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.