The Strange Case of the Iranian Proud Boys Impersonators and the 2020 Election

I hesitate to write this post because being objective these days can get you into trouble. Depending on which end of the political spectrum you’re on, the name, Proud Boys, will conjure up images of either extreme right wing, KKK Nazis or patriots fighting for the preservation of Western culture. It’s a tangled web of facts and political spin that, oddly, was appropriated by Iranian hackers in a bizarre attempt to influence the 2020 election and undermine the U.S. Although the election concluded over a year ago, it was only recently that the F.B.I, indicted two of the participants behind the scheme.

First, who are the Proud Boys? They are an all male group who believe that Western culture is the best. They are locked in an ongoing battle with the extreme left group, Antifa, and, in fact, members of the group can advance their standing by “bashing a fash” or punching an Antifa member. They are not anarchists and do not participate in random destruction of property, unlike Antifa. They have been banned almost everywhere on the internet so it is nearly impossible to find objective information on them. Google has even removed their archived history. Their fall into infamy really began with their participation in the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Proud Boys leader, Enrique Tarrio, claimed they were there to protest the removal of Confederate statues.

Enrique Tarrio

One person was killed  at the rally when James Alex Fields drove his car into a group of Antifa and other leftist demonstrators, but Fields was not associated with the Proud Boys.

The Proud Boys’ real problem came when they were mentioned by Donald Trump in a debate with Joe Biden. It raised their profile to the point where they became a prime target of the left. They were banned from virtually all social media sites and deplatformed. Despite these obstacles, someone associated with Tarrio, a Proud Boys member not yet banned, recently interviewed him. These are the values he lists as the Proud Boys core principles.

True, these principles may not appeal to everyone and the group does have some odd initiation procedures (like getting punched by five members) but it’s hardly fair to designate them as a domestic terrorist group while Antifa is free to destroy buildings.

In any event, the elevation of their profile seemed to encourage at least two Iranian hackers  to launch what the F.B,I. claimed to be a  “campaign to intimidate and influence American voters, and otherwise undermine voter confidence and sow discord, in connection with the 2020 U.S. Presidential election.”

The two Iranians recently indicted, Seyyed Mohammad Hosein and Musa Kazemi, first obtained voter information, which, quite frankly, is pretty easy to do. Just see what’s available to anyone here. In any event, when they got the lists they needed, they used them to send targeted emails to the voters. If the voter was a Democrat, they received messages such as the following.

Apparently, the Iranians believed the Proud Boys were a group that would strike fear into any Democrat. Republicans were targeted with emails claiming voter fraud. The emails contained a link to a video which purports to show a Proud Boy member hacking into a voter database and altering absentee ballots. According to the indictment, emails were sent “to Republican Senators, Republican members of Congress, individuals associated with the Presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump, White House advisors, and members of the media.” The hackers behind these emails claimed to be a “group of Proud Boys volunteers.”  But that’s not all. The hackers had previously compromised a media company’s network and planned to stoke discord by continuing its misinformation campaign even after the election was over. This part of the attack was purportedly stopped by the F.B.I.

These hackers, quite likely members of a hacking group tied to the Iranian government, seemed to believe that the left would be afraid of the Proud Boys and not risk voting for Biden while the right would sympathize with the Proud Boys and believe whatever they told them about election fraud.

The indictment claims the hackers sent tens of thousands of intimidation emails to Democrats. It is difficult to tell how effective the campaign was. The same is true of the claims of voter fraud distributed to top Republicans. Did it contribute to the claims of election fraud following the election? The indictment gives no information on this, but the possibility that it had some effect does exist. The fact is that the Iranian government really didn’t care who won the election as long as they struck a blow against American democracy, and, in so doing, encouraged discord between the right and the left. So what better group to choose to leverage than the Poor Boys who exemplified the differences?

The New York Times claimed that Democrats receiving the threatening emails were so angered by them that it made them more determined to vote against Trump. Did the hackers realize they would create this effect? It seems unlikely that they would have wanted Trump reelected since he abandoned the Iran nuclear deal. In the end, allegations about voter fraud may have also hurt Trump more than helped him. It’s hard to believe, however, that these Iranian hackers could have foreseen this outcome.

In the end, the group most hurt by all of this was probably not the Democrats, the  Republicans, or the hackers. It was the Proud Boys who had to repeatedly disavow any connection to these attacks. Nonetheless, they were left with a kind of guilt by association. Activist groups like Deplatform Hate pressure organizations to cut ties with any right wing group they happen to dislike, which includes the Proud Boys. “We’re tearing out the far-right movement’s digital roots. Racists, log off.” And recently the Proud Boys were sued for damages that occurred during the January 6th demonstrations. According to District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine, “our intent is to hold these violent mobsters and these violent hate groups accountable and to get every penny of damage we can,”

Lest you worry about the future of the Proud Boys, don’t. They are thriving on Gab and Telegram.

Their membership embraces a wide spectrum of views and there, in fact, are homophobes and anti-Semites among them. They are not choir boys. And don’t be surprised if they are used as a front for another attack or are blamed for another attack somewhere down the line.

In the current battle between the left and right, each side has blamed the other for planting imposters among their members. If anything bad happens at a rally, it is blamed on these imposters. It’s no different with the cancel culture trend, which has been described as “an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.” It would not be surprising to see foreign adversaries manipulate these groups to sow the seeds of discord in an effort to disrupt American life. In this atmosphere, it would not be a stretch of imagination to expect companies to be targeted with extortion attempts in a way that mimics ransomware attacks. In more sophisticated attacks, individual employees may be targeted and intimidated so as to allow criminals to infiltrate the corporate network. In other words, keep those endpoints secure.

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