By Seb Kemp
Last week a tweet from the Associated Press Twitter account claiming that the White House had been bombed and President Barrack Obama had been injured caused widespread panic, particularly within the stock market.
At 1:07 p.m. on Tuesday, the following tweet appeared from the AP:
"Breaking: Two Explosions in the White House and Barrack Obama Injured."
Reaction on the stock market was swift, as what had been a mildly positive day on the Dow Jones quickly turned negative, with America’s benchmark stock index losing more than 134 points or more than a full percent of its value in a matter of seconds.
Within minutes, it had become clear that the report was untrue, and the result of AP’s account being hacked. Reports suggest more than $20 billion worth of equity positions changed hands on the New York Stock Exchange during the brief trading hiccup.
The nature of the hoax created a challenge because the AP account is considered a trusted source. However, the more sharp-eyed immediately recognized the likelihood of the tweet being false. Differences in the language of the fake tweet and official Associated Press style that could have outed it as a hoax, including the use of capital letters and that it referred to “Barack Obama” instead of “President Obama” or “Obama”, the two ways the AP refers to the President.
However, the damage was done. Imaginary money was won and lost, a moment of hysteria transpired, and the security of one of the world's most trusted information providers was brought into question.
The AP twitter account had nearly 200 million at the time of the tweet but after the Syrian Electronic Army apparently got hold of the account and made the false tweet, Twitter and AP conducted emergency measures to shut down the account and take back control. The account re-emerged the next day but with drastically fewer followers – 85,000 – after people shed the account.
This episode brings to light several questions:
Veracity: Why do a growing number of traders use Twitter for trends analysis these days? What is the veracity and accuracy of Twitter, even on a good day? The security lapse also revived doubts about Twitter’s place in the media landscape – and its ultimate value – at a moment when its status as one of today’s essential information networks had seemed all but cemented.
News outlets' Twitter accounts are often the primary way that their news reaches consumers who may not subscribe to a newspaper or have access to a news wire.
Twitter has touted itself as a critical news wire of sorts, such as during the 2011 tsunami in Japan, when it helped emergency responders locate survivors, or when it became a vital lifeline for some New Yorkers as television sets fell dark during Hurricane Sandy last year.
But last week, in the wake of the Boston bombings when users circulated misinformation via the social media network, some of those who previously viewed Twitter as an indispensable news source began turning against the service upon discovering that the wisdom of crowds is, in fact, an adage not often applicable on the Internet.
Security: Twitter is reportedly testing two-step verification process that would make it more difficult for hackers to take over users’ accounts, according to a report. Although two-step verification could decrease the amount of high-profile hacks, some have expressed concern about whether the method is a good fit for Twitter.
Jim Fenton, chief security officer for online security provider OneID, said he has doubts organisations will even use two-step verification because many times, Twitter accounts are handled by multiple people.
“Imagine every time someone wants to tweet, the one person with a registered device has to be sent an SMS message and enter a code to access the account,” he said in a statement. “It becomes a pretty significant roadblock to productivity.”
Social Media Weaponry: This, as well as previous incidents, shows that widespread social hysteria can be created by social media. It is a weapon of terrorism, perhaps. The AP was only the latest hacking victim in recent days after Twitter accounts belonging to National Public Radio, CBS 60 Minutes and others were breached. Last year, Reuters News was the victim of hackers who briefly took over one of its Twitter accounts and posted false tweets.
Why? Perhaps it was a sort of palm tree shaking terror attack or perhaps it was to line the pockets of the few.
"US news agency Associated Press, alongside other Western news outlets have been engaged in a media war against Syria. But with our infiltration, we have shown that we can fight off any assault," an anonymous source within the clandestine hacking organization Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) told news source, RT.
This hack, the hoax, the set-up or whatever you wish to call it comes at the time that issues regarding Syria have come into the limelight of Western media. The SEA believes a lot of this is "fabricated news" and so have launched numerous 'attacks' like this on Western news outlets (including BBC Weather) to undermine the legitimacy and validity of news sources, especially regarding the handling of the recent uprising in Syria.
Whatever, some people are rightly saying that this exposes the need for 'slow news'. The Guardian's Dan Gillmor says:
"In an era when information velocity and volume are growing, journalists and the audiences they serve are making important decisions at speeds that, at best, raise the risks of being wrong….We absolutely have to get it into our heads that we can trust nothing at first glance. Nothing. But we have to use judgment – checking other sources and, especially, waiting for some verification from other credible sources."
This is not some hack calling for print media to be reinstated now that the digital news providers have provided us with a "torrent of misinformation", but rather that as consumers we should take a "Slow news" approach: click refresh, read around, withhold judgements (and retweets), and wait for verified facts until the full picture comes into view.