Last week, the media filled with reports about how the Russians were hacking the power grid in Vermont. This was supposedly the first wave of more cyberattacks. The only problem? It wasn’t true:
As federal officials investigate suspicious Internet activity found last week on a Vermont utility computer, they are finding evidence that the incident is not linked to any Russian government effort to target or hack the utility, according to experts and officials close to the investigation.
An employee at Burlington Electric Department was checking his Yahoo email account Friday and triggered an alert indicating that his computer had connected to a suspicious IP address associated by authorities with the Russian hacking operation that infiltrated the Democratic Party. Officials told the company that traffic with this particular address is found elsewhere in the country and is not unique to Burlington Electric, suggesting the company wasn’t being targeted by the Russians. Indeed, officials say it is possible that the traffic is benign, since this particular IP address is not always connected to malicious activity.
In other words, the Washington Post, and most of the media, said a cyberwar was underway because someone clicked a link. This is part of the overall hysteria about Russia that has gripped the media since Trump’s election.
Look, I have no use for the murderous kleptocrat who runs Russia and has dreams of rebuilding his Empire. And it puzzles and alarms me that our President-Elect wants to snuggle up to him. But … let’s get a grip here. We’re not at war. We have a bit of a cold war thing going, but it’s not nearly what we were dealing with 25 years ago. For the time being, Putin’s imperial ambitions consist of wrecking his economy and getting his military bogged down in Syria and the Ukraine. Yes, we should pay attention to them and be concerned about cyber-warfare. But the speed with which people are going to DEFCON 2 is ridiculous.
(Note: it’s especially ridiculous because of many of these same jokers were useful idiots for the USSR when the latter actually was a superpower and we actually were in an intense Cold War. They were fine with seventy years of gulags and guerrilla wars, but a phishing attack on the DNC is apparently a step too far.)
I’ve been building up a diatribe on the “fake news” hysteria for a while and now is as good a time as any to unload. Pull up a chair.
Ever since the election, the Left has been atwitter with stories about “fake news”: supposedly false stories that may have tipped the election toward Trump (the WaPo, in what is becoming an pattern, claimed these fake news stories were Russian propaganda, a claim they have since had to walk back when it turned out to be total pigswill).
I am certainly concerned about the proliferation of conspiracy theorists and garbage websites publishing nonsense. It’s not healthy when millions and millions of people believe all kinds of nonsense like Barack Obama was born in Kenya (or George Bush planned 9/11).
But let’s get a grip. Fake news is nothing new. And, frankly, some of the biggest and certainly the most dangerous purveyors of fake news are the very mainstream media that is currently having a fit over fake news.
As I noted in my pizzagate post, the MSM has had no problem pushing hysterical narratives about sex trafficking. They have also had no problem, sans evidence, trying to tie every mass shooting to right wing politics. They had no problem pushing a fake gang rape story to slime UVa and have had no problem falsely claiming that one in five college women are victims of rape. They have no problem jumping on every drug panic in the world. They had no problem pushing clearly fake documents to claim Bush 43 shirked his Air National Guard Duty.
When the Branch Davidian compound went up in flames, the media mindlessly repeated government talking points that later turned out to be garbage. When a crazy person tried to murder Gabby Giffords, they mindlessly claimed that it was a result of Sarah Palin’s electoral map based on nothing but internet speculation. When Israel is in its various conflicts, they have no problem cropping pictures or running propaganda footage to make Israel look as bad as possible.
Defense attorneys see fake news every day when the media mindlessly repeat law enforcement and prosecutorial claims on TV as though they were the uncontested truth. Biologists, epidemiologists and medical researchers are constantly swept up into fake news that takes preliminary cautious results and blows them up into giant media panics.
When I was a kid, the media pushed a fake panic about Dungeons and Dragons, even to the point of making a terrible movie based on such fake news. Right now, they’re publishing fake news from so-called experts claiming that pornography is an epidemic and is damaging our national psyche. From vodka tampons to rainbow parties to Halloween candy poisonings to Super Bowl sex slaves, there is no fake news out there that won’t find an outlet in the mainstream media. Time Magazine, in particular, has been at the forefront of spreading panics over drugs, computers, satanism and sex.1
So spare me the clutched pearls.
The problem is not fake news and never has been. Fake news has been with us since prehistoric man said he totally saw a saber-toothed tiger over that ridge. It’s been a proud American tradition since the Spanish-American War. No, the problem is deeper than that. The problem is not a proliferation of fake news; the problem is a dearth of skepticism.
The problem is that too many people — left or right — are willing to believe any news as long as it’s bad (and especially if it makes their political opponents look bad). The problem is that people don’t hear something like “girls are shoving vodka-soaked tampons up their twats” and think, “What? That’s crazy!” The problem is that people don’t hear something like “one in five college women are raped” and respond with, “prove it”. The problem is that people hear there’s a supposed epidemic of shark attacks or scary clowns or church burnings and don’t ask, “What? When? Why? Where? How? Seriously? Are you nuts?”
(In this specific case, the WaPo clearly did not evince the necessary skepticism. Jazz argues that it looks like they ran the story without even contacting the power company in question. The UVa rape story had the same problem — the reporter never contact the frat, never talked to the supposed victim’s friends, never checked the validity of any claims. This is Reporting 101 and almost every fake news panic out there can be traced to the media not doing their job and asking the right questions.)
As long as we, as a culture, want to believe the worst things, this problem will remain. And as long as the media want to stoke panics, cozy up to the powerful and virtue-signal, they will be complicit.
Don’t worry about fake news. Worry about a political and media culture that wants to slam the panic button over anything and everything. Worry about how they see every whisper of a cultural trend as an excuse to empower government. This week, it was Russians. Last week, it was sex traffickers. Next week, it will be robots. But whatever panic it is, the problem is not the fake news. The problem is our willingness to believe it.
“Drugs, computer, satanism and sex” should totally be the motto of the Libertarian Party.↩