Russian and Chinese government-affiliated operatives and organizations are promoting misinformation about the integrity of American elections that originated in the US ahead of November’s midterms, senior FBI officials said Monday.
The FBI assessment underscores how the explosion of voting conspiracy theories in the US has been fertile ground for foreign operatives since Donald Trump’s 2020 electoral defeat.
The recent Russian influence operations, which have been more pronounced than the Chinese, typically involve amplifying conversations that Americans have on social media or other platforms rather than creating new content, a senior official from the FBI’s Foreign Influence Task Force said Monday at a media briefing.
For their part, Chinese operatives have shown signs of engaging in more “Russian-style influence activities” that stoke American divisions, the FBI official said. The official highlighted Meta-owned Facebook’s recent shutdown of accounts originating in China that posted memes mocking President Joe Biden and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
The FBI and other US agencies held a classified briefing last Thursday for election officials across the country, where foreign influence operations and concerns about violent threats to election officials came up, CNN reported last week.
Since Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, a range of foreign governments have shown more of an interest in shaping US public opinion or spreading disinformation in advance of US elections, according to US intelligence officials.
Iran, too, is willing to “take advantage of election-integrity narratives that come up in the US ecosystem,” the senior FBI official said Monday.
The concern now is that foreign operatives’ work is made easier by an increasingly fraught US political environment in which candidates routinely question the integrity of US elections.
That concern was on display at Monday’s briefing, where a senior official from the FBI’s Cyber Division said the bureau was not aware of any hacking campaigns that specifically target US elections ahead of the midterms.
However, the FBI is “concerned that malicious actors could seek to spread or amplify false or exaggerated claims of compromises to election infrastructure,” the official said. “It’s important for all Americans to understand that claims of cyber compromises will not prevent them from being able to vote.”
Some officials were surprised by the extent to which Iranian operatives sought to interfere in the 2020 election. Tehran-linked actors allegedly impersonated the far-right Proud Boys and set up a website apparently aimed at stoking violence against US election officials.
While that level of activity hasn’t materialized this election cycle, the FBI is “keeping an … eye” on the extent to which Iran “opportunistically identifies options” to interfere in the 2022 midterm vote, said the official from the FBI’s Foreign Influence Task Force.