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FBI: Foreign actors may spread misinformation about this year's election

People should "critically evaluate" the source of the information they're reading and not share anything that might be fake on social media, the FBI says.

Foreign actors may try to spread false information about the 2020 elections in order to discredit the election process, the FBI and Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) said in a joint announcement this week.

The spreading of false information, especially on social media, is nothing new and has involved a variety of topics, ranging from public safety incidents to the government and more. 

But disinformation is especially a concern with this year's election because the results are expected to take a bit longer due to COVID-19 leading to an increase in voting by absentee ballot.

"State and local officials typically require several days to weeks to certify elections’ final results in order to ensure every legally cast vote is accurately counted. The increased use of mail-in ballots due to COVID-19 protocols could leave officials with incomplete results on election night," the announcement says. 

And the FBI and CISA expect foreign actors and cybercriminals to take advantage of the waiting period in hopes of discrediting the election by spreading false information that could include reports of voter suppression, cyberattacks targeting election infrastructure and voter or ballot fraud.

This fake information could be created and shared on social media, appear on newly created websites or on existing websites that have been changed. 

So, the FBI and CISA are urging people to "critically evaluate" the source of the information that they see, verify who produced the content and consider their intent (this is good advice for every day of the year) and to seek out reliable and verified information from trusted sources, like state and local election officials.

"The public should also be aware that if foreign actors or cybercriminals were able to successfully change an election-related website, the underlying data and internal systems would remain uncompromised," the announcement notes.

How to check the information is legit

Here are more recommendations from the FBI and CISA to help you confirm what you're reading is factual: 

  • Verify information through "multiple reliable sources," and consider searching for other reliable sources before sharing information on social media or elsewhere
  • For information on final election results, rely on state and local government election officials (here's Minnesota's official election website)
  • Report any potential election crimes – including disinformation about the manner, time or place of voting – to the FBI. 
  • When appropriate, use in-platform tools offered on social media sites to report suspicious posts that appear to be spreading false or inconsistent information

The FBI and CISA's announcement follows a Washington Post report that says a CIA assessment found Russian President Vladimir Putin is "probably directing" efforts to interfere in the 2020 election against Democratic candidate Joe Biden.

A month ago, William Evanina, the director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center released an assessment that Russia, China and Iran are actively interfering in the presidential election. And Microsoft warned of foreign threats from the same countries, noting they're targeting political groups including the Biden and President Donald Trump campaigns, the Hill reported.

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Meanwhile, domestic players are also fueling the flames of misinformation, suggesting for weeks that this year's election results will be illegitimate. Trump and some Republicans continue to discredit the safety of mail-in ballots and the validity of this year's election, with the president repeatedly lying about the prevalence of voter fraud (it's very rare). 

In an interview with "Axios on HBO," Trump warned that "lots of things can happen" with voting by mail if the presidential race isn't decided on election night. And CNN notes White House officials have ignored warnings from election officials about the likely delay in results and instead have said a projected winner needs to be declared on election night.

Although a projected winner of the presidential election might not happen on election night, election officials have said that doesn't mean there's widespread voter fraud or that an inaccurate count should be expected, Axios reports.

The Trump Administration is already gearing up to challenge the results in the event of a Biden win, with VP Mike Pence saying on Tuesday that this is a major reason why they want to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court following the death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

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