And the beat goes on …


The Washington Post seems to have decided to send its credibility into the dumpster by rushing into print with alarmist headlines any story that suggests that Russia is pretty much waging cyberwarfare on the US without bothering to do basic journalistic due diligence. The latest is a story that had the headline “Russians hackers penetrate U.S. electricity grid through a utility in Vermont, official say”, an alarming claim if it were true. (It has now added a disclaimer that undercuts its own story and even changed the headline to make it less scary.)

When I first saw that story in the news, it looked far more serious than earlier stories about Russia influencing the US elections. But given how overhyped and under-sourced those stories have become (what started out as charges that hackers with possibly Russian connections has accessed the emails of some Democratic party officials and then released them through WikiLeaks, is now routinely reported as ‘Russian hacking of the US elections’, implying that the Russian government actually messed around with the vote totals), I decided to wait and see what might emerge here.

And sure enough, we seem to have again been the victims of an overhyped and under-sourced charge. Once again, we have to thank Glenn Greenwald for wading through another example of journalistic malpractice by the Post to add to its PropOrNot fiasco. As Greenwald says:

There was no “penetration of the U.S. electricity grid.” The truth was undramatic and banal. Burlington Electric, after receiving a Homeland Security notice sent to all U.S. utility companies about the malware code found in the DNC system, searched all their computers and found the code in a single laptop that was not connected to the electric grid.

Apparently, the Post did not even bother to contact the company before running its wildly sensationalistic claims, so they had to issue their own statement to the Burlington Free Press which debunked the Post’s central claim (emphasis in original): “We detected the malware in a single Burlington Electric Department laptop NOT connected to our organization’s grid systems.”

So the key scary claim of the Post story – that Russian hackers had penetrated the U.S. electric grid – was false. All the alarmist tough-guy statements issued by political officials who believed the Post’s claim were based on fiction.

Even worse, there is zero evidence that Russian hackers were responsible even for the implanting of this malware on this single laptop. The fact that malware is “Russian-made” does not mean that only Russians can use it; indeed, like a lot of malware, it can purchased (as Jeffrey Carr has pointed out in the DNC hacking context, assuming that Russian-made malware must have been used by Russians is as irrational as finding a Russian-made Kalishnikov AKM rifle at a crime scene and assuming the killer must be Russian).

Greenwald tries to understand what is driving this phenomenon of promoting scary anti-Russian stories in major media, and puts part of the blame on Twitter.

A large percentage of journalists sit on Twitter all day. It’s their primary window into the world. Because of how intense and raw the emotions still are from Trump’s defeat of Clinton, the social media benefits from tweeting and publishing unhinged claims about Trump and Putin are immense and immediate: thousands upon thousands of re-tweets, a rapidly building follower count, and huge amounts of traffic.

Indeed, the more unhinged it is, the greater the benefits are (see some of the most extreme examples here). That’s how otherwise rational people keep getting tricked into posting and re-tweeting and sharing extremely dubious stories that turn out to be false.

And that’s to say nothing of the non-utilitarian social pressures. It’s not news that coastal elites – particularly media and political figures – were and are virtually unified in their unbridled contempt for Trump. And we have seen over and over that any time there is a new Prime Foreign Villain consecrated – now Putin – U.S. media figures lead the campaign. As a result, any denunciation or accusation toward Trump or Russia, no matter how divorced from reason or devoid of facts, generates instant praise, while any questioning of it prompts instant peer-group denunciation, or worse.

Then there was this sentence tucked into another Guardian story on this scare: “Russian malware is regularly found inside computers used by US utilities.” What? If that is the case, why is this case being elevated to such a high level?

The reality is that off-the-shelf malware is apparently nowadays easily available to anyone who seeks it and a diligent search of almost any computer is likely to find something. Determining who designed and wrote the code is one thing and figuring out who used it against any particular target and why is something else entirely. (I will leave it to the computer experts among the readers to correct me if I am wrong about this.)

Furthermore, as is often the case, the US screams loudly when it suspects that other countries are doing to it what it does to others. Have people already forgotten how the Snowden documents revealed that the US and UK governments were infecting computers around the world with malware? And remember the Stuxnet and Flame malware that the US and Israel used against Iran?

Greenwald feels compelled to end his piece with the following disclaimer that should be taken as a given but, given the neo-Cold War mentality in which we are now immersed, needs to be stated explicitly whenever one says anything that goes against the Two Minute Hate target du jour, which at the moment happens to be Russia and its leader Valdimir Putin.

Since it is so often distorted, permit me to once again to underscore my own view on the broader Russia issue: of course it is possible that Russia is responsible for these hacks, as this is perfectly consistent with (and far more mild than) what both Russia and the U.S. have done repeatedly for decades.

But given the stakes involved, along with the incentives for error and/or deceit, no rational person should be willing to embrace these accusations as Truth unless and until convincing evidence has been publicly presented for review, which most certainly has not yet happened. As the above articles demonstrate, this week’s proffered “evidence” – the U.S. Government’s evidence-free report – should raise rather than dilute suspicions. It’s hard to understand how this desire for convincing evidence before acceptance of official claims could even be controversial, particularly among journalists.

