The mainstream media have increasingly fallen victim to pranks and hackings over the last several months. The outcome has been a general readership that has repeatedly believed false statements presented by imposters as truth. The incidents pose some disturbing and problematic issues. We live in a day and age where social media has become a primary vehicle for disseminating information, and Twitter specifically has become, for many, a first stop for news. At the same time, it’s a highly politically charged environment today, where online activism is at an all-time high. Certain factions of groups like Wikileaks and Anonymous have branched out to function more like political operatives in a left-hacker alliance, whereby some even acknowledge participation in “a low-impact sort of civil war.”
Propaganda and disinformation has not only impacted the personal lives of many activists, but it has now become an undeniable component of our country’s consumption of news and current events. The line between reality and fiction grows blurrier by the week. And that represents an encroaching danger in the cyber-world, where information warfare is now a constant in the political landscape.
The most recent example occurred this past Friday, when supporters of Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad targeted the Reuters news agency.
Thomson Reuters said the blogging platform of the Reuters News website was compromised on Friday and a false posting purporting to carry an interview with a Syrian rebel leader was illegally posted on a Reuters' journalist's blog.
"Reuters.com was a target of a hack on Friday," the company said in a statement. "Our blogging platform was compromised and fabricated blog posts were falsely attributed to several Reuters journalists."
One of the false posts purported to be an interview with Riad al-Asaad, the head of the Free Syrian Army.
"Reuters did not carry out such an interview and the posting has been deleted," the Reuters statement said.
The Christian Science Monitor reported that a Reuters Twitter account had also been hacked:
Overnight, hackers managed to seize control of a popular Reuters Twitter account and briefly blasted out propaganda in Reuters' name to its followers.
According to the news service, the twitter account @ReutersTECH (thanks to Khadijah Britton for pointing this out) was hacked and then renamed to @ReutersME. While the account has since been suspended, a screen cap of the deceptive tweets captures the flavor of internet hacking, complete with sophomoric snark and patently absurd claims.
This incident comes on the heels of a recent attack by Wikileaks against the New York Times, in which the New York Times found itself on the receiving end of an elaborate hoax when a fake op-ed piece in its name was blasted across the internet to thousands of unsuspecting readers. In that incident, the op-ed was written to appear as though it was authored by former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller. A fraudulent Pay Pal blog post was also published and incorporated into the New York Times op-ed. In order to widely disseminate the propaganda, a fake “Bill Keller “Twitter account was then created, and its tweets were promptly retweeted by many high-exposure social media users, including prominent journalists.
In February of this year, the Heartland Institute found itself battling a scandal that was triggered when climate scientist Dr. Peter Gleick stole documents from Heartland and circulated a memo that turned out to be fake. The disinformation leaked to various media outlets in that instance was mixed in with some of the organization’s genuine documentation, a tactic that boosts the appearance of legitimacy when leaking false information. For days and weeks, the propaganda was disseminated far and wide on left-wing blogs and social media outlets. The resulting outrage left Heartland wrestling to regain control of its rapidly deteriorating reputation and that of its donors, who also became targets of the scheme.
Gleick also circulated a memo, purportedly describing Heartland’s “climate strategy,” that he originally claimed to have received from Heartland, and later claimed to have received “in the mail” from an anonymous source. Heartland and others identified the memo as a fake and continue to believe it was most likely written by Gleick himself to damage Heartland’s reputation.
Since the “Fakegate” scandal broke in February, environmental groups including Greenpeace and 350.org have used the fake memo to launch disinformation campaigns against Heartland’s donors and the scientists who participate in its climate change research programs.
In July of 2011, hackers took control of a FOX News Twitter account, alerting the Secret Service due to the nature of the content of those tweets. The incident prompted FOX News to post a statement, which read in part:
Hackers sent out several malicious and false tweets claiming that President Obama had been assassinated. Those reports were incorrect, of course, and the president was spending the July 4 holiday with his family at the White House.
The tweets have been removed from the feed.
FoxNews.com alerted the U.S. Secret Service, which will investigate the hacking and do "appropriate follow up," spokesman George Ogilvie said.
These are in fact days of information warfare. While activists like our readers have most certainly grown accustomed to the ongoing fight to expose the truth in the face of online propaganda, news outlets and established organizations are largely new to this fight. In a starkly politically divided environment, truth has become more important than ever. It remains to be seen how vehicles of dissemination, like Twitter, that are used as weapons in this digital civil war will respond to this growing and increasingly dangerous threat. There is a delicate balance between protecting security and integrity while also ensuring that free speech is not deterred – and this fight will likely require equal commitment and vigilance from those who rely on such vehicles.