The putative scourge of “fake news” has been one of the most pervasive post-election media narratives. The general thrust goes like this: A torrent of fake news swept the internet, damaging Hillary Clinton and possibly leading to a Donald Trump victory.
A primary problem with this convenient-to-some narrative is that “fake news” has yet to be clearly defined by anyone. Vaguely conceptualized as misleading or outright fabricated stories, it can mean anything—as FAIR has noted previously (12/1/16)—from outlets that align with “Russian viewpoints” to foreign spam.
A recent series of events further illustrates this ambiguity. Friday night, the Washington Post (12/30/16) published an explosive report about Russian hackers breaking into a Vermont utility company. The headline splashed all over social media:
Russian Hackers Penetrated US Electricity Grid Through a Utility in Vermont, Officials Say
Quickly, the blockbuster story began to fall apart, after Burlington Electric, the utility in question, issued a statement saying they had “detected the malware in a single Burlington Electric Department laptop not connected to [their] organization’s grid systems.” The Post “updated” the story several times throughout the evening, eventually adding a heavily qualified editor’s note that the only cause for concern was some “Russian code” on a laptop of one of the employees. There was no evidence of a hack or an attempted hack, Russian or otherwise.
Two days later, after the story was walked back several times, Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell linked to it in a story about cybersecurity issues facing the incoming Trump administration:
After FAIR and others pointed out the error, Rampell’s article was changed, but this episode shows how quickly an entirely bogus premise—that Russia had hacked, or even attempted to hack, an American public utility—can spread without an ounce of skepticism. At the time her column was published, the only “evidence” of an “attempted” Russian hack was some malware code that could have been used by anybody. Rampell, likely influenced by the initial erroneous reporting by her colleagues, made an assumption that this was evidence of an “attempted hack,” a false assumption debunked by the Post itself (1/2/16) two hours after she published. In all cases, everything is rounded up to the most sensational, most Cold War–panic inducing conclusion. “Mistakes” rarely, if ever, happen in favor of less hysteria.
In a separate instance, the Washington Post (12/22/16) ran a column by Sen. John McCain insisting that the United States had “done nothing” in Syria. Had McCain’s editors, again, bothered to read their own paper, they would see that the Post (6/12/15) reported that the CIA has spent up to $1 billion a year on the Syrian opposition, or roughly $1 out of every $15 dollars the agency spends.
This wasn’t merely a difference of opinion; it was a clear, black-and-white falsehood—not only had the US not “done nothing,” it had, by any objective metric, done quite a bit. Even opinion columns can be factchecked; that this one wasn’t, on its most basic premise, suggests that when it comes to fanning the New Cold War—especially on its hottest front in Syria—the Washington Post has lowered its editorial standards to tabloid levels.
All this highlights the problem with limiting the criticism of misinformation to low-rent content farms in Macedonia, as the “fake news” narrative so often does, while inoculating traditional outlets from the charge without a discernible reason to do so.
University of North Carolina professor Zeynep Tufekci—whose November New York Times column (11/15/16) helped kick off the latest round of concern over fake news—objected to this counter-objection: “There is no, and never was, ‘perfect news,’” she tweeted. “Pls stop referring to every mode of failure of news as ‘fake news.’ Conflation is not analysis.” When security researcher Marcy Wheeler pushed back by insisting that what the Post had done was, by its own criteria, fake news, Tufekci doubled down:
@emptywheel Dumb, opportunistic jumping at sensational story. Newsroom economics. Retracted. Still not “Hmm, how about Pope Endorses Trump”.
— Zeynep Tufekci (@zeynep) January 3, 2017
The issue, of course, is not whether the Washington Post engages in the same proportion of fake news as the trollhole websites in question; it’s that when its news is fake, it has a far more significant effect. The Post is still read by far more people than fringe websites, and its reporting is met with far more credulity. It is also assumed that mistakes by the the Post are done entirely in good faith, with no consideration for political or editorial pressure to find dirt on America’s current No. 1 enemy, Russia.
But Tufekci and others have carved out such a narrow definition of “fake news” that it excludes anything emanating from establishment news sources. Indeed, when pressed on this point, Tufekci insisted “traditional media” could not, by definition, engage in fake news:
— Zeynep Tufekci (@zeynep) January 3, 2017
The Post’s misleading and sometimes outright false reporting on matters related to Russia are dismissed as simply “newsroom economics,” and no ill will or political incentive or ideology is ascribed. Because, we—The Good American Traditional Media—don’t do those types of things. A “fake news phenomenon” that cannot, by definition, include mainstream media is a power-serving tautology that shields US corporate media from scrutiny and encourages citizens to simply trust some outlets (we’ll tell you which ones) rather than think critically.
A recent YouGov poll showed a shocking 46 percent of Trump supporters believed the “pizzagate” scandal—a bizarre conspiracy spread on 4Chan and Infowars about Clinton’s campaign manager running a child sex ring out of a DC pizza parlor. This led, justifiably, to widespread mockery and hand-wringing over fake news by the pundit classes.
But most missed that the same poll found that 50 percent of Clinton supporters believed the Russian government had tampered directly with vote tallies—as in, Putin agents directly manipulated election results. While these fears are based, at least in part, on actual (though still unproven) assertions by US intelligence that Russian hackers leaked unflattering DNC emails in an effort to influence the election, the idea that Russia actually hacked the voting process itself is an ungrounded conspiracy theory, and one the White House has repeatedly insisted didn’t happen. But where, one may ask, did 50 percent of Clinton supporters get the idea Russia hacked the election?
Corporate media continue to refer to the alleged Russian hacking of the DNC (and Clinton campaign manager John Podesta) emails as “election hacking,” giving readers the distinct impression the Russians, well, hacked the election. This wildly misleading framing is augmented by a network of pro-Clinton pundits who, in the wake of the election, spent weeks fanning theories that the machines were tampered with.
Fake news, to the extent it is a menace, ought to be measured by how badly it pollutes with misinformation. Given the number of people who think Russia is literally overturning vote totals, this meme and those who spread it certainly fits the description. But it doesn’t get the label that treats it as a serious problem, because “fake news”—in effect, if not by design—includes everyone and everything except US corporate media.
Adam Johnson is a contributing analyst for FAIR.org. You can find him on Twitter at @AdamJohnsonNYC.