FBI Director Christopher Wray warned that the Russian government is “very active” in efforts to influence the 2020 presidential election by harming Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
Appearing before the House Homeland Security Committee on Thursday, less than two months to go until Election Day, Wray stressed that he has not seen election infrastructure targeted by Russian cyberactors like in 2016.
“I think the intelligence committee’s consensus is Russia continues to try to influence our elections, primarily through what we would call malign foreign influence, as opposed to what we saw in 2016, where there was also an effort to target election infrastructure — you know, cybertargeting. We have not seen that second part yet this year or this cycle,” Wray said. “But we certainly have seen very active efforts by the Russians to influence our election in 2020 through what I would call more the malign foreign influence side of things — social media, use of proxies, state media, online journals, etc. — in an effort to both sow divisiveness and discord, and I think the intelligence community has assessed this publicly, primarily to denigrate Vice President Biden and what the Russians see as kind of an anti-Russian establishment. That’s essentially what we’re seeing in 2020.”
Bill Evanina, who leads the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, released an intelligence assessment in August warning that Russia is “using a range of measures to primarily denigrate” Biden, including that “pro-Russia Ukrainian parliamentarian Andriy Derkach is spreading claims about corruption — including through publicizing leaked phone calls — to undermine” the Democrat’s candidacy. The same statement said that China “prefers” that President Trump not win reelection and is “expanding its influence efforts ahead of November 2020” in order to “pressure political figures it views as opposed to China’s interests.” The counterintelligence official also said that Iran “seeks to undermine” Trump’s presidency.
Microsoft revealed last week that Russian, Chinese, and Iranian hackers were all targeting people and groups tied to the election. The Treasury Department announced sanctions against Derkach as well as three Russian nationals for supporting the Internet Research Agency, a Russian social media troll farm.
Wray was not directly asked to provide specifics about Chinese or Iranian election influence efforts in 2020, but he did say that the FBI was taking action to secure the vote.
“Americans must have confidence in our voting system and our election infrastructure. That’s why the security of our elections is and will continue to be one of our highest priorities,” Wray said. “We will not tolerate foreign interference in our elections, and we’re working closely with our federal, state, and local partners as well as the private sector to share information, bolster security, and identify and disrupt any threats.”
Wray said that “just recently, for example, we shared threat indicators with both Facebook and Twitter that allowed them to take down fake accounts created as part of a Russian disinformation campaign before those accounts could develop a broader following.”
After a tip from the FBI, Facebook announced in early September that it had taken down a small network of 13 Russian accounts and two pages tied to Russia’s Internet Research Agency, and Twitter similarly said that it suspended a small number of accounts “for platform manipulation that we can reliably attribute to Russian state actors” that were operating a site called PeaceData. Graphika, a New York-based social media analysis firm, revealed that “the website employed real and apparently unwitting individuals, typically novice freelance writers, to write its articles” and that it published over 500 articles in English and over 200 articles in Arabic in 2020. The group said that “the network appeared designed to target progressive and left-wing audiences, including in the United States and United Kingdom.”
“They were able to shut down Russian influence accounts really right before they could ever build a following. And the faster we can do that and the more agile way we can do that, the better,” Wray said on Thursday. “Misinformation or disinformation or fake information is only effective if it seems credible. And it’s only credible if it’s built up some reservoir of credibility. … And if we’re able to shut them down and knock them back quickly before they can really build up that credibility, then it’s not going to stop it, but it means it’s much, much less effective. So, we need more of that. We’re having more of that.”
Robert Mueller’s 2019 special counsel report said that Russians interfered in the 2016 election in a “sweeping and systematic fashion” but “did not establish” criminal collusion between Russians and anyone in Trump’s orbit.
“I think, in many ways, what concerns me the most is the steady drumbeat of misinformation and sort of amplification of smaller cyberintrusions that contribute over time. I worry that they will contribute over time to a lack of confidence of American voters and citizens in the validity of their vote,” Wray testified. “I think that would be a perception, not a reality. I think Americans can and should have confidence in our election system and certainly in our democracy. But I worry that people will take on a feeling of futility because of all of the noise and confusion that’s generated, and that’s a very hard problem to combat.”