News / Science & Technology

Truth and Consequences - A Dilemma for Twitter and Its Users

An illustration picture shows the logo of the Website Twitter, January 30, 2013.  An illustration picture shows the logo of the Website Twitter, January 30, 2013.
An illustration picture shows the logo of the Website Twitter, January 30, 2013.
An illustration picture shows the logo of the Website Twitter, January 30, 2013.
Does Twitter have a credibility problem?
For many, a single fake tweet from the Associated Press account that briefly roiled financial markets on Tuesday, driving the Dow Jones industrial average down about 145 points, vividly reaffirmed the fearsome, near-instantaneous power of the 140-character message.
But 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.
Just a week after social media networks took criticism for helping circulate misinformation about the alleged perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing, Twitter's security shortcomings fell under a harsh spotlight Tuesday after a hacker group commandeered the AP Twitter account and falsely reported that explosions in the White House had injured President Barack Obama.
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.
The latest hack was by far the most significant: the single AP tweet stunned investors and effectively wiped out $136.5 billion of the S&P 500 index's value in a matter of minutes.
Although the news agency later disclosed that one of its employees may have inadvertently given away company passwords as the result of a "phishing'' attack by the hackers, security experts quickly faulted Twitter for its longstanding failure to implement two-factor authentication, a double-layered password feature used by the likes of Google and Microsoft that might have prevented the spate of high-profile Twitter hijackings.
"It's one of those cases that we are seeing too often. It's getting unnerving,'' said Robert Quigley, a journalism lecturer specializing in social media at the University of Texas. "What media organizations need to do is pressure Twitter to have a more secure website.''
Although Twitter has repeatedly declined to address its product roadmap, the company has signaled that it will soon unveil two-factor authentication, including a public job posting in February that suggested the company was hiring to tackle the problem.
Mark Risher, the founder of a security consultancy that counts social media companies Pinterest and Tumblr among its clients, said introducing more measures like two-factor authentication would make Twitter more cumbersome to use and potentially slow its user growth - a critical concern for a company that relies on advertising revenues. But he warned that a prolonged rash of high-profile hacks, and an eroding sense of user trust, would hurt Twitter more.
"There's always a tradeoff between convenience and safety,'' Risher said. "But a security issue damages Twitter's brand.''

Newswire or Platform

For Twitter, the hacking has raised questions about its credibility just as it is beginning to assume a central role in a fast-changing media landscape, with the volume of tweets rising to more than 400 million a day. Earlier this month, the Securities and Exchange Commission ruled that U.S. companies may report material information such as quarterly results on Twitter, as long as investors are alerted in advance. Days later, Bloomberg L.P. said it would funnel Twitter directly into its terminals used by thousands of traders on Wall Street.
At the same time, the world's leading news organizations and Twitter, which has 200 million users around the world, have become increasingly intertwined in a symbiotic, if sometimes troublesome, relationship.
Dan Gillmor, a journalism professor at Arizona State University, said the hacks have especially hurt news outlets because their Twitter accounts are often the primary way that their news reaches consumers who may not subscribe to a newspaper or have access to a newswire.
Twitter has touted itself as a critical newswire 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, 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.
Steve Brunetto, a senior executive at Edgewave, a network security company, said Tuesday's hacking undermined Twitter at a sensitive time.
"On the heels of the Boston Marathon bombing, everyone's trying to figure out, 'Okay, where does Twitter fit into that news cycle? Where does Twitter fit into disseminating information?''' Brunetto said. "They've got an opportunity to legitimize themselves as a real player in that information life cycle but they get knocked down a peg every time somebody says, 'Oh, you can't believe what you read on Twitter.'''
Jeff Jarvis, a prominent Internet pundit and a journalism professor at City University of New York, said that the confusion caused by social media in recent weeks was not an indictment of social media but rather a reminder that the onus falls on professional reporters to verify information.
"No, the Internet's not broken,'' Jarvis said.
The rise of social media means that "you now hear more bar-room debates and speculation than before,'' he added. "But that doesn't mean you should believe it more than you ever did.''
Tom Schrader, managing director for U.S. equity trading at Stifel Nicolaus Capital Markets in Baltimore, said there were a lot of clues in the false AP tweet that should have kept traders from reacting, in particular the wording of the message.
"We saw it, we saw the initial reaction. Initially our reaction was, pull your bids [until we] see whether this is legit or not. We found no legitimacy to it and went back into the market as normal,'' he said.
Oli Freeling-Wilkinson is chief executive officer of Knowsis, a London company that picks out and amalgamates financially relevant tweets and other social media content for traders.

