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How overhyping became an election meddling tool

As online platforms and intelligence officials get more sophisticated about detecting and stamping out election meddling campaigns, bad actors are increasingly seeing the appeal of instead exaggerating their own interference capabilities to shake Americans' confidence in democracy.

Why it matters: It doesn't take a sophisticated operation to sow seeds of doubt in an already fractious and factionalized U.S. Russia proved that in 2016, and fresh schemes aimed at the 2020 election may already be proving it anew.

Driving the news: Intelligence officials last week detailed separate ongoing election interference efforts by Iran and Russia. Much of the activity officials described was rudimentary and scattershot, with both countries, for example, obtaining tranches of publicly available U.S. voter registration data.

  • The U.S. has seen no evidence of Moscow operationalizing this information, said National Intelligence Director John Ratcliffe, but Iranian hackers were a different matter, commandeering a website associated with the far-right Proud Boys and sending threatening “spoofed” emails from that domain to voters in swing states, demanding that they vote for President Trump.
  • Facebook Tuesday said it had taken down accounts on its platform linked to the same Iranian group.

Between the lines: The Iranian spoofing op was crude. The operatives threatened registered Democrats in Florida, for example, to “vote for Trump” or “we will come after you.”

  • The messages also demanded that the targeted individuals change their voter registration to Republican "to let us know you received our message and will comply," and they warned that “we will know which candidate you voted for."

The message was contradictory:We, the Proud Boys, are so sophisticated that we'll be able to find out who you voted for — but we still need to check against public records to make sure you change parties.

  • It also may have been obvious to recipients that they were targeted using publicly available data. Indeed, the threat by Iranian operators to later do a compliance check against that very same public data was part of the campaign.

Yes, but: None of that necessarily matters to the success of the operation.

  • The Iranians likely had little interest in actually cowing Democrats into voting for Trump. (For his part, Ratcliffe described the effort as an attempt to hurt Trump, without explaining how or why.)

They may have wanted to do a mix of these things:

  1. Amplify tensions in a hyper-partisan U.S. environment and ultimately make Trump supporters look radical.
  2. Mount a deliberately sloppy campaign to attract attention to convince Americans that foreign hackers are indeed fiddling with the election.
  3. In either case, the net intended effect is discord and distrust among the American electorate.

Be smart: In that respect, they may have gotten an even bigger payoff than they were counting on.

  • Ratcliffe’s very public exposure of the Iranians’ activity and description of it as an anti-Trump campaign, while offering scant details on Russian interest in the voter data, caused heated public debate, with Democrats slamming his presentation as highly partisan.

The bottom line: Actors like the Iranian operatives may be ultimately working to trick voters into thinking they're a greater direct threat to election integrity than they actually are.

  • And yet that very trick poses its own threat to election integrity, particularly after the exposure of a campaign gets sucked into the partisan maelstrom of U.S. politics.
  • It's a worryingly simple process: Be loud and sloppy; get caught; drop a little more poison in America’s political well.

Go deeper:Facebook warns of "perception hacks" undermining trust in democracy

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