Russian hackers did not target Vermont

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In a breaking news report on Friday Dec. 30, the Washington Post claimed that Russian hackers had penetrated the U.S. power system through the Burlington electric grid in Vermont. Twenty-four hours later, the prestigious newspaper retracted the false story.

Key Democrats, including President Obama and Hillary Clinton, began insinuating last December that the proliferation of fake news on social media (especially Facebook), during the 2016 Election cycle, had contributed to Clinton's defeat. At his final White Press conference, Obama criticized "domestic propagandists" for spreading partisan news that is identical to misinformation issued by foreign governments.

Here, fake news sources implicitly refer to right-leaning websites. In reality, Facebook was found guilty of "routinely" blocking popular posts from right-leaning sites last summer. Former "news curators" revealed the company's discriminatory practice, noting that their actions had a "chilling effect on conservative news" (Gizmodo: "Former Facebook Workers: We Routinely Suppressed Conservative News;" May 2016).

Moreover, establishment media publications such as the Washington Post and the New York Times are at the forefront of post-factual reporting. Consider the Dec. 9 Times report, "Russian Hackers Acted to Aid Trump in Election, U.S. Says," which only cited unnamed Obama Administration officials and members of the intelligence community to support its monumental titular allegation. Michael Cieply, a former editor at the Times, describes the editorial dynamic at the Gray Lady as "reverse," i.e. reporters are required to find news stories that match narratives predetermined by the editors (Deadline: "Stunned By Trump, The New York Times Finds Time For Some Soul-Searching;" Nov. 2016).

The narcissistic insistence on "setting the agenda for the country," while looking down on the vast majority of Americans, has forged the disconcerting phenomenon of post-truth journalism. Indeed, this trend profoundly threatens the freedom and integrity of public dialogue, and ought to be denounced as vehemently as the spread of "alternative right" conspiracy theories and gossip mongering sites on the Internet.

For instance, it is important to note that the Post did not contact Burlington Electric for comment before publishing news of the supposed cyber attack. Indeed, the company issued an official statement within an hour following the initial report, explaining that malware (malicious software) located in a single laptop, unconnected to the electric grid systems, had been isolated and removed. Forbes magazine explains that malware infections can result from "visiting malicious websites" (e.g. pornography), and does not unquestionably signal Russian involvement ("Fake News And How The Washington Post Rewrote Its Story On Russian Hacking Of The Power Grid;" Jan. 1).

Nonetheless, the Post maintained the story's veracity into the next day. Further, it contextualized the unconfirmed report as part of a series of Russian cyber attacks against the U.S., including prior breaches to the DNC and John Podesta's email accounts. The incorrect story went viral, as the incident aligned well with the mainstream media/ center-left's narrative about "systemic, relentless, and predatory" Russian meddling (to use Congressman Peter Welch's words). Other media channels like the New York Times, CNN, ABC, NBC, and CBS also featured the story without checking its accuracy.

Eventually, the Post was compelled to make an embarrassing turnabout, but not before the Democrat members of Vermont's congressional delegation joined the Governor in crying wolf. "Vermonters and all Americans should be both alarmed and outraged that one of the world's leading thugs, Vladimir Putin, has been attempting to hack our electric grid," Gov. Shumlin proclaimed in defiance. Senator Patrick Leahy took a more alarmist approach by asserting that Russia had been attempting to "manipulate the grid and shut it down in the middle of winter" ("Leahy Reaction On Russian Hacking Of A Vermont Electric Utility;" Dec. 30).

Such hyperbole and knee-jerk reactions reveal the extent to which elite culture has morphed into an echo chamber, wherein the relationship to the truth is tenuous at best. How else can one explain why Shumlin et al. did not check with the local company in question before accusing a foreign nation of tampering with our electric infrastructure? Moreover, as Internet users have indicated, such malware is common and can be sold and purchased online by anyone. Then, why didn't our political leaders consult with IT technicians about the nature of the identified malware before deciding that the Russians were unequivocally involved?

Evidently, for our state's most prominent politicians, the opportunity to feign righteous indignation on the national stage is an itch that must be scratched. In addition, that the staunchly left-leaning Washington Post propagated what was clearly a falsehood undermines the newly popular argument that "fake news" derives from mysterious right wing sites. In the New Year ahead, stay hungry for news and knowledge but stay wise to the politics of the media.

Meg Hansen is a writer from Windsor. The Vermont House Republican Caucus consults with her communications firm.

The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Bennington Banner.



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