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What we know about Iran and the threatening “Proud Boys” emails

Add spoofed emails to the pile of 2020 voter intimidation tactics.

A man wearing a shirt that says “Proud Boys did nothing wrong!”
The Proud Boys denied having anything to do with threatening emails that appeared to be sent from their “official” address.
Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images
Sara Morrison is a senior Vox reporter who has covered data privacy, antitrust, and Big Tech’s power over us all for the site since 2019.
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What may be the clearest indication yet of foreign election interference came to light this week when people across the country reported receiving threatening emails ordering them to vote for President Trump. Though many emails appeared to come from a violent group of Trump supporters, the FBI and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said in a Wednesday press conference that Iran was likely behind them. But they offered few details as to how they came to this conclusion, and Iran has denied any involvement.

This comes as voter intimidation tactics, foreign and domestic, are of growing concern. Russia is believed to have its own plans to disrupt the presidential election, according to the New York Times, including hacking into government computer systems. Trump has encouraged his followers to serve as poll watchers, and there are reports that his supporters are congregating just outside buffer zones around polling locations. All this comes on top of fears that disinformation spread across social media will proliferate in this election as it has in previous years.

What we know about the emails

On Monday and Tuesday, reports emerged that registered Democrats in several states, including but not limited to Alaska and Florida, received threatening emails ordering them to vote for Trump or “we will come after you.” Some of the emails contained the recipient’s personal information, and many came from an address that appeared to be linked to the Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group of so-called “western chauvinists.” The group recently received attention after Trump refused to disavow white supremacy during the first presidential debate and said, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.” (Trump later said he didn’t know anything about the Proud Boys and that they should “stand down.”)

Threats of violence against Democrats wouldn’t be completely out of character for the Proud Boys. According to reports, some members are currently engaged in a campaign to “watch” polling stations across America, which has caused concern 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 do appear to be the work of someone else. The email address that appears as the sender, “,” was spoofed, and the emails themselves came from servers in Estonia, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. This doesn’t mean the emails came from those countries, just that they were routed through servers in those countries — in which case it would indicate that the senders were trying to obscure their true origin.

Indeed, intelligence officials now blame foreign actors for the campaign. FBI Director Christopher Wray and Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe announced on Wednesday that Iran and Russia had obtained voter registration information and would be using it to interfere with the upcoming presidential election.

They offered few details but appeared to reference the emails attributed to the Proud Boys, though not by name. Ratcliffe said Iran was sending “spoofed emails designed to intimidate voters” as well as videos that purported to show how to cast fraudulent ballots — which Ratcliffe said were untrue. He added, “This is not a partisan issue.”

It’s interesting that Ratcliffe, a Trump appointee, would step in so aggressively here when, per his claim, the alleged foreign interference was an attempt to “damage President Trump.” Since 2016, when election security and preventing foreign interference took on an even greater significance, Republicans have traditionally blocked most attempts to prevent it. Ratcliffe himself stopped doing election security briefings in August. Trump is an outspoken opponent of any claims that Russia interfered with the 2016 election and has said little about any Russian efforts to meddle in 2020. There have also been allegations that the Trump administration is downplaying the threat of Russian interference and exaggerating the threat from China and Iran, which are believed to favor Biden.

For whatever it’s worth, Iran has denied it interfered with or had any plans to interfere with the election, saying that “the highest level” of the country was already doing so with its “desperate public attempts to question the outcome of its own elections” — likely alluding to Trump’s frequent attempts to spread disinformation about mail-in voting.

There’s little cause for concern — for now

While it’s always alarming when a country is accused of voter intimidation and election interference, the little that is known about this attempt — Ratcliffe and Wray offered few details — points to an unsophisticated campaign.

Spoofing email addresses is relatively easy and common, a technique often used by scammers in phishing campaigns. Voter registration information is publicly available; political campaigns, for example, routinely obtain and use such lists, and your details may be available online, depending on which state you live in. Whatever techniques those behind the campaign used to cover their tracks, it seems, couldn’t stand up to even two days’ of investigation from government agencies. Several news organizations quickly sussed out that the emails were likely not from the Proud Boys.

But that doesn’t mean the emails didn’t have their intended effect. A threat accompanied by identifying information and a home address would be an understandably scary email for anyone to receive, no matter how unlikely it is that the threat would be carried out.

At Wednesday’s briefing, Wray urged the American public to view disinformation about voting infrastructure “with a healthy dose of skepticism” and encouraged everyone “to seek election and voting information from reliable sources” — specifically, state election officials.

“We are standing before you now to give you the confidence that we are on top of this, and providing you with the most powerful weapon we have to combat these efforts: the truth, information,” Ratcliffe said. “We ask every American to do their part, to defend against those who wish us harm. The way you do that is quite simple: Do not allow these efforts to have their intended effect. If you receive an intimidating or manipulative email in your inbox, don’t be alarmed and do not spread it.”

It seems that, in 2020, voter disinformation and suppression won’t be limited to social media sites.

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