Creating a Spam Website to Reach Millions of Russians

Fabian at work on his spam site

A Norwegian computer expert has created a website allowing anyone to send an email about the war in Ukraine to up to 150 Russian email addresses at once, so that Russians have a chance to hear the truth that their government hides.

All over Russia, email inboxes are ringing.

Millions of messages are received with the same intriguing subject Ya vam ne vrag – I’m not your enemy.

The message appears in Russian with an English translation and it begins: “Dear friend, I am writing to express my concern for the secure future of our children on this planet. Most of the world condemned Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

The lengthy email goes on to implore the Russian people to reject the war in Ukraine and seek the truth about the invasion from non-state news outlets.

In just a few days, more than 22 million of these emails have landed in Russian inboxes, and they’re being sent by volunteers around the world, who donate their time and email addresses to the cause.

It’s one of many unusual ways that hackers, activists, and people around the world use every day to reach Russians online to circumvent media blocks and censorship. A Polish Twitter user idea to post reviews talking about the war on Russian companies on Google and Yandex has gone viral.

Elsewhere, hacker groups claim to have defaced Russian news websites with messages addressed to the Russian people to “stop Putin”.

But the spam campaign created by a small team in Norway seems to have captured the imagination of thousands of people looking for ways to help Russians learn more about the war.

US transport plane drops leaflets over Korea

An American transport plane dropping leaflets over Korea, during the Korean War of 1950-1953

“In World War II, and in wars before, people flew over Germany with leaflets and left them behind. It’s just a more modern way of trying to get people to open their eyes,” explains Fabian, who came up with the idea.

The 50-year-old Norwegian, who runs a computer networking company, does not want his surname published for fear of reprisals from Russian authorities. He says he felt compelled to do something after growing increasingly anxious about the possibility of World War III.

people power

Its website, which the BBC does not name, circumvents Russian censorship through a mix of smart computing and people power. The system allows people to send his model message to dozens of Russian email addresses at once, and he estimates that tens of thousands of volunteers have done so since the website went live.

Fabian built it with five colleagues, who worked hard over the past weekend to get the job done. They started by scouring the Internet for known Russian email addresses and compiled a list of 90 million accounts they believe are active. He says the strength of the system is that volunteers use their own email accounts instead of sending bulk messages to email addresses using anti-spam software.

Users can choose to contact from 1 to 150 Russian people. Then, with one click, the volunteer’s default email client (Outlook or Gmail, for example) is loaded with the unique email addresses, subject and body text ready to send.

People can also personalize the content, to increase the chances of their email being read.

One of La Repubblica of February 25

Some foreign news sites are still accessible from Russia, but the BBC is blocked

According to Fabian, there are two reasons for using users’ personal email accounts: emails pass through spam filters if sent from real accounts, and in small numbers.

“But also, people can actually get answers from Russians and engage with them and have conversations about the war.”

Fabian says some accounts will be less active than others and in some cases the email may end up in the spam folder. But many messages are read, he says, and some Russians are responding.

Reply to Russians

Alex, also in Norway, was invited to test the system by Fabian’s team, but has been emailing ever since.

“I’ve sent about 500 emails so far and got about 20 replies in one day, so I hope to get more,” he says. “Most of the replies are from people asking me to remove them from my mailing list, but I spoke to a 35-year-old woman from St. Petersburg. She told me she wasn’t sure about what was going on in the conflict and that she wanted to know more. She said there was a lack of news from Europe and that she wanted to know everything but did not know how to get through the blockages on websites.

Alex then explained how she could bypass Russia’s internet blocks

“I think I have a friend in her now!” he says.

Another 18-year-old volunteer shared the response she received from an unknown Russian. The message strongly maintained that she was wrong and that it was Ukraine that was killing innocent people, which is why “this special operation is a necessary measure”.

Fabian says his team is constantly tweaking their email template text and subject line to evade spam filters, and hopes that many of the 90 million email addresses will eventually get the message. If they run out of emails to try, he says the team will find others.

They also had to fend off attacks from unknown hackers trying to bring the site down.

“Not propaganda”

Fabian maintains that what he is doing is “not propaganda”. When asked what he thinks about spamming millions of people, he replies that the intrusion is justified because the stakes are so high.

Does it endanger unsuspecting recipients?

“You can’t charge the recipient of the email. They receive our email without being able to consent to it, so it’s kind of an unintended receipt of a flyer. It’s literally a war. You have to defend what you believe in. . And I believe in it.”

War in Ukraine: More coverage

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