The last thing anyone should want is another Cold War with Russia (or China). That is simply too dangerous to use as a football for partisan advantage in domestic politics as seems to be happening now. Ratcheting up the rhetoric against those nations based on poorly sourced information is a dangerous exercise.

Comments

  1. jrkrideau says

    That is simply too dangerous to use as a football for partisan advantage in domestic politics as seems to be happening now

    Brexit?

  2. enkidu says

    I have been following this story, so far as I am capable of understanding it, and two salient and contradictory scenarios seem to abound.

    One, the “hackers” (even that is not proven as far as I can tell) used an old version of malware developed in Russia, or maybe the Ukraine, and this proves a) it wasn’t the Russian government because they would use more sophisticated malware, or b) it was the Russian government, because mis-direction.

    Two, a) the reports by FBI, CIA don’t show any proof of Russian involvement, therefore there wasn’t any or b) the FBI, CIA reports don’t disclose what they really know (how do they know that?) so as not to tip off the Russians how much they know. This is therefore proof of Russian involvement.

    Neither of these seem to be amenable to proof in any straightforward way.

    To me it seems much more likely that domestic politics is the basis. The out going administration trying to poison the incoming, that has a different foreign affairs agenda (in so far as it has any coherent agenda). It also serves to distract attention from the undemocratic Electoral College system and the fact that the election decision hinged on only a few thousand voters in three states.

  3. jrkrideau says

    It strikes me Trump’s enemies can now call him a Russian dupe just as Obama’s enemies claimed he was born in Kenya.

    At the moment, they seem equally likely though Trump seems so erratic that who knows what he may do?

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    … the social media benefits from tweeting and publishing unhinged claims about Trump and Putin are immense and immediate…

    Anybody with a Twitter account reading this is welcome to pass it along (don’t use my name, please!):

    Who did the single most effective action to win the election for Trump? Spread the word: the Director of the FBI is a Russian agent!

  5. sonofrojblake says

    The most depressing thing about this story (to me, at least) is that it, along with a couple of other things in just the last couple of weeks, has put the nail in the coffin for trust in the only soi disant progressive newspaper in the UK, the Guardian. I’ve been a loyal reader for 30 years, even paying for a paper copy (remember those) most days for the first ten or so (until they went online and thus cut their own throats). For most of that time, it was notably distinct from the rest of the print media in its integrity and commitment to progressive values (even if it did occasionally pay Julie Bindel to spew her TERF bullshit or publish Barbara Ellen’s considered opinion that a convicted, admitted paedophile didn’t deserve to go to prison for having sex with a child because… can you guess?).

    The rot seemed to set in when, having collaborated closely with Julian Assange, they fell out with him rather publicly. They’ve been bleating about about the apparent epidemic of “fake news” for months, even holding out the begging bowl under the banner “in a world of fake news, real journalism must be paid for”. Then on Christmas Eve they published a summary of an interview with Assange, with a clickbait headline that was entirely false. I expect this kind of bullshit from the Daily Mail. To get it from the Guardian is worse, much worse.

  6. samihawkins says

    ‘dangerous’? Bullshit. Trump has made it explicitly clear he intends to give Putin everything he wants. There’s no chance of a war starting anytime soon.

    So no I will not abandon the most effective weapon we currently have to use against Trump because of some vague fearmongering about it being dangerous.

    The claim that Donald Trump conspired with Putin to steal the election makes him look bad. I’m gonna spread that claim as far and wide as I can because doing so makes Trump less popular and less likely to win reelection.

    By casting doubt upon that claim you’re supporting Donald Trump, making him more popular and more likely to win relection.

    Which is more important, stopping Trump and the GOP from dismantling a century’s worth of progressive gains, or patting yourself on the back for being oh-so ethical and honest?

  7. Friendly says

    Which is more important, stopping Trump and the GOP from dismantling a century’s worth of progressive gains, or patting yourself on the back for being oh-so ethical and honest?

    Ends do not justify means. Ever. If we’re willing to forward claims that we don’t know are true (or, worse, that we know are false) because we hope that those claims will weaken Trump, we’re no better than he is.

  8. says

    @6 samihawkins
    Trump is unethical and dishonest. You are unethical and dishonest, and very adamant about it. People like you blur the difference between the forces at play. On one corner you have corrupt liars trying to bullshit their way into power, on the other you have corrupt liars trying to bullshit their way into power. What point is there in supporting either side? They’re all assholes.

    You may believe that being as big of a shithead as the other side is justice, but in reality it only makes people tune out altogether. And sad day for you, when people do that your side loses. Consistently.

    The claim that Donald Trump conspired with Putin only makes him look bad among the people who already don’t trust him. None of his supporters gave a fuck when they voted for him the first time. If you think they will give a fuck the second time, you are an irredeemable idiot.

    The strategical defect of your oh-so-perfect line of attack is that it makes Trump’s opposition look like blood-thirsty warmongers, since they’re trying to escalate tensions with Russia because of this. It also makes them look like a bunch of bullshitters, since evidence of the so-called conspiracy is flimsy to non-existent. Spreading that claim far and wide makes democrats as a whole look like they desire power over everything else, even in the face of a possible war with Russia, and are willing to lie through their teeth to get it. Peddling the Russian Hackers nonsense will only make Trump more powerful.

