Monday, November 22, 2021

Iranian hackers got into Lee Enterprises systems the day after the 2020 election, and tested how to create fake news

Lee Enterprises newspaper locations; click the image to enlarge, or click here for the interactive version and a list.

"Iranian hackers last year infiltrated the computer systems of Lee Enterprises Inc., a major American media company that publishes dozens of daily [and weekly] newspapers across the U.S., as part of a broader effort to spread disinformation about the 2020 presidential election," Dustin Volz reports for The Wall Street Journal. "On Thursday, the Justice Department said the alleged hackers broke in to the digital systems of an unnamed media company in fall 2020 and tested how to create false news content. People familiar with the matter on Friday identified the company as Lee."

Lee, based in Davenport, Iowa, is one of the nation's larger newspaper chains, especially since acquiring BH Media Group's 31 papers in early 2020. It has more than 350 non-daily papers.

"The Federal Bureau of Investigation warned the unnamed company about the intrusion, prosecutors said. The day after the November presidential election, the hackers tried to get back into the media company’s system but failed, prosecutors said. The federal charging document in the case doesn’t indicate the hackers successfully published fake information under the unnamed media company’s news brands," Volz reports. Last year, U.S. intelligence found "that the leaders of Russia and Iran ordered their governments to attempt to influence U.S. voters’ choices in the 2020 presidential election and undermine the public’s faith in American democracy."

News media can used to spread disinformation without hacking. That happened last November while votes were still being counted: "A coordinated network of Twitter accounts posed as the Associated Press and CNN to prematurely declare election victories for Democrat Joe Biden," Volz reports. "Those tweets, which Twitter removed quickly, were nonetheless retweeted dozens of times and amplified by at least a handful of journalists and other verified Twitter users." 

The incident is a good reminder to be vigilant and cross-check even tweets that seem legitimate. State election officials, increasingly concerned about disinformation campaigns, have called on the public to only trust official vote tabulations instead of news media reports or projections, Volz reports.

UPDATE, Nov. 23: Lee is a takeover target of Alden Global Capital, The New York Times reports.

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