World’s most powerful Twitter accounts hacked

Shocking: The US Senate has demanded a briefing from Twitter – and the FBI is investigating.

Should Twitter be run by the United Nations? An astonishing security breach has exposed the private company’s vulnerabilities – as well as its enormously influential role in public life.

Kanye West. Elon Musk. Barack Obama. The victims of social media’s worst-ever security breach couldn’t have been more high profile.

On Wednesday, tweets appeared from their accounts asking for donations of bitcoin and promising double the amount back in return.

The scam was quickly identified, but not before hoodwinked Twitter users had transferred the equivalent of around $115,000 (£13,500). Twitter’s CEO, Jack Dorsey, called it a “tough day” for the company.

The hackers only wanted money. The scam was tackled, and involved relatively small sums. So, what’s the big deal?

In a word: security.

“This is massive,” said Rachel Tobac, CEO of SocialProof Security. “[It’s] a tsunami bell warning,” said cybersecurity expert Theresa Payton. Hackers accessed the accounts of major public figures, with global followings, who command a lot of trust.

What if they had wanted to start a war?

The power to spread panic through misinformation has a long history. In 1938, Orson Welles created a radio play of The War of the Worlds so convincing that many listeners believed an alien invasion was actually happening.

The stakes are higher than ever on Twitter. In 2013, hackers tweeted from the Associated Press account that the White House had been attacked and Obama injured. The stock market plummeted – until it became clear that it wasn’t true

Whether we like it or not, Twitter has transformed communication and become a key source of news and political announcements.

Trump has pushed the boundaries of brinkmanship on the platform even without being hacked, boasting of his “nuclear button” to North Korea and threatening Iran during the US-Iran crisis. What might happen if hackers made China believe the US was actually attacking?

Some think that the stakes are now too high for Twitter to be run by a private, profit-making company.

This security breach only highlights the danger. Better – and safer – if it were handed over to the United Nations. Not only would its security be improved, but an alignment with the UN’s mission of international cooperation would help the company better fulfil its role as the 21st Century’s public sphere.

So, should it happen?

#UnitedNations

No. Users would abandon Twitter in droves if it became a bureaucratic platform regulated by a diplomatic organisation. Other, more agile platforms in the private sector would quickly come along to take its place. What matters is for Twitter to establish how the hackers got in and tighten up security as quickly as possible.

Yes. Twitter has become the planet’s official message board. It cannot be left open to attack and manipulation by hackers – the consequences could be catastrophic. It makes far more sense for it to be run by an organisation with an international remit and an explicit commitment to peace and cooperation.

You Decide

  1. Which social media platform do you think is the most important and why?
  2. Is it irresponsible for prime ministers and presidents to use Twitter?

Activities

  1. Imagine you are Orson Welles creating the radio play of The War of the Worlds. Write a one-page script introducing the alien invasion.
  2. Imagine you work for the government. The country has been thrown into crisis by a convincing Twitter fraud stating that an invasion is happening. Write a 150-word statement persuading the public that it is a hoax and they can calm down. How will you convince them? If possible, record the statement as though you were broadcasting it online.

Some People Say...

“The crisis we face about ‘truth’ and reliable facts is predicated less on the ability to get people to believe the wrong thing as it is on the ability to get people to doubt the right thing.”

Jamais Cascio, author and futurist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that Twitter is used far more for political purposes by the US than any other nation. It is also a phenomenon of the English-speaking world: 18% of Americans use it, along with 25% of British people, and 24% of Australians, making it a useful tool for domestic political messaging. Only 6% of Russians and Germans, 3% of Iranians, and 1% of Indians use it, meaning that government bodies tend to only use it for international issues. It is banned in China.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around what else the hackers may have done. It seems as though they had full access to accounts – possibly aided by an insider at the company – which would have meant they could have collected private information from direct messages. Could this resurface at a later date in embarrassing ways? There is particular concern around Twitter security in the run up to the US election later this year – many people fear the spread of misinformation.

Word Watch

Hoodwinked
Deceived or tricked.
Orson Welles
American director, actor, writer and producer (1915-1985). The panic caused by The War of the Worlds made him internationally famous. His first film, Citizen Kane, came out in 1941.
The War of the Worlds
A science-fiction novel by HG Wells first published in 1897, in which alien colonisers invade earth. It has never been out of print, and had many radio and film adaptations.
Plummeted
Fallen or dropped straight down at high speed.
Brinkmanship
Following a risky policy to the edge of safety and stopping just before something really bad happens.
US-Iran
On 3 January 2020, the US assassinated General Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s second-most powerful person. This escalated a tension going back decades between the two countries.
Public sphere
A term originally used by the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas to describe an area of social life where people can meet to talk about social issues. Habermas saw the public sphere as emerging in the 18th Century with the rise of café culture.

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