How False News Spreads
The Washington Post’s fake story of “Russian hackers penetrating the US electrical grid”
AS THE Washington Post’s story of Russian hackers burrowed deep within the US electrical grid, ready to plunge the nation into darkness at the flip of a switch unraveled into the story of a single non-grid-connected laptop with a piece of malware on it, the Post has faced fierce criticism over how it fact checked and verified the details of its story. It turns out that the Post not only did not fact check the story until after it was published live on its website, but in its defense of the story, the Post made a number of false statements about what was written when, which the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine reveals.
When I wrote yesterday about the Washington Post story, Kris Coratti, Vice President of Communications and Events for the Washington Post had offered just a single emailed response and had not responded to any of my remaining questions regarding the Post’s fact checking and construction of the article in question. Last night, just over 20 hours later, she finally did respond to two of my questions.
As I noted yesterday, it seemed odd that Burlington Electric issued a formal response refuting the Post’s claims just an hour and a half after the Post’s publication. This would suggest that the Post would have gotten a response from Burlington if only it had just contacted the utility prior to publication, as is required by standard journalistic practice.
In fact, when I asked the Post why it had not contacted the utilities prior to publication, in her emailed response to me, Ms. Coratti asserted that the Post had indeed contacted both utilities for comment prior to publication and had not received a reply from either and so proceeded with publication. In fact, she went as far as to state “we had contacted the state’s two major power suppliers, as these sentences from the first version of the story attest: ‘It is unclear which utility reported the incident. Officials from two major Vermont utilities, Green Mountain Power and Burlington Electric, could not be immediately reached for comment Friday.’”
If this statement was present in the very first version of the story published at 7:55PM, that would mean that the Post had reached out to the companies for comment prior to publication and received no response.
However, as the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine shows, this is actually false. Archived snapshots of the story at 8:16PM and 8:46PM make no claims about having contacted either utility and state instead only that “While it is unclear which utility reported the incident, there are just two major utilities in Vermont, Green Mountain Power and Burlington Electric.” No claim is made anywhere in the article about the Post having contacted the utilities for comment.
In fact, it was not until an hour after publication, somewhere between 8:47PM and 9:24PM that the Post finally updated its story to include the statement above that it had contacted the two utilities for comment.
I reached out to Mike Kanarick, Director of Customer Care, Community Engagement and Communications for Burlington Electric Department for comment on why his company had not responded to the Post’s prepublication request for comment.
It turns out that the reason that Burlington Electric did not response to the Post’s prepublication request for comment is that the Post actually did not reach out for comment until after it had already run its story. The Post’s article went live on its website at 7:55PM EST, but according to Mr. Kanarick, the first contact from the Post was a phone call from reporter Adam Entous at 8:05PM, 10 minutes after the Post’s story had been published.
It is simply astounding that any newspaper, let alone one of the Post’s reputation and stature, would run a story and then ten minutes after publication, turn around and finally ask the central focus of the article for comment. Not only does this violate every professional norm and standard of journalistic practice, but it feeds directly into the public’s growing distrust of media. In the era of “fake news” hysteria where publications like the Washington Post tout their extensive fact checking and vetting workflows as reasons that the public should trust their reporting over anyone else, it is surprising to see just how chaotic or non-existent that fact checking really is.
What exactly is “fact checking” when a newspaper runs a story and only calls the party involved after publication for comment on the published and live story that is already circulating widely? That suggests that the Post’s idea of fact checking is to publish first and then correct the story by rewriting it bit by bit in the hours following publication, rather than collecting all facts and developing a definitive hard story before ever allowing it to be published. While both models might be called “fact checking,” the latter is what leads to false and misleading news circulating, especially as other news outlets picked up on the Post’s story and ran it assuming that the Post had conducted all of the necessary fact checking.
It also tells us that the Post ran its story based solely and exclusively on the word of US Government sources that it placed absolute trust in. That the Post would run an entire story based exclusively on the word of its US Government sources and without any other external fact checking (such as contacting the two utilities), offers a fascinating glimpse into just how much blind trust American newspapers place in Government sources, to repeat their claims verbatim without the slightest bit of vetting or confirmation.
Moreover, Ms. Coratti’s response to me also asserted that “as soon as Burlington Electric released its statement … we modified the story to remove assertions that the electric grid had been penetrated and later added the editor’s note.” Yet, as I noted in my response back to her (to which she has not responded), more than a full hour elapsed between Burlington’s press release and the Post finally updating its story. While a one hour response time might have been considered lightning fast and nearly instantaneous in a former era, in the world of social media in which stories spread in seconds, a delay of an entire hour in updating a story with critical facts that change the entire focus of the story and essentially amount to a retraction of the original narrative, represents an eternity during which the false original narrative continued to spread. Ms. Coratti also did not respond to a request for comment on why the Post took more than 11 hours to post an editor’s note notifying readers that the article had been substantively rewritten and the original thesis retracted.
It was also fascinating that the Post itself does not appear to closely track the changes it makes to stories, with Ms. Coratti writing with respect to the article title that “we repeatedly modify and refine headlines as we publish a story on multiple platforms; we do not keep track of such changes.”
It is both fascinating and troubling that the Post’s defense of its reporting in this case involved asserting that it had contacted the utility in question prior to publication, that it had included a statement attesting to this in the very first version of the article and that it immediately updated its story as soon as the utility issued a formal statement. Yet, all three of these statements appear to be false.
Ms. Coratti did not respond to a request for comment on the fact that her responses would appear to suggest that the Post itself is confused as to what it wrote, when and in what version of the article, though her earlier response about article headlines suggests the Post does not version its articles to record what they say and when. In an era in which any WordPress blogger has automatic strict versioning recording every edit they make to their posts through time, it is all the more surprising and shocking that the Post would not do the same.
Putting this all together, we see that the “fact checking” of mainstream journalism does not quite match the gleaming pristine aura touted by the journalism community in which top tier outlets are a bulwark against false and misleading news due to their rigorous and extensive fact checking processes that will not allow an article to be published until every detail has been fully confirmed. Instead, even the most celebrated outlets like the Post will run a story without the most basic of fact checking or, in this case, appear to have done their fact checking only after publication, allowing a false narrative to ricochet virally through both social and mainstream mediums for hours before correction.
Moreover, it was only through the incredible Internet Archive Wayback Machine, which saves snapshots of more than 279 billion webpages and stretches back more than 21 years to the very dawn of the modern web, that we were able to reconstruct the chronology of this Washington Post article and show how the story evolved and when certain statements were added or removed. Without the Wayback Machine, we would have only the Post’s word as to what its article said when and, as Ms. Coratti noted, the Post itself does not version or archive the entirety of its stories to be able to go back and definitively examine what was said and when.
In the end, as we peel back the gleaming veneer, we see that the way in which mainstream journalists really work don’t always match our expectations or indeed the claims that the journalism community itself makes about the rigor of things like fact checking and verification.
Thus, as I’ve said again and again, the answer to “fake news” and the issue of false and misleading information in general is not to place a few elites in the role of ultimate arbitrator of truth, but rather to develop a citizenry that is data and information literate. We also see that in a world in which incredible organizations like the Internet Archive are preserving the world’s online news for posterity and documenting the editing and rewriting and airbrushing that news undergoes, news outlets must be far more transparent in how they report on the world around us, as ordinary citizens can now go back and fact check the fact checkers.
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