State Department: We're responsible for Russian, Iranian text message campaign

This August 6, 2020 screenshot shows a text message sent to an Iranian cell phone user promising up to $10 million for information about anyone planning to interfere in the American election. It is one of a series of text messages sent to people Iran promoting the US State Department?s Rewards for Justice program. The text reads "The United States pays up to $10 million for any information on foreign interference in American elections." Handout via REUTERS

(Reuters) - The U.S. State Department said on Friday that it was responsible for a text message campaign that left a trail of confusion and ridicule across Russia and Iran.

In an email, a spokesperson for the department said the unsolicited text messages - which promoted a multimillion dollar bounty for information about cyber threats to the upcoming U.S. election - were aimed at building awareness internationally.

“This is a worldwide campaign in multiple languages,” the email said.

The department’s comments came after an unknown number of people in Russia and Iran began receiving the text messages and posting screenshots to social media.

The campaign may have helped U.S. authorities get the word out about their reward, but Reuters spoke to five Iranian users who said they found the messages either bewildering or humorous.

Sadra Momeni, a developer who works out of the Iranian city of Qom, compared the texts to propaganda leaflets dumped out of the back of an aircraft. He said he initially thought the message was a scam; it was only when he opened the link that he realized that the United States was genuinely soliciting tips about election hacking via text message.

“I just laughed,” he said.

Russians who received the messages reported similar reactions on social media. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova joked on Facebook that the State Department’s website would be overwhelmed by denunciations.

Elements of the American government have taken increasingly aggressive moves against state-backed actors suspected of trying to disrupt U.S. elections. Ahead of the 2018 midterm congressional elections, for example, U.S. forces were reported by The Washington Post to have mounted a cyberattack on Russian digital propagandists in an effort to deter them from interfering - an operation whose outlines were later confirmed by President Donald Trump.

Reporting by Raphael Satter and Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Dan Grebler