April 11, 2017

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.

95 thoughts on “Fake News at Work in Spam Kingpin’s Arrest?

  1. Bozack

    Great article Brian!
    There have been so many articles related to this with a title inferring to the election hacking with no substance in the articles. I had to point out to every author of those that they should come read your blogs for better and honest reporting…

    1. titanium

      And where is all money what feds confiscated from thiefes?

  2. Solar

    Larry King works for RT. Trying to give it an air of “Real News”.

  3. Rick Horton

    “This should not be shocking to any journalist or reader who has paid attention to U.S. intelligence agency reports…”

    And how many of those reports qualify as “fake news”? Hard for me to fathom why the US intel “community” is suddenly considered the gold standard for verity by so many. It is a strange time indeed.

    1. Ron

      Spot on.

      While I don’t disagree whit Brian, I’d be thrilled to read an article of his that also sheds light about the US’ propaganda machine.

      Which of those propaganda machines works best at the moment?

      Give us your professional political take. After all, that is essentially why we read your articles.

  4. DM

    So you literally ignore the Current Media owned by 1 minority sect, backed by its money lenders, and its paid-for 3 letter agency strongmen.

    OMG its the RUSSIAN RT Station!!! wth man, thats a HUGE ignore the elephant in the room article.

    How about start with the “HUGE fake news propaganda machine signed into law in 2012 by Obama is causing the melt down of our liberty and not-real freedoms.”

    You should have ended your story with get back to to work Tax slaves we have 20T to pay to our money lendors.

    Very disappointed in this articles biased and lack of real reporting. The only thing you got right was this guy is a spammer.

    1. Pierre Renault

      My friend – in order to comment on posts like this, it will be necessary to learn a whole lot better use of the English language. I can only conjecture as to the impetus behind posting this response at all; clearly immature communication espousing a contrary position w/out positing an actual point. Troll-bait? Perhaps. Frustrated east-block thrashing – likely.

      Ignored – fully.

      1. The Observer

        Actually, Pierre, DM makes a very valid, salient point. A point that is not in any way diminished by ANY number of insults hurled at him, by you or anyone else.

        Perhaps you have a “dog in the race”. Or perhaps you are genuinely [and perhaps willfully] ignorant of the reality of the control mechanisms placed on humanity presently, or who it is that “owns” those mechanisms, as countless others are. Either way, it puts you in a very unflattering light.

        It is not pleasant watching the World descend into such states of ignorance, deception, and confusion, much of it willfully self-imposed so as to avoid facing reality. This is especially true in the West… It is in its death throes, yet the masses simply REFUSE to “take their medicine”, so to speak.

        It’s sickening and heartbreaking, at once.

        1. Scott

          Observer, I literally have no idea what DM was attempting to say. It is not an insult to say that DM’s English is so bad I can not understand what he is trying to say. It is a fact. His post is nothing more than a disjointed combination of English phrases that make no sense when combined together.

          1. Hayton

            DM is not a native English speaker, but if he attempted to post in his own language I doubt it would appear here. That leaves one of the automatic language translators, which have a patchy record of rendering some languages into English (and from English into other languages, I suppose – but I’m never on the other end trying to make sense of what Google Translate has mangled my perfect prose into ..)

            Whatever DM was trying to say, you have to allow that it might have made a bit more sense in its original form. Try it sometime – auto-translate English to Russian and back to English. Sometimes the results are hilarious, sometimes baffling, rarely accurate. Brian has probably encountered this problem himself in the past, although I believe he is now reasonably fluent in Russian and if so would not need to sail the perilous seas of Google translation quite so often.

        2. Deserver

          You sound Russian, trying to defend the indefensible. “The west is crumbling.. Waaah”. I know the west has made flaws, but at least attempts are made to fix them than bare faced lies and diversionary descrimination.

    2. Jim

      Yeah, right, Obama did it, not the Republican house and Senate that make the laws, Obama did it. Quietly get off the Obama hate, and peer out of the fox hole, Obama didn’t take your guns, Obama didn’t take your house or raise your taxes. Your duely elected Republican canned your free speech, limited your input to government, put barriers up to protect themselves from you view, and are going to get your guns, and and limit your liberties. NOT OBAMA!

  5. CT

    Come now, Brian. First thing I’ve ever read by you I have journalistic criticism. Trying to pass off the blame of media integrity to RT? The main stream media don’t need RT’s assistance.

  6. Todd

    When everything is propaganda (left and right news outlets,) what is true? Everyone fudges numbers and uses data to support their point of view. Open up two tabs and compare cnn to fox and it is astounding how different the two are on headlines. It is so blatantly slanted that it is pointless to even try and sift through their content. What happened to objective, content driven news? I guess opinion sells better =(

  7. Steve Rogers

    Brian you are spot on.

    I typed up a lengthy response yet decided to wait 24 hours before submitting it.
    Serendipitously, MIT was thinking about the same things…

    Russian Disinformation Technology

    ““…The single most prevalent Russian response is to attack the critic,” … “They use a ‘vilify and amplify’ technique.” Critics are besmirched, sometimes in an official announcement, sometimes through proxies, sometimes through anonymous sources quoted in state media; then paid trolls and highly automated networks of bots add scale…”


      1. Jason Hegseth

        I know this is an older article, but to be fair on this comment you wrote.

        “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 US media do the EXACT same thing when an American citizen(or dual citizen) is arrested in another country like Iran,Egypt,Mexico..remember Andrew Tahmooressi? The ex-Marine who was “unjustly” jailed because he “happened” to make a wrong turn into Mexico with guns?
        Come to find out he had made taken that route plenty of times before and even the same day he was arrested. Point is the media tried to portray him as some innocent victim when he was anything but, but the US government pressured them to release him.

        Another example is an American Alan Gross who”unjustly” jailed in Cuba was smuggling communications equipment into Cuba.

        I could list more examples, but the point is the US media(ABC,CBS,NBC,CNN,FOX) is just as much “State media” and “Propaganda” as RT..

  8. BlueCritter

    Thanks, Brian. I really feel for you having to expend so much energy fending off the trolls. I white-listed you on my ad blocker.

  9. Tony Best

    I am pretty sure the the entire russian hacking storyline is the real propaganda, provided by US intelligence at the request of high power insiders needing to distract attention from the content of the DNC and other leaked emails. The media dutifully spread this story and continues to do so.

    When a russian publication talks about russian hacking it is a tongue in cheek attack on our own propaganda.

  10. Tony Best

    In fact the way that our media made a big deal of the nonsence RT article and completely missed the much more important spamming story actually proves my point.

  11. Markus

    Omg. All those Putin trolls here making up Ping Pong conversations. This is where Russian tax money goes…

  12. Beeker25

    It comes to no surprise that the RT is, in fact, a propaganda arm of the Kremlin because they tend to make story incomplete designed to vilify and amplify the disinformation.
    It is such reason that I don’t click or read them.

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