Iranian hackers last year infiltrated the computer systems of Lee Enterprises Inc., a major American media company that publishes dozens of daily newspapers across the U.S., as part of a broader effort to spread disinformation about the 2020 presidential election, according to people familiar with the matter.
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 Enterprises, a publicly traded company headquartered in Davenport, Iowa, and one of the largest newspaper chains in the U.S.
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.
A spokesman and executives at Lee Enterprises didn’t respond to requests for comment. The Justice Department declined to comment.
On Thursday, U.S. authorities charged two Iranian nationals, Seyyed Mohammad Hosein Musa Kazemi and Sajjad Kashian, of cyber-related crimes, allegedly carried out to engage in voter intimidation and election interference ahead of last year’s U.S. presidential election between Joe Biden and then-President Donald Trump. The Treasury Department also sanctioned the pair along with four other Iranian nationals, describing them as “state-sponsored actors” involved in a disinformation campaign.
Officials said both defendants were presumed to be residing in Iran and aren’t in custody. Neither defendant could be reached for comment.
Cybersecurity experts and senior U.S. officials have long worried that media organizations could be hacked or otherwise manipulated to spread disinformation around an election result—a concern that grew more pronounced after Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. State election officials in recent years have urged voters to turn to official vote tabulations rather than media reports or projections due to a mix of concerns ranging from human error, inaccurate projections, and possible tampering.
Lee Enterprises’ properties include the Richmond Times-Dispatch in Virginia, the Omaha World-Herald in Nebraska, the Buffalo News in New York, and the Arizona Daily Star, among others. It also publishes a variety of digital publications, such as All Politics Now.
The indictment followed assessments from the U.S. intelligence community previously made public in October 2020 and March that determined 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.
Another example of news organizations being targeted to spread disinformation occurred while votes were still being counted in last year’s presidential contest. A coordinated network of Twitter accounts posed as the Associated Press and CNN to prematurely declare election victories for Democrat Joe Biden, the Journal previously reported. 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.