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Twitter Hack Rekindles Disinformation Fear as Election Looms

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·5 min read
Twitter Hack Rekindles Disinformation Fear as Election Looms
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(Bloomberg) -- The hijacking of several prominent Twitter accounts, including that of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, has again raised questions about the company’s ability to combat disinformation on its platform and rekindled concerns about potential election interference with November just four months away.

Twitter Inc. and other social media sites such as Facebook Inc. were already facing scrutiny over their ability and willingness to protect the integrity of the democratic process and avoid a repeat of 2016, when Russia spread disinformation in efforts to bolster Donald Trump’s candidacy.

That pressure increased on Wednesday as Biden, Barack Obama, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Elon Musk were among the prominent political and business leaders whose accounts were exploited to send out tweets in an apparently coordinated effort to promote a cryptocurrency scam.

“What happened today should be a red flag in terms of the huge amounts of disinformation that are already rife in this election and it’s only going to get worse,” said Meredith McGehee, executive director of Issue One, a non-profit focused on political reforms. “When you’re going after presidential candidates and the richest men in the world, it’s a display of their vulnerability.”

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said at her Thursday briefing that President Donald Trump “will remain on Twitter,” but lawmakers were swift to call on the company to answer questions and bolster its security as they stressed that the hack had highlighted the dangers of fake information on the platform.

Democratic Senator Mark Warner, vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee, called for Twitter and law enforcement to investigate, and for large social media platforms to “put greater resources and monitoring into high-risk accounts.”

“The ability of bad actors to take over prominent accounts, even fleetingly, signals a worrisome vulnerability in this media environment -- exploitable not just for scams, but for more impactful efforts to cause confusion, havoc, and political mischief,” Warner said in a statement Thursday.

Republican Senator Roger Wicker, who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee that oversees U.S. tech policy and consumer protection, called for a briefing from Twitter and said he was concerned that the hack had eroded user trust in the content on verified accounts.

“It is not difficult to imagine future attacks being used to spread disinformation or otherwise sow discord through high-profile accounts, particularly through those of world leaders,” Wicker said.

Democratic Representative Frank Pallone of New Jersey, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee that oversees much of U.S. technology policy, said in a tweet that Twitter “needs to explain how all of these prominent accounts were hacked.”

Representative James Comer, the top Republican on the House Oversight Committee, also called for a briefing in a letter to Twitter Chief Executive Officer Jack Dorsey and warned that “breaches similar to yesterday’s have the potential to jeopardize national and economic security and disrupt the lives of millions of Americans.” Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal said the attack “bodes ill for November balloting.”

Within a few hours of the incident, Twitter explained that the hack was “a coordinated social engineering-attack by people who successfully targeted some of our employees with access to internal systems and tools” and used that access to take control of highly-visible accounts and tweet on their behalf.

Who hacked the site and how are the company’s greatest immediate concerns. But until Wednesday’s episode, users took for granted that verified account holders were indeed who they claimed to be. That sense of trust may have been altered during the hack, said Laura Galante, founder of the cyber-research firm Galante Strategies.

“What’s really important now are the parameters Twitter sets to disclose these incidents to the public,” she said. “And how are you going to verify swiftly that a tweet is fake and an account has been hacked.”

Voters or the media may be swift to recognize false statements from Biden, Trump and other high-profile figures, yet the credibility of accounts is more tenuous, and important, at the state and local level, experts said.

“Who will notice right away if local election administrators’ accounts are hacked and used to peddle misinformation about how to vote or where?” said Darren Linvill, a professor and disinformation researcher at Clemson University. “Even if it’s just a day, if that day is Election Day, then there’s more than enough time to do damage.”

Experts had bigger worries than a cryptocurrency scam following Russia’s use of fake personas in 2016 to promote false news, sow division and suppress Democratic votes. Yet lawmakers, cybersecurity researchers and good-government advocates have spent the ensuing years warning that disinformation’s tendency to spread quickly on Twitter could be a threat to the election as well as to public health amid the coronavirus pandemic.

They cited not just the actions of foreign nations but domestic operatives including official campaigns, with Trump showing an eagerness to spread falsities, that use tools ranging from lies to manipulated videos.

The calls seemed to have moved Dorsey, whose company’s smaller size relative to Facebook or Alphabet Inc.’s YouTube means it must rely more on algorithms than humans, to enforce policies that ban manipulating elections and other forms of disinformation.

In October, he announced Twitter would ban political ads on the platform even as Democrats complained that Trump was spreading lies about Biden on Facebook unchallenged.

In May, Twitter fact-checked Trump’s false claims about mail-in voting, prompting the White House to issue an executive order aimed at curbing liability protections for social media services. The company has since then flagged one Trump tweet for violating its policies on glorifying violence and continued to take a more active role in monitoring his tweets.

(Updates with Trump remaining on Twitter in fifth paragraph)

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