Iranian hackers, fake photos and anonymous lies: Disinformation surges before Election Day

Nicholas Nehamas, Sarah Blaskey
·5 min read

With just a week until the election, political campaigns are hammering opponents with their most negative and misleading ads, knowing there will be little time for the other side to correct the record.

Miami Herald reporters are continuing to scan mailers, emails, text messages and other political ads for disinformation to help readers sift fact from fiction.

This week’s roundup of election ads features a doctored photo, an anonymous attack website that appears to violate state election law, and a foreign intimidation campaign targeting Florida voters.

Please visit the Election Ad Decoder to see our full reporting. And if you see an interesting ad or sponsored social media content that we haven’t reported on, please send it to us.

Here’s a quick look at the four biggest takeaways from our reporting this week.

‘La Compañera’

So far in 2020, Republicans have hammered Democrats with false accusations that they are “socialists” and “communists.”

The trend has filtered down to local races, including the non-partisan contest between Miami-Dade County Commissioner Eileen Higgins, a Democrat, and challenger Renier Díaz de la Portilla, a Republican.

This campaign sign uses a doctored Miami Herald photograph of Miami-Dade County Commissioner Eileen Higgins.
This campaign sign uses a doctored Miami Herald photograph of Miami-Dade County Commissioner Eileen Higgins.

One anti-Higgins campaign sign used a manipulated photo that had been doctored to show her wearing a Che Guevara-style beret with a red star. The fake beret says “La Compañera,” roughly “the comrade.” The original image was taken by a Miami Herald photographer. Higgins, who is running for reelection, was not wearing the beret in the real photo. The ad also falsely suggests she is a communist and says in Spanish that she is “not one of us.”

A political committee linked to Díaz de la Portilla’s brother, Alex, who is a city of Miami commissioner, paid for the ad. Neither brother returned requests for comment.

The district where Higgins is running includes many Cuban Americans, especially in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood. Higgins has never expressed support for communism.

The original Miami Herald photo of Miami-Dade Commissioner Eileen Higgins shows she was not wearing a beret.
The original Miami Herald photo of Miami-Dade Commissioner Eileen Higgins shows she was not wearing a beret.

“People might assume the photo is real, but it’s total disinformation,” said Susan Benesch, a researcher at American University. “It is egregiously false. It is faked.”

To see the full ad analysis, search the Ad Decoder for “Higgins.”

‘Proud Boys’ from Iran

Hundreds of Florida Democrats received threatening emails this month telling them to “vote for Trump on Election Day or we will come after you.”

Although the messages claim to come from a neo-fascist group called the Proud Boys, U.S. intelligence authorities believe they may be linked to Iranian hackers, making them an example of foreign interference in the 2020 election.

John Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence, said the emails were designed to incite social unrest and hurt President Donald Trump. (Democrats pushed back against that claim, saying that Ratcliffe has politicized the country’s intelligence apparatus to benefit Trump.)

These threatening emails claim to be from a neo-fascist group called the Proud Boys, but U.S. intelligence agencies believe they actually trace back to Iran.
These threatening emails claim to be from a neo-fascist group called the Proud Boys, but U.S. intelligence agencies believe they actually trace back to Iran.

Emerson Brooking, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, said the emails are probably “the clearest” example of foreign interference likely to be uncovered before the election. The FBI is investigating.

There is no proof that the hackers are connected to Iran’s government, and Iranian officials have denied they were involved.

To see other ads and sponsored content that have overseas origins, search the Ad Decoder for “foreign interference.”

‘Urgent election information’

Hallandale Beach is no stranger to dirty political tricks, including commission candidates finding GPS tracking devices on their cars, publishing personal information like the partial Social Security number of an opponent, and whipping up anti-Muslim hysteria.

The latest example is an anonymous attack website against Hallandale Beach Commissioner Michele Lazarow, who is running for reelection. The website, which is being promoted to voters in text messages, contains disinformation and hateful speech and appears to violate Florida election law.

This text message links to an anonymous attack website against Hallandale Beach Commissioner Michele Lazarow.
This text message links to an anonymous attack website against Hallandale Beach Commissioner Michele Lazarow.

It claims that Lazarow, who has never been charged with a crime in Florida, “breaks the law and incites violence.” It also calls the prophet Mohamed “an oppressor of women and criticizes Lazarow for appearing at a South Florida mosque.

It is not clear who paid for the website. At the bottom of the page, a disclaimer states: “I’m a concerned citizen of Hallandale Beach, and I have free speech guaranteed by the 1st amendment of the U.S. Constitution. ... Don’t vote for Michele please. Thank you!!!”

Frances Hill, a law professor and campaign finance expert at the University of Miami, said the website appeared to violate state election laws that require political communications to disclose who paid for them.

“The reference to the First Amendment does not serve as a substitute for the state law requirements,” Hill said.

Dmitriy Yakubovich, who is running against Lazarow, said his campaign had nothing to do with the website.

“The politics have been very dirty in Hallandale over the past few elections,” Yakubovich said. “I’m not in favor of this. There’s no place for it in Hallandale.”

To see other ads and sponsored content that address Hallandale Beach elections, search the Ad Decoder for “Hallandale Beach.”

FIU bridge

National Democratic groups are pouring money behind Rep. Debbie Mucarsell-Powell to help her fend off Republican challenger Carlos Gimenez, the mayor of Miami-Dade County, in a competitive swing district.

One ad attacks Gimenez with the misleading claim that his family “managed” the company that built the deadly Florida International University bridge.

This television ad attacking Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who is running for Congress, was pulled from the air after complaints from the father of a young woman who died in the 2018 Florida International University bridge collapse.
This television ad attacking Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who is running for Congress, was pulled from the air after complaints from the father of a young woman who died in the 2018 Florida International University bridge collapse.

The claim is attributed to a March 19, 2018, Miami Herald story.

While Gimenez’s two sons had previously worked for the company, the Herald story pointed out that neither had anything to do with the project and both had left the firm by the time the poorly designed bridge collapsed two years ago, crushing idling cars and killing six people.

Orlando Duran, whose daughter Alexa was killed in the collapse, asked that footage of the collapse be removed from the ad, saying the tragedy should not be politicized. The ad was eventually pulled from TV.

To see other ads and sponsored content that contain disinformation, go to the Ad Decoder, select “disinformation” under warning label and hit search.

Miami Herald staff writers Ana Ceballos, Samantha Gross, Alex Daugherty and Alex Harris contributed to this report.