Fake news has remained one of the big boogeyman ever since Hillary Clinton failed to win the presidential election. But what is fake news? At one time fake news was referred to as tabloids. Then fake news became known as Onion articles. Now fake news seems to mean whatever news one disagrees with. But there is actual fake news and it usually stems from so-called legitimate media outlets:
The original article was posted online on the Washington Post’s website at 7:55PM EST. Using the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, we can see that sometime between 9:24PM and 10:06PM the Post updated the article to indicate that multiple computer systems at the utility had been breached (“computers” plural), but that further data was still being collected: “Officials said that it is unclear when the code entered the Vermont utility’s computers, and that an investigation will attempt to determine the timing and nature of the intrusion.” Several paragraphs of additional material were added between 8PM and 10PM, claiming and contextualizing the breach as part of a broader campaign of Russian hacking against the US, including the DNC and Podesta email breaches.
Despite the article ballooning from 8 to 18 paragraphs, the publication date of the article remained unchanged and no editorial note was appended, meaning that a reader being forwarded a link to the article would have no way of knowing the article they were seeing was in any way changed from the original version published 2 hours prior.
Yet, as the Post’s story ricocheted through the politically charged environment, other media outlets and technology experts began questioning the Post’s claims and the utility company itself finally issued a formal statement at 9:37PM EST, just an hour and a half after the Post’s publication, pushing back on the Post’s claims: “We detected the malware in a single Burlington Electric Department laptop not connected to our organization’s grid systems. We took immediate action to isolate the laptop and alerted federal officials of this finding.”
Fake news tends to be the result of journalists jumping the gun instead of performing a investigation. In this case a journalist or journalists at the Washington Post received information about malware being found on a laptop at a power station. Instead of investigating the story further the journalist(s) wove a story about Russian hackers attacking the United States’ power grid. Had they waited for a response from the power company they would have known that the laptop wasn’t even connected to the network and was therefore a nonissue.
We see this happen with every breaking story. In fact it happens so often that I now consider the term “break story” to mean “incoming bullshit.” The talking heads on your moving picture boxes, the writers for news websites, and your friends on Facebook all crave attention. In the case of the former two attention equals money and in the case of the latter attention equals an ego boost. Either way, the people reporting about a breaking story have no information to go on so they’re just speculating. Furthermore, because journalists are often ignorant about the technical matters surrounding the story they’re reporting on, their speculations tend to be fantastical.
While tabloids are often advertised by their creators as real news almost everybody with the ability to think critically knows they’re bullshit. The Onion straight up admits to being a satire site. So-called legitimate journalists don’t have an excuse to be propagating false information. In fact, the job of journalism once involved investigating stories so true information could be reported. Yet they end up being the biggest propagators of false information time and again.
If you really despise fake news you should be demanding that journalists do their job by waiting until they have some factual information to report before reporting.