By Eric Tucker
WASHINGTON — FBI Director Chris Wray said Wednesday that Russia is engaged in “information warfare” heading into the 2020 presidential election, though he said law enforcement has not seen ongoing efforts by Russia to target America’s election infrastructure.
Wray told the House Judiciary Committee that Russia, just as it did in 2016, is relying on a covert social media campaign aimed at dividing American public opinion and sowing discord. That effort, which involves fictional personas, bots, social media postings and disinformation, may have an election-year uptick but is also a round-the-clock threat that is in some ways harder to combat than an election system hack, Wray said.
Unlike a cyberattack on an election infrastructure, that kind of effort — disinformation — in a world where we have a First Amendment and believe strongly in freedom of expression, the FBI is not going to be in the business of being the truth police and monitoring disinformation online,” Wray said.
The FBI and Department of Homeland Security are on alert for election-related cyberactivity like what occurred in 2016, when Russians hacked emails belonging to the Democratic campaign of nominee Hillary Clinton and probed local election systems for vulnerabilities.
But, Wray said Wednesday, “I don’t think we’ve seen any ongoing efforts to target election infrastructure like we did in 2016.”
His appearance came two days after Democratic presidential caucuses in Iowa were marred by a malfunctioning app that caused a delay in the reporting of results. Though local and federal officials have stressed that the problems weren’t caused by a foreign intrusion, the error played into existing unease surrounding election security and risked amplifying concerns among American about the integrity of the voting process.
Even without signs of election system targeting, Wray said Russian efforts to interfere in the election through disinformation had not tapered off since 2016. He said social media had injected “steroids” into those efforts.
“They identify an issue that they know that the American people feel passionately about on both sides and then they take both sides and spin them up so they pit us against each other,” Wray said. “And then they combine that with an effort to weaken our confidence in our elections and our democratic institutions, which has been a pernicious and asymmetric way of engaging in … information warfare.”
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