In our world of microscopic attention spans and oversocialized lives desperate for purpose, news stories follow a predictable arc:
The result is that, for the majority, only the sensational, biased, oversimplified version of the event is retained in memory, and the preferred narrative is reinforced.
The Washington Post has demonstrated this wonderfully with their fake news report on how (shocking revelation!) Russians hacked into the US electrical grid! Kalev Leetaru, a Forbes contributor, dissects this lÃ¼genpresse story:
From Russian hackers burrowed deep within the US electrical grid, ready to plunge the nation into darkness at the flip of a switch, an hour and a half later the story suddenly became that a single non-grid laptop had a piece of malware on it and that the laptop was not connected to the utility grid in any way.
However, it was not until almost a full hour after the utilityâ€™s official press release (at around 10:30PM EST) that the Post finally updated its article, changing the headline to the more muted â€œRussian operation hacked a Vermont utility, showing risk to U.S. electrical grid security, officials sayâ€ and changed the body of the article to note â€œBurlington Electric said in a statement that the company detected a malware code used in the Grizzly Steppe operation in a laptop that was not connected to the organizationâ€™s grid systems. The firm said it took immediate action to isolate the laptop and alert federal authorities.â€ Yet, other parts of the article, including a later sentence claiming that multiple computers at the utility had been breached, remained intact.
One might naively expect a news article title to be a short summary of the content of the article, but we see here that in practice, a title acts more as meme, a particle of communicable information that can be used to broadcast directed ideological pressure.
This is significant, as one driving force of fake news is that as much of 60% of the links shared on social media are shared based on the title alone, with the sharer not actually reading the article itself. Thus, the title assigned to an article becomes the story itself and the Postâ€™s incorrect title meant that the story that spread virally through the national echo chamber was that the Russians had hacked into the US power grid.
Even after numerous stealth-edits, the Washington Post still has not made contact with reality:
Yet, even this correction is not a true reflection of public facts as known. The utility indicated only that a laptop was found to contain malware that has previously been associated with Russian hackers. As many pointed out, the malware in question is actually available for purchase online, meaning anyone could have used it and its mere presence is not a guarantee of Russian government involvement. Moreover, a malware infection can come from many sources, including visiting malicious websites and thus the mere presence of malware on a laptop computer does not necessarily indicate that Russian government hackers launched a coordinated hacking campaign to penetrate that machine – the infection could have come from something as simple as an employee visiting an infected website on a work computer.
Leetaru ends with three important points: news media organizations are not concerned with facts, they tend to simply parrot government sources, and the need for instant gratification has turned journalism into sensationalist gossip:
Putting this all together, what can we learn from this? The first is that, as with the Santa Claus and PropOrNot stories, the journalism world tends to rely far more on trust than fact checking. When one news outlet runs a story, the rest of the journalism world tends to follow suit, each writing their own version of the story without ever going back to the original sources for verification. In short â€“ once a story enters the journalism world it spreads without further restraint as each outlet assumes that the one before performed the necessary fact checking.
The second is that the news media is overly dependent on government sources. Glenn Greenwald raises the fantastic point that journalists must be more cautious in treating the word of governments as absolute truth. Indeed, a certain fraction of the worldâ€™s false and misleading news actually comes from the mouths of government spokespeople. Yet, in the Postâ€™s case, it appears that a government source tipped off the post about a sensational story of Russians hacking the US power grid and instead of reaching out to the utilities themselves or gathering further detail, the Post simply published the story as fed to them by the government officials.
The third is that breaking news is a source of a tremendous amount of false and misleading news as rumors and falsehoods spread like wildfire in the absence of additional information. Top tier newspapers like the Washington Post are supposed to be a bulwark against these falsehoods, by not publishing anything until it has been thoroughly fact checked against multiple sources. Yet, it appears this is not the case â€“ in the rush to be the first to break a story and not be scooped, reporters even at the nationâ€™s most prestigious news outlets will take shortcuts and rush a story out the door. What would have happened in the Post had waited another day or two to collect responses from all involved, including Burlington Electric? It would have avoided publishing false information, but it also likely would have been scooped by another newspaper who wanted to be the first to break the story.
All of this confirms what we’ve repeatedly observed: for most of the mainstream news media, a slick website and an aura of respectability mask the underlying ideologically motivated fake news.