Hoax threats aimed at Trump supporters and opponents, NJ officials say
TRENTON — Homeland Security officials in New Jersey are warning voters about enemy disinformation campaigns aimed at sowing discord and discrediting the November election.
The state's counterterrorism office this week highlighted reports in several states where voters received flyers or letters threatening Trump supporters.
"You have been identified by our group as being a Trump supporter," one leaflet circulated in Kansas City, Missouri, said. "Your address has been added into our database as a target for when we attack should Trump not concede the election."
The letter threatened "severe consequences" and suggested that the home or neighborhood would be torched.
"Always remember, that it was 'you' that started this Civil War," the letter said.
State officials said that the sources of the various similar letters, which also circulated in New Hampshire and Illinois, have not been determined. But federal intelligence agencies suspect Iran is behind similar letters that targeted opponents of President Trump.
Those letters, sent to Democratic voters in battleground states including Pennsylvania, appeared to intimidate voters into supporting Trump, although officials believe that the letters may have been meant to ultimately harm Trump by tying him with the right-wing Proud Boys, who the letters claimed to have sent the message.
"Various nation-state threat actors, domestic extremist groups and other partisan interest groups will intensify their attempts to influence the 2020 elections in November," state Homeland Security officials said on their website. "These efforts will include disinformation campaigns and social media engineering to disenfranchise voters and sow discord among Americans."
Federal officials have accused both Russia and Iran of using publicly available voter registration data to create disinformation campaigns. Disinformation is purposely false or misleading statements or images meant to gin up destabilizing confusion or conflict. Russia used such tactics in the 2016 election. Foreign actors also have been linked to false information shared online about the black lives matter movement and the pandemic.
Disinformation has become so commonplace that the state Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness now maintains two rumor control websites to debunk such hoaxes, one of which focuses on COVID-19.
In recent weeks, the website has had to fact-check claims being shared online about supposed voter fraud. Such fraud remains "exceedingly rare" around the country, as one expert described it, although President Trump and some Republicans have tied their rhetoric to it, putting the White House at odds with federal officials and state governments trying to ward off foreign interference and reassure the public.
One misleading claim about voter fraud circulating online used a photo from 2018, state officials said. The photo actually shows empty envelopes from 2018 but social media users were insisting the photo was of 2020 ballots.
Some arguments of voter fraud point to an incident in New Jersey, where ballots were found dumped in the mail.
Federal officials this month charged 26-year-old U.S. Postal Service mail carrier Nicholas Beauchene, of Kearny, with obstruction and delay of mail after more than 1,800 pieces of mail, including 99 general election ballots, were trashed in North Arlington and West Orange.
But officials said these instances of discarded ballots or vandalized mail boxes are "isolated incidents" usually perpetrated by "disgruntled" Postal Service employees, not an attack on the election.
State Homeland Security officials said "misleading photographs and false narratives of voter fraud, manipulation, and discarded mail-in ballots will continue to spread online."
Official information about the election in New Jersey can be found at nj.gov/state/elections.
Official information about COVID-19 in New Jersey can be found at covid19.nj.gov.
Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-775-9793 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.