"We do have spam controls in place, but it's an ongoing war,'' he said. "It's much more  difficult to work out what's going on when people are hacking into official accounts, especially in the heat of the moment.''
While Twitter has occasionally signaled that it believes it could become more than a passive distribution network - a shift marked by last year's purchase of Summify, a small startup that specialized in surfacing relevant news - it has also taken pains to distance itself from the content of tweets and maintain strict neutrality from a legal perspective.
Twitter Chief Executive Dick Costolo told an Online News Association gathering last autumn that Twitter's primary responsibility was to create a platform, rather than to play an editorial role in determining which tweets people should see.
"A company trying to build media is creating or curating content, and that's not the kind of company we're creating,'' Costolo said.
Gillmor, from Arizona State, said Twitter did not need to guarantee the quality or veracity of its content in order to grow into a media juggernaut.
"It's not whether Twitter is credible or not, it's what people do with it,'' he said. "Every news organization feels it has no alternative but to use Twitter. But everyone at the traditional news organizations has to be thinking really hard about what that means, from whether the security is sufficient on these third-party platforms to what it means to be turning part of your stuff over to new kinds of publishers.''

You May Like

Video Russia’s Syrian Escalation Tests Obama’s Crisis Response

Critics once again question whether president has been slow to act on Syrian conflict, thus creating opening for powers like Russia More

Ancient African DNA Shows Mass Migration Back Into Africa

First genetic analysis of ancient human remains in Africa suggests massive migration from north around time of Egyptian empire More

NASA: Pluto Has Blue Sky

New photos also reveal the presence of water ice More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugeesi
Henry Ridgwell
October 08, 2015 8:02 PM
Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugees

Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Iraqi-Kurdish Teachers Vow to Continue Protest

Sixteen people were injured when police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse teachers and other public employees who took to the streets in Iraq’s Kurdish north, demanding their salaries from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). VOA’s Dilshad Anwar, in Sulaimaniya, caught up with protesting teachers who say they have not been paid for three months. Parke Brewer narrates his report.

Video Syrian Village Community Faces Double Displacement in Lebanon

Driven by war from their village in southwestern Syria, a group of families found shelter in Lebanon, resettling en masse in a half-built university to form one of the biggest settlements of its kind in Lebanon. Three years later, however, they now face being kicked out and dispersed in a country where finding shelter as a refugee can be especially tough. John Owens has more for VOA from the city of Saida, also known as Sidon.

Video Bat Colony: Unusual Tourist Attraction in Texas

The action hero Batman might be everyone’s favorite but real bats hardly get that kind of adoration. Put more than a million of these creatures of the night together and it only evokes images of horror. Sarah Zaman visited the largest urban bat colony in North America to see just how well bat and human get along with each other.

Video Device Shows Promise of Stopping Motion Sickness

It’s a sickening feeling — the dizziness, nausea and vomiting that comes with motion sickness. But a device now being developed could stop motion sickness by suppressing certain signals in the brain. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Making a Mint

While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Activists Decry Lagos Slum Demolition

Acting on a court order, authorities in Nigeria demolished a slum last month in the commercial capital, Lagos. But human rights activists say the order was illegal, and the community was razed to make way for a government housing project. Chris Stein has more from Lagos.

Video TPP Agreed, But Faces Stiff Opposition

President Barack Obama promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Tuesday, one day after 12 Pacific Rim nations reached the free trade deal in Atlanta. The controversial pact that would involve about 40 percent of global trade still needs approval by lawmakers in respective countries. Zlatica Hoke reports Obama is facing strong opposition to the deal, including from members of his own party.

Video Ukranian Artist Portrays Putin in an Unusual Way

As Russian President Vladimir Putin was addressing the United Nations in New York last month, he was also being featured in an art exhibition in Washington. It’s not a flattering exhibit. It’s done by a Ukrainian artist in a unique medium. And its creator says it’s not only a work of art - it’s a political statement. VOA’s Tetiana Kharchenko has more.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

VOA Blogs