronavirus pandemic.
In September, the FBI tipped off Twitter about a network of 130 fake accounts posing as pro and anti-Trump Americans which were run by operators in Iran. The accounts, according to Twitter, were “attempting to disrupt the public conversation during the first 2020 U.S. Presidential Debate” and the social media company quickly suspended them. At least one account referenced President Trump’s comments that the Proud Boys need to “stand by and stand down.”
In early October, the Justice Department seized 92 fake news domains, first linked to Iran by researchers at FireEye in 2018, which it said were run by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Over the past year, a number of Iranian-linked and pro-Iranian Twitter accounts identified by The Daily Beast have sought to seize on divisive issues in American politics with fake stories hosted at spoofed websites. The accounts have floated racist conspiracy theories about a Navy ship fire with a forged letter from Sen. Tammy Duckworth, and impersonated a World Health Organization executive and a prominent public health expert, Dr. Zeke Emanuel, in order to push racist fake narratives about coronavirus vaccine experiments on Black Americans and treatment for the disease in FEMA camps.
Earlier this month, Twitter accounts identified by The Daily Beast and Mandiant Threat Intelligence, and attributed to Iran by Twitter, amplified fake tweets from a hacked Israeli news outlet’s Twitter account. The messages sought to convince social media users that President Trump was dying of COVID-19 and that Black Lives Matter protesters had fired gunshots outside the home of Bill and Hilary Clinton.
Wray said officials are “coordinating with the private sector—both technology and social media companies—to make sure that their platforms are not used by foreign adversaries to spread disinformation and propaganda.”
“You should be confident that your vote counts. Early, unverified claims to the contrary should be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism,” Wray said.
— Kelly Weill contributed reporting