FBI director says foreign disinformation campaigns ‘never stopped’ after 2016 elections

FBI Director Christopher Wray said Wednesday that foreign disinformation efforts against the U.S. “never stopped” after Russian actors used them on social media platforms during the 2016 elections.

The FBI chief also told lawmakers during a House Judiciary Committee hearing that malicious foreign influence campaigns are now targeting more than just elections.

“That is in some ways an even more challenging area, not the least because it never stopped. It happened in 2016 and it’s been continuing ever since then. It may have an uptick during an election cycle, but it’s a 24/7, 365-days-a-year threat,” Wray said of disinformation campaigns.

A report compiled by former special counsel Robert Mueller concluded that the Russian Internet Research Agency carried out a social media campaign designed to benefit President Trump and hurt Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016, with the goal of ultimately “sowing discord in the U.S. political system.”

Mueller, along with intelligence agencies and the Senate Intelligence Committee, also concluded that the Russians had attempted to hack into voting infrastructure across the U.S.

As part of his investigation, Mueller indicted 12 Russian agents in 2018 for successfully hacking into email accounts belonging to Clinton campaign staffers and Democratic National Committee networks. 

On Wednesday, when asked if he had seen any efforts by the Russians to interfere again in U.S. elections, Wray said that Russian disinformation efforts remain a key threat.

“While I don’t think we’ve seen any ongoing efforts to target election infrastructure like we did in 2016, we certainly are seeing and have never stopped seeing, really, since 2016 efforts to engage in malign foreign influence by the Russians,” Wray said, pointing to evidence that Russians are using “false personas [and] fake media accounts” online. 

Amid questioning from Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), Wray argued that fighting disinformation online is a difficult issue for the FBI because it sometimes could impact First Amendment rights. The director maintained that the FBI “is not going to be in the business of being the truth police.”

Wray emphasized that disinformation efforts by foreign countries against the U.S. are “not just an election cycle issue,” and that countries like China are actively using disinformation campaigns to promote pro-China issues.

“Other countries, like China for example, have very active foreign malign influence efforts in this country,” Wray told lawmakers. “In their instance it’s more geared towards trying to shift our policy and our public opinion to be pro-China on a variety of issues.”

He emphasized, though, that other “adversary nations” were looking at Russian interference efforts in 2016 and “giving active consideration to whether that is a playbook they should adopt.”

Wray testified Wednesday in the same committee room in which Mueller testified last year that he expected the Russians to attempt to interfere in the 2020 elections, warning that the Russians were trying to interfere “as we sit here.”

Tags Christopher Wray Disinformation Donald Trump Eric Swalwell Hillary Clinton Mueller investigation Propaganda techniques Robert Mueller Russia election interference Ted Lieu

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