"Hacks" Are Not Russians, But Journalists

The latest evidence on the Russian "hacking" of our election and country shows that the "hacks" are the journalists, not the Russians.

The State of Journalism Now

Journalism in this country is simply bad. New technology and economic pressures are forcing more sensational stories out ever faster and faster from some of our most trusted media institutions, and I am afraid we will all pay the price. The last time this type of "yellow journalism" happened was in the 1890s, and the U.S. got into a war partly because of it.

In particular, I am talking about the Washington Post, Jeff Bezos' new plaything. But most of the media outlets are guilty. The pressure to publish in a rapidly changing industry has become too great. And, unfortunately the Post's and others' incompetence spreads down to your local paper - so you can't even trust your local paper now. You can no longer trust anything you read.  Be extremely skeptical and verify what you can before believing it. Let me explain.

Russian Hacking and Punishment 

Earlier in the fall, the U.S. government officially accused the Russians of hacking the DNC to interfere with the U.S. elections. Later, the U.S. announced that it was taking sanctions against Russia for the hacking, including expelling diplomats and financial sanctions. The Obama administration wanted to "punish" Russia for its actions. When two of the world's nuclear powers start "hacking" and "punishing" each other, the world should pay attention. 

As expected, the media reported on these claims. The Russians denied them, and demanded proof. The President ordered an investigation and released and unclassified report purporting to show proof of hacking. The problem is that the report shows nothing about Russian hacking. 

Proof of Hacking is Lacking

The U.S government's report on the Russian hacking has been largely debunked. In the last several days security companies have dug into the technical geeky material and said it proves nothing.

Ars Techinca's security correspondent stated that the "White House fails to make the case" that the Russian hackers interfered with the election. Similarly, Wordpress security site, WordFence, showed that the code used by the hackers, according to the U.S. government's own report, was Ukrainian in origin and freely available to anyone on the internet. Additionally, the IP addresses in the government report do not show Russian involvement. 

Now to be clear, theses reports don't say the Russians were not involved, only that the purported proof the U.S. government provided is not really proof at all and doesn't show what it purports to show. The government could be holding back additional information, but the report they published is not convincing anyone that can understand it.  But that has not stopped the media from going into hyperdrive. 

"The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!"

Unlike the hilarious 1966 movie with Carl Reiner and Alan Arkin (Emergency! Everybody to get from street!), this hyperbole has real world consequences. Sanctions, diplomatic expulsions, and the result of the election had every journalist looking for Russians everywhere. And you shall find what you seek. The Washington Post, in particular, seems to be finding Russians under every rock, nook, and website. First, the Post claimed that Russian "fake news" was all over the internet, citing a previously unknown group, Prop or Not. Prop or not listed websites that it claimed were arms of the Russian propaganda services - basically any website that said anything good about Russia. These claims turned out to be false, and it appeared that the Post did not do any basic vetting of this group's claims prior to publishing its story. Of course, that was only after the story spread like wildfire all over the internet, Twitter, and Facebook. 

Then, just this past week, the Post again published a story about Russian "hacking" of our electric grid.  This would be very concerning - if it were true - but it is not. Again, the Post did not appear to do any basic vetting of this claim. They did not contact the Vermont utility in question before publishing the story. And it turns out that the computer which had the malware code on it was an independent workstation not connected to the electric grid. The headline and story were highly misleading. The Post later retracted it, stating that:

"An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Russian hackers had penetrated the U.S. electric grid. Authorities say there is no indication of that so far. The computer at Burlington Electric that was hacked was not attached to the grid."

Too late. The story had already been published and republished by national, regional, and local outlets.  After all, it was from the Washington Post, one of the country's most prestigious newspapers. A similar headline ran on the front page, Sunday edition, of my local newspaper, the Panama City News Herald. I actually contacted one of the News Herald's staffers on twitter after the Post published its retraction. They said they were aware and would publish a correction. They did the next day - in a tiny little box at the bottom of page 2. I doubt anyone even noticed it. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how incorrect stories and ideas spread: one false story and correction at a a time.

The Washington Post was unethical and negligent in publishing this story. I am sorry to say that It simply cannot be trusted anymore. This is the second time in less than 3 months that it was radically and catastrophically wrong in its reporting - rushing to publish instead of vetting the story. Ironically, the Post itself published a story about fake news, clickbait, and the rush to profit just last month.  Maybe it should reread its own story. What it is doing doesn't look much different.