Members of the mainstream political media inadvertently furthered an Iranian disinformation campaign Wednesday by writing a number of viral reports suggesting that the far-right Proud Boys group was threatening Democratic voters via email, just hours before the FBI and the DNI announced the emails were actually sent by Iranians looking to disrupt the election.
Emails sent to registered Democratic voters in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Florida, and Alaska by “email@example.com” warned the individuals to “vote for Trump on Election Day or we will come after you.” Though Enrique Tarrio, the chairman of the Proud Boys and the Florida state director of Latinos for Trump, denied that his group had sent the email, numerous outlets — some of which have not deleted their original tweets — pushed the narrative out over social media.
The Proud Boys, a far-right group with a history of violent confrontations, denied responsibility and condemned the emails: "It wasn't us." https://t.co/ruKefndUR7
— USA TODAY Politics (@usatodayDC) October 21, 2020
— The Hill (@thehill) October 22, 2020
Proud Boys domain used to send threatening emails to Democratic voters in Florida, Arizona and Pennsylvania – The Washington Post https://t.co/QvD7hgvXg7
— Yamiche Alcindor (@Yamiche) October 21, 2020
The anti-Trump Lincoln Project capitalized on the news, which tweeted out that “the Proud Boys are attempting to scare voters away from the polls.”
“This is punishable by up to a year in jail and a blatant attempt to prevent people from voting. Let’s find them and make them famous,” the group — which has a history of amplifying fake news — stated.
“Put them in jail,” MSNBC host Joe Scarborough responded.
Put them in jail. https://t.co/hb9hw6RTJm
— Joe Scarborough (@JoeNBC) October 20, 2020
The Lincoln Project amassed over 12,000 retweets, but eventually deleted the claim after FBI director Chris Wray and Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe revealed in an emergency press conference Wednesday night that Russia and Iran had obtained “some voter-registration information” that Iran was already using to send the emails.
“We have already seen Iran sending spoofed emails designed to intimidate voters, incite social unrest, and damage President Trump,” Ratcliffe said. “You may have seen some reporting on this in the last 24 hours or you may have even been one of the recipients of those emails.”
“When we see indications of foreign interference or federal-election crimes, we’re going to aggressively investigate and work with our partners, to quickly take appropriate action,” Wray added.
MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow displayed only slightly more caution in sharing a Vice article, which pointed out that the Proud Boy email address didn’t necessarily implicate the group, while stipulating “it is of course possible that someone involved with the Proud Boys was involved in spoofing the emails.” Following the press conference, Maddow raised questions about Ratcliffe’s conclusion that the emails were designed to hurt Trump by making his supporters seem nefarious.
“We got this drama, short-notice press conference on election security, there is drama in that. But when it comes to what he actually communicated, frankly nobody actually knows what he was talking about,” she said. “What are you talking about? Spit it out.”
“We assume what he’s talking about here is these intimidating ‘vote Trump or else’ emails that were sent to Democratic registered voters in Florida and in numerous other states, but maybe that’s not what he’s talking about,” she continued. “Why would you look at those ‘vote Trump or else’ emails and describe them as an effort to ‘damage President Trump?’”
Chuck Schumer agreed with Maddow, saying that the confidential briefing he and others in Congress received before the press conference gave him “the strong impression it was much rather to undermine confidence in elections and not aimed at any particular figure.”
But anonymous intelligence officials quoted in other outlets made clear that Ratcliffe was referring to the Proud Boys emails.
“The Iranians are following US politics closely and understand the background of the Proud Boys recently coming up in the presidential debate and know that sending the emails they did would cause blowback in the media that would be damaging to Trump because of these perceived violent Trump supporters threatening Democrats,” one senior official told CNN. However, three intelligence officials who spoke with the Wall Street Journal suggested Ratcliffe’s conclusion about the Iranians’ intent was shaky.