Iranian ‘hacking’ video fabricated to push election disinfo
CLAIM: A video shows an Iranian whistleblower demonstrating how they hacked a U.S. voter registration database during the 2020 election and created fraudulent overseas military ballots.
AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. A federal investigation found that the video was fabricated to make it appear foreign actors fraudulently cast overseas ballots. The falsified video was released by Iranian nationals who were later indicted on federal charges for attempting to push disinformation ahead of the 2020 election, according to court documents and statements released by the U.S. Justice Department and the FBI.
THE FACTS: Social media users are sharing a clip from a Florida election integrity event last month to sow doubt about election security in the days before the 2022 midterms.
The clip shows a panel discussion during the Oct. 29 Florida Election Integrity Conference in Orlando, which was sponsored by several Conservative groups. The event featured a number of speakers who have previously spread misinformation about elections.
In the clip, a panel of five speakers sit at a conference table with a red “make elections secure again” banner pinned to the front. A speaker wearing a baseball cap projects a video from his laptop onscreen to the audience. The footage appears to show a first-person angle of someone extracting U.S. voter information and filling out an overseas ballot using the data.
“This is an Iranian whistleblower, this just got dropped in my lap a couple days ago,” the speaker says while showing the video, adding, “This is actually real. This is the whistleblower actually connecting in through a special tool that can be downloaded for free on the internet.”
“This is how elections are s+olen,” wrote one Twitter user sharing the video on Wednesday, gaining thousands of likes and shares before the post was restricted.
“The hacker pulled our records and used them to create a military ballot,” an Instagram user who shared the same clip wrote in a caption.
However, the footage displayed at the event shows a simulation intended to mislead people, not a successful attempt to cast fraudulent ballots, according to the Justice Department, which launched a joint investigation with the FBI into the scheme in 2021.
As part of the conspiracy, two Iranian nationals “created and disseminated a video containing disinformation about purported election infrastructure vulnerabilities” that claimed to depict actors fabricating ballots through the Federal Voting Assistance Program for military and overseas voters, according to the federal court indictment unsealed in New York in November 2021.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York confirmed to The Associated Press on Monday that the video shown during the Florida election panel — which the speaker purported was “real” — actually used much of the same content as the falsified video at the center of the federal investigation.
“We have reviewed the video and although there are slight variations it appears to contain substantially the same content as the false election video referenced in the 2021 indictment,” wrote Public Information Officer Nicholas Biase.
During the same cyber campaign, the hackers attempted to compromise voter websites in 11 states, and did successfully download information about more than 100,000 voters from one state. Federal officials did not publicly identify which state. But the defendants did not use that information to change vote totals, officials said and the AP has reported.
Instead, they used the information to create the video simulation, leaving the impression that election results should not be trusted because ballots could be fraudulently submitted, according to the court documents. In reality, the Federal Voting Assistance Program “could not be leveraged in the manner implied,” the indictment stated.
U.S. intelligence officials also emphasized in a March 2021 assessment that there was no evidence that Iran or other foreign actors had done anything to change 2020 election vote totals, AP reported.
Members of the conspiracy posed online as a far-right group to send the hacking simulation to Republican lawmakers, advisors to then-President Donald Trump and journalists, according to the indictment. The conspirators claimed that the Democratic Party was planning to exploit “serious security vulnerabilities” in state voter registration websites to edit mail-in ballots and register non-existent voters in 2020.
The defendants were charged with conspiracy to commit computer fraud and abuse, intimidate voters, and transmit interstate threats, among other counts.
This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.