With less than three months before the presidential election, Trump administration officials appear to be spamming foreign citizens in a bid to prevent election interference.
Russians and Iranians woke up Friday morning to strange spam text messages encouraging them to report any evidence of interference in the United States election to the U.S. State Department—and offering a hefty financial incentive to do so.
“The United States pays up to $10 million for any information on foreign interference in American elections,” the messages read in Russian and Farsi.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the generous reward a day earlier, citing efforts by “Russia and other malign actors.” the State Department said the Rewards for Justice program would provide a $10 million reward for information leading to the identification of those who attempt to disrupt the U.S. election at the behest of a foreign government. In the announcement, the department encouraged recipients to contact the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate.
A link appended to some of the Russian messages leads to the Russian version of the Rewards for Justice verified Twitter account, according to the Russian outlet Jellyfish. The messages reportedly appeared scattered across the vast country in cities like Saratov, Krasnodar, Ulyanovsk, Chelyabinsk, Perm, Yekaterinburg, and Tyumen.
Many Russians took to social media to share screenshots of the baffling text messages, with some comparing the offer to a “reward for treason.”
Timofei Zhukov, a lawmaker in Yekaterinburg, posted a screenshot of one such message, which purportedly showed it was sent using a service known for usually distributing spam.
Citizens of Iran seemed equally confused by the messages.
A software developer in Tehran told Reuters he thought the message was “some kind of cyber attack.”
A State Department spokesperson appeared to confirm the mass text messaging tactic in a statement: “The U.S. Department of State’s Rewards for Justice (RFJ) program is advertising a reward offer through SMS messages and a variety of other communications tools and techniques. Our SMS messages refer back to the verified official Rewards for Justice social media accounts, which are available in multiple languages.”
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova scoffed at the State Department’s “chain letters” in a Facebook post where she accused U.S. intelligence services of “intruding in our lives.” “What is this, if not a true hybrid attack?” she wrote, accusing U.S. authorities of targeting the Russian population to prove Kremlin meddling.
The State Department’s mass text messaging campaign comes as Democratic lawmakers push for more information about specific foreign schemes to meddle in upcoming elections. Russian attempts to interfere in the 2016 election cast shadows over the contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and Iran made similar incursions, though to a lesser extent.
While William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, issued a grave warning last month about China, Iran, and Russia all posing “a direct threat to the fabric of our democracy” by plotting to sway the 2020 election, Democrats described Evanina’s statements on foreign threats as “so generic as to be almost meaningless.”
Democrats have voiced particular concerns about a smear campaign against Joe Biden waged by pro-Russian Ukrainian politicians in tandem with Rudy Giuliani. They fear disinformation from that Kremlin-friendly campaign is being fed to Senate Homeland Security Chairman Ron Johnson as part of his investigation into the former vice president and his dealings in Ukraine—a probe launched after much grumbling from Trump and his allies, and fully embraced by many Republicans as Biden gained traction in the polls.