Fake News at Work in Spam Kingpin’s Arrest?

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Over the past several days, many Western news media outlets have predictably devoured thinly-sourced reporting from a Russian publication that the arrest last week of a Russian spam kingpin in Spain was related to hacking attacks linked to last year’s U.S. election. While there is scant evidence that the spammer’s arrest had anything to do with the election, the success of that narrative is a sterling example of how the Kremlin’s propaganda machine is adept at manufacturing fake news, undermining public trust in the media, and distracting attention away from the real story.

Russian President Vladimir Putin tours RT facilities. Image: DNI

Russian President Vladimir Putin tours RT facilities. Image: DNI

On Saturday, news broke from RT.com (formerly Russia Today) that authorities in Spain had arrested 36-year-old Peter “Severa” Levashov, one of the most-wanted spammers on the planet and the alleged creator of some of the nastiest cybercrime engines in history — including the Storm worm, and the Waledac and Kelihos spam botnets.

But the RT story didn’t lead with Levashov’s alleged misdeeds or his primacy among junk emailers and virus writers. Rather, the publication said it interviewed Levashov’s wife Maria, who claimed that Spanish authorities said her husband was detained because he was suspected of being involved in hacking attacks aimed at influencing the 2016 U.S. election.

The RT piece is fairly typical of one that covers the arrest of Russian hackers in that the story quickly becomes not about the criminal charges but about how the accused is being unfairly treated or maligned by overzealous or misguided Western law enforcement agencies.

The RT story about Levashov, for example, seems engineered to leave readers with the impression that some bumbling cops rudely disturbed the springtime vacation of a nice Russian family, stole their belongings, and left a dazed and confused young mother alone to fend for herself and her child.

This should not be shocking to any journalist or reader who has paid attention to U.S. intelligence agency reports on Russia’s efforts to influence the outcome of last year’s election. A 25-page dossier released in January by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence describes RT as a U.S.-based but Kremlin-financed media outlet that is little more than an engine of anti-Western propaganda controlled by Russian intelligence agencies.

Somehow, this small detail was lost on countless Western media outlets, who seemed all too willing to parrot the narrative constructed by RT regarding Levashov’s arrest. With a brief nod to RT’s “scoop,” these publications back-benched the real story (the long-sought capture of one of the world’s most wanted spammers) and led with an angle supported by the flimsiest of sourcing.

On Monday, the U.S. Justice Department released a bevy of documents detailing Levashov’s alleged history as a spammer, and many of the sordid details in the allegations laid out in the government’s case echoed those in a story I published early Monday. Investigators said they had dismantled the Kelihos botnet that Severa allegedly built and used to distribute junk email, but they also emphasized that Levashov’s arrest had nothing to do with hacking efforts tied to last year’s election.

“Despite Russian news media reports to the contrary, American officials said Mr. Levashov played no role in attempts by Russian government hackers to meddle in the 2016 presidential election and support the candidacy of Donald J. Trump,” The New York Times reported.

Nevertheless, from the Kremlin’s perspective, the RT story is almost certainly being viewed as an unqualified success: It distracted attention away from the real scoop (a major Russian spammer was apprehended); it made much of the news media appear unreliable and foolish by regurgitating fake news; and it continued to sow doubt in the minds of the Western public about the legitimacy of democratic process.

Levashov’s wife may well have been told her husband was wanted for political hacking. Likewise, Levashov could have played a part in Russian hacking efforts aimed at influencing last year’s election. As noted here and in The New York Times earlier this week, the Kelihos botnet does have a historic association with election meddling: It was used during the Russian election in 2012 to send political messages to email accounts on computers with Russian Internet addresses.

According to The Times, those emails linked to fake news stories saying that Mikhail D. Prokhorov, a businessman who was running for president against Vladimir V. Putin, had come out as gay. It’s also well established that the Kremlin has a history of recruiting successful criminal hackers for political and espionage purposes.

But the less glamorous truth in this case is that the facts as we know them so far do not support the narrative that Levashov was involved in hacking activities related to last year’s election. To insist otherwise absent any facts to support such a conclusion only encourages the spread of more fake news.

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