Protected Voices: Foreign Influence

The FBI’s Protected Voices initiative provides cybersecurity recommendations to political campaigns on multiple topics, including foreign influence, to help mitigate the risk of cyber influence operations targeting U.S. elections.

Video Transcript

Your voice matters. To you. To your campaign. To the American people.

It also matters to Russia, to China, and to a great many other countries who would love to use your voice to carry their message.

Hello, I’m Alla, a special agent with the FBI. In this video, I’ll describe who’s trying to influence your campaign, how, and why.   

First, which countries are most involved in trying to influence our political process? Primarily Russia, China, and Iran.

As of this filming, Russia is the most active in this field—although we expect other countries will get more involved in the future. In 2016, Russia ran hack-and-leak operations to interfere in the U.S. presidential election. Two years later, Russia continued to use social media to spread false facts and distrust during the U.S. midterm elections. And we aren’t alone. Russia has also tried to shape the political outcomes in France, Italy, Macedonia, Mexico, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom—either by promoting a specific candidate or goal, attacking opponents, or trying to discredit the entire democratic process.

China tries to influence the U.S. through open and secret investment in media, education, and entertainment. In 2008, China also hacked into computer systems related to U.S. political campaigns. Since then, China has only gotten better at shaping the information environment. Currently, China focuses primarily on its core interests, such as human rights, Tibet, and Taiwan.

Iran, while a less active foreign adversary than Russia, runs social media campaigns to promote messages aligned with Iranian interests.

Now let’s discuss three common methods foreign powers use to influence our political process: Cyberattacks on campaign and election infrastructure, including hack-and-leak operations and data manipulation; covert influence and funding operations to help or harm political organizations, campaigns, and public officials; and disinformation campaigns on social media platforms.

Let’s first look at cyberattacks on campaigns and election infrastructure. A foreign adversary can use cyberattacks to steal or change data. They might, for instance, want to delete eligible voters from the rolls. Here’s the interesting thing: While as of this filming we have no evidence that any foreign government has successfully changed votes cast by eligible voters or removed voters from the rolls, even making Americans think that’s possible encourages distrust of our democratic process.

Other cyberattack techniques include hack-and-leak operations, where the adversary might steal and publicize sensitive materials and internal emails to embarrass a campaign. Or a distributed denial of service attack, in which the adversary overwhelms your computer network with too much data, so your network functions slowly or not at all.

Whatever their goal, the most common way for an adversary to go about starting an attack is to convince someone on the inside to click on or do something they shouldn’t. Your campaign’s leadership team might be very careful with cyber hygiene—but anyone connected to your campaign, even the part-time volunteers, could click on a link that would grant the adversary access to your networks. In other words, all staff members on your campaign, regardless of their location or proximity to the candidate, are attractive targets.

For specific advice on how to keep your computer networks and devices safe, watch our other Protected Voices videos and look for resources on our website.

A second common method foreign powers use to harm or assist political organizations, campaigns, and public officials is covert influence.

Foreign governments know it’s illegal for U.S. campaigns to accept help from them. Therefore, foreign governments hide their true identities when they go after unwitting politicians, party leaders, campaign officials, and the public. A foreign government might create a fake profile to befriend you, or pose as a donor or volunteer to get you to reveal information about yourself or your campaign. The foreign government’s usual goal is to harm or help a particular campaign, political organization, or public official. This makes it especially important for campaigns to vet the source and background of funds, information, and unexpected personnel coming onboard.

For more information on understanding your potential business partners, watch our Protected Voices video on supply chain management.

The third method of influence foreign powers use is disinformation campaigns. In disinformation campaigns, foreign adversaries create fake U.S. personas, Internet trolls, and bots on social media platforms to target U.S. citizens, develop relationships with them, and influence them. A foreign power may even create a deepfake by using sophisticated technology to alter real photos and videos. The alterations made in a deepfake photo or video might be impossible to find without forensic analysis or access to the original content.

Sometimes the foreign power-backed messages will be related directly to specific political campaigns. Other times our adversaries may instead try to persuade certain groups not to vote at all or to encourage third-party voting. Or they might simply convince the public of fictitious widespread voter fraud to make the election results seem illegitimate.

The overall goal of disinformation campaigns is to influence public opinion, misrepresent what the true public opinion is, divide our country, and create mistrust in our democratic process.

Your campaign cannot stop foreign governments from posting false messages. But you can help make those messages ineffective by educating both your campaign staff and the public on media literacy—that is, looking into the source of online information before reposting or otherwise spreading messages. When you see suspicious posts on social media platforms, you can also report your concerns to the relevant social media company.

For more information and tips on social media use, watch our Protected Voices video on social media.

Bottom line? Let’s protect ourselves by practicing good cyber hygiene, media literacy, and diligent vetting of funds, people, and information.

Remember, your voice matters, so protect it.

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