The Conversation

Breaking Bad: The Power of 140 Characters

A little noticed news story this week caught my eye and caused me to reflect again upon information warfare as a growing concern in today's world.

Second Twitter hoax in two days smacks another stock 

Two companies fell victim in the last two days to hoaxes on Twitter, temporarily causing their stock prices to  take a nosedive.  In each of the cases, Twitter accounts impersonating trading firms made false accusations about each of the companies - one tweeting false allegations of a DOJ investigation for fraud, the other, false reports of an FDA investigation over "doctored" drug trial results.

The story reminded me of previous breaches and impersonation of news outlets' social media accounts, in which false information was disseminated under the shield of legitimate news organizations to lend the disinformation credibility. 

As activists, many of our readers have likely also found themselves targets of similar disinformation campaigns on an individual basis. There are bad actors who wish to suppress opposing viewpoints or discredit productive members of a movement they oppose. Such tactics range in scope from merely annoying to damaging - the menu of typical dirty tricks has frequently been documented.

We live in a world today where governments across the world are experiencing periods of instability, where a handful of strategically crafted false tweets about a world leader or opposition group could inflame a conflict.  Economies are equally unstable in some places, and remain the targets of those who aim to further weaken the system.  And with a country like the US having become so politically polarized, even activism has become more extreme - advocacy groups, protesters and even hackers are far more politically motivated than in recent years. There are those who thrive in such environments of polarization and instability, opportunists who wish to cause further chaos for political or social gain. 

Propaganda and disinformation can be equally as dangerous as hacking, and takes little to execute but an uncritical audience willing to believe information that is fed to it for consumption.  Just look at the damage a few false posts on Twitter have caused for two companies this week.  It's not unrealistic to think that similar actions could be taken on a larger scale, in a more strategic fashion.

For all the good to come of vehicles such as Twitter over the last few years, the more I observe, the more I am critical of everything I see in a tweet.  Perhaps this all seems extreme, but I don't think it's out of the realm of possibility.  140 characters can be a powerful force, but not always one for good.


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