In the past six weeks, the Washington Post published two blockbuster stories about the Russian threat that went viral: one on how Russia is behind a massive explosion of “fake news,” the other on how it invaded the U.S. electric grid. Both articles were fundamentally false. Each now bears a humiliating editor’s note grudgingly acknowledging that the core claims of the story were fiction: The first note was posted a full two weeks later to the top of the original article; the other was buried the following day at the bottom.
The second story on the electric grid turned out to be far worse than I realized when I wrote about it on Saturday, when it became clear that there was no “penetration of the U.S. electricity grid” as the Post had claimed. In addition to the editor’s note, the Russia-hacked-our-electric-grid story now has a full-scale retraction in the form of a separate article admitting that “the incident is not linked to any Russian government effort to target or hack the utility” and there may not even have been malware at all on this laptop.
But while these debacles are embarrassing for the paper, they are also richly rewarding. That’s because journalists — including those at the Post — aggressively hype and promote the original, sensationalistic false stories, ensuring that they go viral, generating massive traffic for the Post (the paper’s executive editor, Marty Baron, recently boasted about how profitable the paper has become).
After spreading the falsehoods far and wide, raising fear levels and manipulating U.S. political discourse in the process (both Russia stories were widely hyped on cable news), journalists who spread the false claims subsequently note the retraction or corrections only in the most muted way possible, and often not at all. As a result, only a tiny fraction of people who were exposed to the original false story end up learning of the retractions.