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What is 'malign foreign influence' ? You may have already seen it

Foreign interference in the 2016 election has been well-known and documented. Malicious actors used social media and other online methods to influence chaos and spread disinformation.

It's happening again.

To put it more accurate, such online interference has not stopped since 2016. If anything, more foreign actors are joining in.

"It’s been persistent threat that we’ve dealt with, and will continue to deal with in the future," said Assistant Special Agent Josh Murphy with the FBI's Seattle office. "Destroying the American peoples’ trust in our elections and democratic political norms are constantly under attack by our adversaries who have their own reasons – political or economic.”

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“It’s basically foreign nations … Russia, China, and Iran, for instance, it’s their attempts to create chaos and distrust in the electoral process," he said. "They use things like social media, or they try to infiltrate professional journals, or spoof internet domains to spread disinformation and try to create discord here in the US."

Whether it's about the coronavirus pandemic or the 2020 election, websites and social media accounts are currently lurking through news feeds, attempting to plant disinformation and distrust. They are aiming for division.

Malign foreign influence

The FBI has long sounded the alarm about the online assault which social media companies have started to respond to.

Last week, for example, the FBI took down 92 domains used by Iranian groups to spread misinformation in the United States, the Middle East, and Asia. The FBI said the sites "masqueraded as genuine news outlets" using names such as "newsstand7.com" and "USJournal.net."

US officials are on high alert. In August, Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen pointed to the threat surrounding the 2020 election. And last month, FBI Director Christopher Wray told Congress about "very active efforts by the Russians to influence our election in 2020, by what I call ‘malign foreign influence’.”

Agent Murphy explains that "malign foreign influence" is when foreign actors attempt to spread misinformation, disinformation, and general disorder throughout America. The United States has used similar tactics in the past against other countries. Social media and the internet has made the process much easier in 2020.

“It’s a very low investment of resources for a high output of influence that would negatively impact our country and Americans,” Murphy said.

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“When we talk about malign foreign influence, the main thing the average American needs to look at is where you are sourcing your news and information. Make sure you are vetting that out and getting news from reputable sources that are trusted. Always question where some of that information is coming from.”

The FBI has its own website for people to submit tips about online misinformation. The agency also has resources for individuals and organizations to better protect against online disinformation.