Monthly Archives: December 2016

Washington Post’s “Russian hacking” fake news story falls apart

TL;DR Summary

  • Washington Post writers Juliet Eilperin and Adam Entous publish a news story titled “Russian hackers penetrated U.S. electricity grid through a utility in Vermont“.
  • This story is shared widely on social media, in part from social media promotion by Washington Post staff, and is quickly re-printed and re-published nationwide relying on the fear created by the headline.
  • The headline is false and ultimately the entire story is shown to be false.
  • The Washington Post silently rewrote the headline and added an “Editor’s note” at the bottom (later moved to the top). The Editor’s note itself left out critical information.
  • The electric utility involved, Burlington Electric, issued a statement condemning the false and untrue statements made: “Media reports stating that Burlington Electric was hacked or that the electric grid was breached are false.”
  • What actually occurred was a lap top connected to an IP address which is thought to be connected with malware but which is also used for other applications.  The electric grid was not hacked. There was no evidence that this involved anyone from Russia. A statement from Burlington Electric states  there was no malware on the laptop computer.
  • Update: The Washington Post has effectively retracted the original story: “Russian government hackers do not appear to have targeted Vermont utility, say people close to investigation
  • Update: Cnet tech news all but says the story was false or fake.
  • Update: Snopes says the story is mostly false.
  • Research shows most people only read the headline and viral stories on social media live on forever, even when wrong.
  • Update: Part of the reason this story was readily accepted by the masses is likely the mistaken view that all communications is connected to the Internet. Utility grid systems do have security vulnerabilities (notably SCADA and PLCs) but utilities run their own private networks, independent of the Internet. That means separate fiber cables and private microwave links. This is also known as an “air gap” – there is not a physical connection between the grid networks and the public Internet.That does not mean they are immune from malware attacks. Notably the U.S. itself attacked systems in Iran by delivering the malware on a USB thumbdrive, which someone plugged into a computer on the secure side of the “air gap”.

    This story works as social media propaganda, in part, because of the “What you see is all there is” problem – the reader fills in the missing gaps to make the narrative fit the reader’s world model. Since computer security is opaque to the typical person, many may believe that the utility grid can be readily hacked over the Internet.

  • Update: The Washington Post intentionally spread this story on social media, gaining rapid shares to “go viral”  and then tried to cover their tracks. Spreading stories on social media with emotionally intense headlines to encourage sharing was pioneered by fake news publishers.
  • Update: The Washington Post failed again, days later, says Time magazine. The WaPo also failed two weeks earlier with their story naming fake news web sites based on a list provided by a shady and anonymous source; WaPo largely retracted the claims after being accused of defaming legitimate news sources. There seems to be a trend underway…
  • Update: The US government intelligence agency report on alleged Russian hacking notes itself that it was based on  news reports and social media posts for “key judgements”:

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“Fake News” primarily driven by profit motives

“It’s about chasing the viral dragon,” said Matt Waite, a professor of journalism at the University of Nebraska and developer of PolitiFact, a fact-checking website.

“If you wait for facts to ruin a good story [by showing the story is not true], then you won’t be in on the pageview bonanza, and your bosses want to be in on the pageview bonanza,” Waite added. “So, post goes up, facts come later.”

Source: The left’s emerging ‘fake news’ problem

“Fake news” is a term initially applied to purported news reports that tweak the emotions of (mostly) right wing conservatives, who then share the stories online, causing the “fake news” to reach millions. As many outlets, including this blog, have documented, much “fake news” comes from both the right and the left – and from mainstream news sources.

Today, every news outlet tracks readership and viewers. That data is mined for insights on how to create news reports that attract more readers and viewers’ eyeballs for advertisers. They track everything and you won’t believe what happened next!

Everyone is learning from the viral fake news success and adopting those techniques even at mainstream news outlets.

“Fake news”, broadly defined, includes

  • Satirical “news reports” that are intended as humor (think of The Onion) but which are often shared as if they were actual news reports.
  • “News reports” written with a bias or based on an ideological perspective. Many news reports, not generally labeled as “fake news” might come from ideological news sources such as Fox News or MSNBC, and other traditional news outlets. A related group are news aggregators which link to a biased selection of news reports, such as the Drudge Report.
  • News reports that contain exclusively accurate information but are fake by virtue of leaving out critical information. This is known as an “error of omission” (versus an “error of commission”). Biased news reports often use this approach because the reader or viewer assumes “what you see is all there is” and is not aware of conflicting information. This method is often used by mainstream news outlets.
  • “Fake news” written specifically to inflame emotions, to encourage sharing on social media for the purpose of driving eyeballs to advertisers.
  • Many well known “fake news” sources are for profit, online-based, social media centric publishers whose goal is not ideology but advertising profit. They use methods and propaganda to target the emotions of their audience to encourage viral sharing that drives eyeballs to advertisers. There are right wing fake news sources produced by liberals and left wing fake news sources produced by conservatives. It’s all about the money and has little to do with ideology – its just a business.
  • Some times, “fake news” sources produce true stories, together with fake and exaggerated stories, making the classification of “fake news” difficult.
  • Fake news can contain entirely accurate information yet by leaving out crucial details, is effectively a fake news report. This is why classifying news as fake or true can be challenging.
  • Fake news tends to rely on emotional hooks, is often poorly sourced, is uncorroborated, leaves out crucial information, and is widely shared on social media.
  • Fake news can and does originate from satirical “news” web sites, from online, social media based for profit “emotionally laden” (especially political) publishers, from ideological and propaganda-oriented organizations (including non-profits, government agencies, universities and businesses), and from traditional mainstream news services. These organizations often use methods of propaganda (also known as persuasion) to try and convince others to adopt someone else’s agenda and may use false stories or stories containing both true and false elements, to reach their targets.

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Profit behind social media fake news and propaganda

Banning fake-news sites doesn’t address the real problem: Social-media companies make big money off lies and hate.

Source: Fake News and Online Harassment Are More Than Social Media Byproducts—They’re Powerful Profit Drivers

This is a good article and catches up with where we were a year ago!

But like all articles on the topic, this one also leaves out mention of perhaps the largest for profit, online social-media based fake news publisher (nearly 4.8 million Facebook subscribers). I’ve mentioned them before – see if you can spot who is missing.

Anti-fake news methods are logically flawed

The real weakness exposed by fake news may be this: critical thinking skills.

Source: Your new civic duty: Flagging fake news

True. And:

Digital media has changed the game by speeding blatantly false information to millions in a matter of seconds, the eagerness of people to embrace “evidence” that supports their opinions, and the “monetization of viewing” that makes fake news lucrative.

Social media cuts the cost of a printing press or a broadcast station to zero. Today, everyone can be a tabloid publishing stories about politicians being married to 3-headed aliens.

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