We have been discussing the crackdown on “fake news,” including my view that this has become the latest rationale for various countries to rollback on free speech, including most recently top lawyers in Italy. Leaders who have long fought to curtail free speech may have found the perfect vehicle to convince citizens to voluntarily surrender their right to free speech, even celebrate its passing. It is all being done in the name of “truth”, which apparently can only be found on the other side of the criminalization of speech. The debacle at the Washington Post over the false Russian hacking of the U.S. electricity grid highlights the problem with how these governments will choose between those publications deemed criminally false and those deemed merely recklessly unproven. No one is suggesting that the Washington Post would be sanctioned for this story, though some see a deeper failure in how the Post handled the controversy. I am actually sympathetic with the error, which can happen with the best of journalists. In today’s fast pace toward publications, errors can occur despite efforts to confirm sources and facts. My interest in how to distinguish between the Posts and other publications or sites. In the last few weeks, the suggestion is that governments should move against publications or sites that they deem peddlers of false news. The incident with the Post raises the question how and when government would use this new power.
The Post sparked a national outcry over its article entitled “Russian hackers penetrated U.S. electricity grid through a utility in Vermont, U.S. officials say.” Juliet Eilperin and Adam Entous reported that “A code associated with the Russian hacking operation dubbed Grizzly Steppe by the Obama administration has been detected within the system of a Vermont utility, according to U.S. officials” and continued “While the Russians did not actively use the code to disrupt operations of the utility, according to officials who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss a security matter, the penetration of the nation’s electrical grid is significant because it represents a potentially serious vulnerability.”
That account was eventually challenged by experts. The utility company issued a formal statement an hour and a half after the Post’s publication, stating “We detected the malware in a single Burlington Electric Department laptop not connected to our organization’s grid systems. We took immediate action to isolate the laptop and alerted federal officials of this finding.”
The Post ran a correction a few hours later stating:
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Russian hackers had penetrated the U.S. electric grid. Authorities say there is no indication of that so far. The computer at Burlington Electric that was hacked was not attached to the grid.
The body of the article was changed to include a statement that “Burlington Electric said in a statement that the company detected a malware code used in the Grizzly Steppe operation in a laptop that was not connected to the organization’s grid systems. The firm said it took immediate action to isolate the laptop and alert federal authorities.”
The error has caused a stir, particularly on conservative sites. Yet, much of the article was true. Such errors can occur even with responsible journalists and bloggers. It was a mistake. However, should the Post be punished under proposed “fake news” laws? If not, would the standard be different for a blog? The lack of any real standard reveals these efforts as a new means toward an old ends: to regulate and control speech.