Announcement - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Iran’s Reported Election Meddling: How We Can Defend Against Influence Operations

| Oct. 22, 2020

This week, the Director of National Intelligence accused Russia and Iran of taking “specific actions to influence public opinion.” Information made public during last night’s press conference accused Iran of sending voters threatening emails that appeared to be from a far-right group.

While further information is needed to understand the full scope of these actions, this reported interference should be understood as just one element of a larger effort by malicious actors to meddle in the U.S. election and sow doubt about our democratic process. 

The threatening emails, while revealing new tactics, are not a surprise. Adversaries are continuously iterating their use of influence operations. We must redouble our work to be cognizant and defend against these attacks ahead of, during, and after election day. This vigilance is crucial, because disinformation attacks and resulting misinformation can cause harm as voting continues and as results are reported.

In past election cycles, we’ve seen influence operations exploit divisive social and political issues. We’ve also seen tactics target the election process itself, seeking to confuse voters on how, when, and where they vote. Iran’s alleged operation indicates a blend of these tactics, attempting to intimidate voters as they prepare to cast ballots. As voters, we need to know that these attacks seeking to sow discord are real. But their success can be reduced by the actions of many Americans who are working to protect our democracy and participate in it.  

In light of these tactics and known interference, we must seek authoritative sources of information throughout this election season*, report incidents that seem to confuse voting facts, and recognize our own role in responding to these types of attacks. We can determine how we vote without being impeded. We can pursue civil discourse on important issues, knowing that malicious actors want to toxify our dialogue. To maintain the integrity of the electoral process, we need to keep our democratic debates on our terms, not theirs. Regardless of political affiliation, all Americans need to unite against malicious actors seeking to influence the election.

The mission of the Defending Digital Democracy Project (D3P) at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs is to help decision-makers in the democratic process counter cyber and information attacks. Our recommendations and resources help election officials, journalists, campaigns, and voters safeguard the election from attacks like the one we saw highlighted this week. To this end, we’ve produced a series of timely resources, including a playbook that explores common influence operations — and how to defend against them. Our hope is that these resources are helpful in better understanding and countering these brazen attacks on our electoral system.

D3P Election Influence Operations Playbook 

D3P Election Data Set 

Exclusive for Election Officials- Online Modules and Resources including materials for cyber and information operations communication response. Email with any questions.   

*You can use, a nonpartisan website created by state election officials to find your election official.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Barsallo Lynch, Maria.“Iran’s Reported Election Meddling: How We Can Defend Against Influence Operations.” Announcement, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, October 22, 2020.