Case study in fake news for all journalism schools

  • Allegations made in magazine article that the Chinese military planted spy chips on motherboards made by US company has been denied by cyber giants and security services
PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 October, 2018, 6:25pm
UPDATED : Monday, 29 October, 2018, 10:57pm

It’s easy nowadays to accuse journalists and news groups, whether highbrow or low, of making up stories. But “fake news” is a catch-all phrase, so it can be misleading and a little unhelpful. All sorts of things could go wrong with a story from the start of research and interview to publication, without it being fake. Most stories that turn out to be problematic almost always, simply, got crucial facts wrong.

A good example is an “exclusive” by Bloomberg Businessweek, “The Big Hack: How China Used a Tiny Chip to Infiltrate US Companies”, published earlier this month. When the dust settled, because Bloomberg has yet to retract the story, it should be made a mandatory case study in journalism schools.

It alleges that hackers from the People’s Liberation Army planted spy chips on server motherboards produced by Chinese subcontractors for San Jose-based Super Micro Computer (Supermicro). The breach, the story claims, amounted to the most significant assault against the supply chains of almost 30 US companies, including Apple and Amazon, many of whose clients include military and intelligence agencies of the United States government. This meant creating a back door into some of the most sensitive computer systems in America.

It could have been the biggest story on China’s industrial espionage against the US that would, all by itself, justify Donald Trump’s trade war.

Supermicro says it’s hunting for Chinese spy chips on motherboards

Never mind all that, though. The story has been denied by Amazon, Apple, Supermicro and others named in the report. The FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre, the US Director of National Intelligence (who oversees the NSA and the CIA) have stood by those companies. No other mainstream US news organisations have been able to verify or take the story further.

Unlike many irate Chinese, though, I don’t think Bloomberg deliberately made up the story. I don’t know what exactly happened, but it looks like its reporters couldn’t let go of such a hot lead. They had relied too much on unnamed sources which provided varying degrees of support for their story. Meanwhile, they ignored warning signs, contrary evidence and simple denials from companies such as Supermicro.

We have all done this. We fall in love and ignore all the other person’s flaws. We buy a stock thinking only of its good points while overlooking all the bad things.

Bloomberg has said it is devoting more editorial resources to “prove” its story. Good luck!