In a preview of more organized disinformation campaigns to come in the 2020 U.S. elections and subsequent interregnum period, Democratic Party voters in swing states received threatening emails the week of October 19 2020, ordering them to switch their voter registration to Republican or to expect consequences.
The first reports of such emails appeared out of Florida. The text of the emails themselves — which were from spoofed email addresses purporting to be from the far-right group the Proud Boys — generally read as follows:
(NAME) we are in possession of all your information You are currently registered as a Democrat and we know this because we have gained access into the entire voting infrastructure. You will vote for Trump on Election Day or we will come after you. 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. (VOTER’S ADDRESS) good luck
Officials in Florida’s Brevard County, which was among the first regions to report these emails, swiftly responded to the stories by assuring voters that they and their ballots were secure. Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey said in a statement that the threats were illegitimate and should be considered an act of attempted intimidation:
While the investigation is active and currently ongoing, as your Sheriff I want to personally assure everyone that the Sheriff’s Office, our federal and local law enforcement partners are doing everything possible to identify those responsible. In America, every registered voter is afforded the right to participate in the electoral process and deserves to do so without intimidation or influence. Please know that everyone in our community is safe to go to the polls throughout the election process and while these emails appear concerning, the investigation to date has determined the emails originated from outside the continental United States and are not considered a valid threat, but were sent with a morally corrupt agenda!
Please do not allow this or any other action by anyone to intimidate or dissuade you from your right as an American to cast your ballot for the candidate(s) of your choosing during early voting or on Election Day!!
Soon after that, voters in Alaska began to report receiving the same emails, which once again purported to be from the Proud Boys:
An Anchorage-based FBI spokeswoman, Chloe Martin, said her agency is also aware of the emails but declined to answer questions. She cited a statement released by the Anchorage FBI office earlier this month saying that the agency is monitoring potential threats to Americans’ voting rights and that violations of federal law in Alaska will not be tolerated.
The emails were sent from multiple addresses, according to copies shared with Alaska Public Media and posted to social media. One was sent from “[email protected],” and the one sent to Stanton came from “[email protected]”
Reports also appeared of voters receiving the same emails in at least two other battleground states so far, Arizona and Pennsylvania. (Alaska is not technically a swing state in the 2020 election, but its state politics are in play nationally.)
Chris Krebs of the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency weighed in on the issue:
Not a moment too soon, as we’re aware of threatening emails with misleading info about the secrecy of your vote.
FACT: Ballot secrecy is guaranteed by law in all states.
These emails are meant to intimidate and undermine American voters’ confidence in our elections. pic.twitter.com/CocBKrMEaN
— Chris Krebs #Protect2020 (@CISAKrebs) October 21, 2020
Proud Boys chairman Enrique Tarrio vehemently denied that the group was part of any such attempt. “It’s just never been a thing,” he told reporters:
The chairman of Proud Boys, Enrique Tarrio of Miami, said his group did not send the emails. He made the remarks in an interview with Fresh Take Florida, a news service operated by the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. Tarrio said he was cooperating with the FBI’s investigation.
“We don’t do mass emails,” Tarrio said. “This is definitely, definitely not us.”
Tarrio also said the Proud Boys had no history of being involved in voter intimidation.
CBS further reported that the messages are tied to servers located not in the United State, but Estonia, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates — although what that may mean remains unclear:
The IP addresses don’t establish that the senders are based in those countries, since the messages could have been routed through the servers from nearly anywhere, according to Dmitri Alperovitch, the co-founder and former chief technology officer of cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike. He noted that the messages were sent via a “cloud infrastructure provider in Saudi Arabia called ‘Saudi Executive Cloud.'”
Alperovitch, who reviewed the source code from one of the emails, said that while the emails were sent through overseas servers, “there is no indication to suggest that it is a nation-state or otherwise foreign campaign.”
“These types of email campaigns are unfortunately trivial to execute for anyone with an internet connection and a just modicum of technical ability,” he said.
Officials in each state say that the investigations are continuing and encourage voters who receive such emails (or who experience similarly organized intimidation attempts online or offline) to report them to local authorities.
It is the latest salvo in an ongoing battle, as disinformation purveyors continue their inauthentic tactics, aided and abetted by social media algorithms, hoaxsters, gadflies, hostile domestic and foreign entities, useful idiots, weaponized rhetoric, and actual violence on levels from hyperlocal to national to global, all in pursuit of the same goal: To create chaos and sow doubts around the outcome of the 2020 U.S. election — whatever that might be — and to topple the public’s already teetering faith in liberal democracies and the institutions that support them.