It is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish fact from fiction in the coverage of Wikileaks' ongoing publication of internal emails from Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, known as the Podesta emails. There are internet hoaxsters pushing fake emails that are not contained in the actual published files. There are junk reports from prominent newsy websites that are based on obvious misreadings of the files in question. There is Clinton campaign and Democratic party spin seeking to distract from the content of the published emails. There is Trump campaign and Republican party spin exaggerating the content and import of what has been revealed by the leaked documents. And so on. In this article, we'll provide a bit of context on the leak itself, cover some examples of how it is being exploited by hoaxsters, how it is helping to reveal the incompetence of newsy sources of information, and how it is playing out within the context of the presidential campaign itself. We'll conclude with some tips on how to sift through the bullshit.
This article focuses specifically on coverage of the Podesta emails. But it is important to point out the context in which these files have been published. The first thing to note is that there is not just one leak that has resulted in the publication of Democrats' internal documents. Back in June, a hacker or hacker group known as Guccifer 2.0
began releasing a large set of internal files from the Democratic National Committee.
It is speculated that Guccifer 2.0 is a front for Russian hackers, if not a state-sponsored Russian cyberwar group, mostly on the basis of circumstantial evidence. The Guccifer 2.0 documents can be found here
. Emails obtained by Guccifer 2.0 were, it appears, also obtained and published by Wikileaks. The Wikileaks DNC email database
can be found at the link.
(The name 'Guccifer 2.0' itself is an obvious allusion to a Romanian hacker who called himself Guccifer
and released documents on prominent Republican and Democratic party officials in 2013. Guccifer was eventually tracked down and jailed in 2014.)
Then in early October, Wikileaks began publishing a large set of files from the email account of John Podesta, a long-time Democratic party insider, and current chairman of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. This set of documents is known as The Podesta Emails
The Podesta Emails are not
directly related to the larger Hillary Clinton email controversy
, which resulted from her use of a private email server during her time as Secretary of State. Emails from that controversy were made public by congressional inquiries and Freedom of Information Act requests. Many, if not most, of those emails have also been published by Wikileaks in its Hillary Clinton Email Archive
Shortly after Wikileaks began publishing the Podesta email document dump, reports quickly began circulating online purporting to have found "smoking gun" evidence of one sort or another in the files. One of the most prominent of these was a report alleging that Clinton had called Democratic voters a "bucket of losers," in a clear allusion to her comments calling Trump supporters a "basket of deplorables." This claim can be demonstrated to be clearly false with a simple search for the term against the Wikileaks documents
themselves. As a testament to their gullibility and refusal to do even basic research, numerous websites still have articles online breathlessly reporting
the false claims as if they were true, without correction.
Misinformation campaigns based on the Podesta emails have been equally as successful as the disinformation campaigns waged by the hoaxsters. One widely circulated report claimed that the Podesta emails contained solid evidence of racist comments made by Hillary Clinton. "Racist Hillary DUMPS on African Americans, Calls Them Professional Never-Do-Wells," read one headline
at a self-declared right wing news site. That sounds pretty serious! Moreover, the author of the article proclaims that the email confirmed everything she already believed! Yet, as with the hoaxsters, this claim is easily debunked with a minimum of effort. A search for the offending terms among the Wikileaks documents does indeed turn up an email
using the offending terms. But anyone who is neither an idiot nor a knave should be able to quickly debunk the claim by reading the email's header, which reveals that it is not from inside the Clinton campaign. It was in fact sent from firstname.lastname@example.org, and addressed to a wide array of media outlets and political insiders. In other words, the purveyors of the "smoking gun" claim are either morons who are incapable of reading an email, or they are just click-bait artists trying to earn a few pennies off bombastic headlines.
Trump Gets Trolled
Earlier this week, another story that was similarly based on an obvious faulty reading of an email from the Podesta files was published by the Russian state media outlet Sputnik News
. The author(s) of the article misread an email in the Podesta files, and did not realize that it was just a forward, and not a personal email. This article was picked up by the Trump campaign, and the Republican candidate read from it at a campaign rally later that day. The embarrassing incident was reported widely
in the media when the offending article was debunked later in the day.
Clinton Campaign Spin
The Clinton campaign, for its part, has clearly been put off balance by the publication of the hacked documents, judging from the contradictory statements they have made in its wake. Podesta first claimed that the Wikileaks documents were in fact fake. "They've put out documents that are purported to be from my account," he stated
on a Sunday morning talk show. Then later on Twitter, he seemed to walk back this claim, asserting that fake documents had been inserted into the file dump, according to Politico
. Finally, by Wednesday, Podesta admitted that his account had in fact been compromised and the the FBI announced
that it was investigating the hack. Podesta has now gone on the attack himself, fingering Russia as the source of the hack and claiming coordination with the Trump campaign: "Russian interference in this election and their apparent attempt to influence it on behalf of Mr. Trump . . . should be of utmost concern to all Americans," said Podesta, according to CBS News
This line of attack builds upon existing campaign narratives that have been articulated by Hillary Clinton herself. As she stated at the second presidential debate
: "Putin and the Russian government are directing the attacks, the hacking on American accounts to influence our election. And Wikileaks is part of that, as are other sites . . . we don't even know if it's accurate information . . . believe me, they're not doing it to get me elected. They're doing it to try to influence the election for Donald Trump."
But Podesta appears to have bigger problems than the Russians. The Clinton campaign chairman's Twitter account was apparently compromised by someone from 4chan's /pol/ board earlier today. Politico
reports:"Podesta's Twitter account sent out a strange tweet reading: "I've switched teams. Vote Trump 2015.Hi pol." The tweet was quickly deleted, but the Clinton campaign confirmed the account had been hacked."
For an in-depth analysis of the Democratic response to the hacks and leaks, see Glenn Greenwald's article at The Intercept
: "In the Democratic Echo Chamber, Inconvenient Truths Are Recast as Putin Plots."
We live in a new information environment. Barack Obama was hailed as the first president of the social media age
. The next president may be the first to inhabit an age of generalized, asymmetrical, information warfare. The Wikileaks Podesta emails file dump has completely muddied the waters in an already dirty presidential campaign. Widely read political news sources have been humiliated by transparent hoaxes. Others have had their shoddy reporting exposed for all to see. One major presidential campaign has been humiliated by spouting faulty Russian state news reports, while the other is getting pwned by 4chan.
Asking yourself a couple simple questions can help dispose of all the bullshit that is tripping people up right and left. Where's the evidence? Where's the corroborating evidence? The great thing about Wikileaks is that any assertions made on the basis of its documents can be verified or debunked by simply searching its archives and reading the primary source materials in question.
For more, check out our previous post on how to spot a fake news article and identify a hoax news website