    Just think about your opening statement “Trump will give Putin anything, there’s no chance for war” and understand that the logical conclusion of that statement is “there’s no chance of war because Trump is in power“. That’s bullshit, bad optics, bad tactics, bad everything. But partisan idiots keep pushing that message not realizing that it actually makes him look good.

    He will get a reelection if democrats haven’t figured this shit out by 2020, and his successor will be another republican if 2024 comes to pass and democrats still refuse to change their braindead tactics. Being oh-so ethical and honest is not just virtue signaling, it’s good tactics. The GOP will dismantle a century’s worth, a millennia’s worth, of progressive gains if the common people can’t trust the democrats to be good or honest.

    All while you pat yourself in the back for being an such a tough-guy and spamming what you think is the easiest line of attack. It’s not. It’s a “punch yourself in the face and hope he slips with your blood” line of attack.

  9. sssss sssssss says

    So first off I wanna apologize for being rude to my host. I have a bad habit of letting my mouth get ahead of me.

    Secondly I’m on a crummy phone so responding is difficult. Instead I’ll just lay out my basic reasoning which applies to more than just the specific topic of Russia:

    The GOP’s tactics over the past 8 years have been unethical, deceitful, and damaging to our country. They’ve also worked amazingly well to the point where the GOP is poised to control all three branches of federal government and controls a majority of state governments.

    I don’t see how you can tell me sleazy and underhanded tactics don’t work when you just saw them work. We’ve tried being ethical, reasonable and reaponsible. What did it get us? President Donald Trump. I wanna try something else.

    *ya its sami and the same person as on that other post. Get weird error signing in,switch accounts.

  10. says

    @9
    So, according to your logic, the GOP must be stopped because they’re unethical, deceitful and damaging. Since they recently had a major victory while being unethical, deceitful and damaging, you believe the best course of action is to try to be more unethical, deceitful and damaging than them so you can win. What’s even the point of your side winning in those terms?

    Democrats didn’t ever try being ethical, reasonable or responsible. If they had been ethical, your democratic president wouldn’t have deported more people than his republican predecessor, your presidential candidate wouldn’t have supported a measure in Syria that she herself admitted would kill thousands of civilians, your second-to-last democratic president wouldn’t have sold out minorities with a fucked up crime bill.

    If democrats had tried to be reasonable, your presidential candidate would have allowed BLM in her rallies instead of shoving them into a spare room, your party would have tried to connect with the people who were let down by the primary process instead of trying to scold them into submission, your party leadership would have respected the free press instead of threatening journalists with their jobs.

    If democrats had been responsible, they would not have neglected the so-called “Blue Wall” of Wisconsin and Michigan, they would not have put forth such a weak candidate against what they all tell me is the second coming of Hitler, they would not have taken minority, female and youth support for granted.

    Truth is, the last time democrats actually tried to at least give the image of being ethical, responsible and so on, was when Obama won. You did try something different:
    1. “No change for no one.”
    2. “The other guy is evil and you’re evil if you don’t support me.”
    3. “Economic anxieties are just your bullshit white privilege talking.”
    4. “Any criticism of our anointed is fake and demonstrative of a character flaw of the person criticizing.”
    5. “Loss of the candidate is solely responsibility of the stubborn, ignorant peasants who dared refuse their support.”

    Obama didn’t do that, neither did Bill. Gore and Kerry didn’t appeal to statement number 5 when they lost.

    What I just saw was sleazy, underhanded tactics epically backfiring in the democrats’ faces. Even if I admitted that that kind of tactics ever actually worked (and I’m not quite sold on that), the fact remains that they’re clearly not working for you.

  11. sonofrojblake says

    Wow. Everything ALfM said at 10.

    I don’t see how you can tell me sleazy and underhanded tactics don’t work when you just saw them work

    We saw them work when done well by people who know how to do that. We also simultaneously saw them fail epically by people who don’t really understand how to do them properly.

    The single visual/audio image I will remember from the 2016 campaign is this: Clinton angrily saying straight to camera, “How come I’m not 50 points ahead?”. On the basis of how the campaign was run, and on the basis of how the Dems and Clinton in particular have behaved since, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if in 2020 the Democrats pick Clinton as their candidate again.

  12. says

    @11 sonofrojblake
    Thank you.

    Personally I see two options:
    1. These shitty tactics worked for Republicans and failed for Democrats.
    2. These shitty tactics failed for both, they just happened to fail harder for Democrats.

    Trump got 3rd place in the popular vote, 2nd place was Hillary, and by far the unequivocal winner of the electoral vote was “none of the above”. He is poised to be the least liked president elect in american history (the honor would’ve been Hillary’s, had she won). And his margins of victory were quite small in the states that decided this election.

    These facts make me lean towards option 2, they both failed.

    Also, Jesus Christ, that ad. The lack of self-awareness… It’s unbearable! Remembering one of her cringy attempts at pandering, why couldn’t she just Pokemon Go to hell and let in someone who could actually win an election?