Breaking bad: The problem with news on Twitter

Yesterday's hack of the Associated Press Twitter account is a symptom of a much larger problem: our addiction to speed

By now you probably know the real story. The White House has not been bombed and the president is unhurt. But for a few tense moments yesterday you might have easily believed it, all due to a bogus update from the real Associated Press Twitter account.

Breaking: Two Explosions in the White House and Barack Obama is injured.
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That "news" was then retweeted possibly thousands of times by credulous Twitterati, and why not? It came from the @AP account, right?

Some Twitter users were savvy enough to recognize it as a hack, but not the U.S. stock market, which dropped more than 140 points in a matter of minutes before recovering. When Twitter realized the official AP account had been compromised it took the account offline, where it remains as I write this.

A group calling itself the Syrian Electronic Army claimed kudos for the hack, on Twitter (naturally).

Ops! @AP get owned by Syrian Electronic Army! #SEA #Syria #ByeByeObama

Apparently, the SEA spear-phished some AP reporters, who swallowed the bait and coughed up the Twitter log-ons for multiple AP accounts. The SEA also took credit for a hack of Reuters' website last August, but the latter's Twitter account is still live as I write this.

The always clear-headed Molly Wood of Cnet laments that Twitter needs to finally grow up and deal with its accuracy problem:

Twitter has always had an accuracy problem. It's a lot of voices, its information flows quickly, and in all fairness it was never meant to be a medium for reliable delivery of news. But we may be reaching a tipping point where Twitter starts to face actual legal scrutiny or even lawsuits if it can't take steps to ensure the security of its accounts, if not the accuracy of its information.

Bloomberg News' Alex Bruns seconds the motion:

AP is apparently susceptible to hacking just like anyone else who plugs into the internet to share information. That is really not a surprise. Also unsurprising, the agency was exceptionally forthright in mitigating the damage and explaining the mistake. What is surprising, though, is that Twitter Inc. allows itself to remains subject to these sorts of attacks.

...If Twitter expects corporations, politicians and market-moving news services to continue to use its service, it is going to have to provide better security. The AP fixed its problem. Now, it's Twitter's turn.

Bruns' solution: two-factor authentication, which would force any would-be attacker to provide a second means of proving he or she is an authorized user of the account -- such as entering a one-time PIN sent to a mobile phone. Two-factor would also have prevented the devastating hack on Wired writer Mat Honan's account last fall. Google, Facebook, and Apple have all adopted multistep authentication, says Bruns; now the ball is in Twitter's court.

That mostly solves the unauthorized access problem, but not the larger conundrum: the speed with which news travels on the Net and the rewards that accrue to those who get it out most quickly. There's a lot of incentive in the world of Web news to be first even if you're wrong; there is almost no incentive to be second or fourth or 10th but to get it right. And there is no faster way to spread information and misinformation than Twitter.

Matt Roller nailed it when he coined the following bit of Twisdom:

Twitter does its best work in the first five minutes after a disaster, and its worst in the twelve hours after that.

Even then, the hacked AP account was still more accurate than the New York Post's coverage of the Boston bombings last week. Following a series of mind-blowing errors that the Post has yet to acknowledge, the News Corp paper was taken to the woodshed and whipped in amusing fashion by The Onion and Gawker (very much NSFW, do not open this page at work, I'm not kidding). Likewise, CNN got egg all over its face when it reported phantom arrests of bombing suspects (Jon Stewart and "The Daily Show" got their licks in there).

The problem isn't just Twitter, it isn't just hackers, it isn't just news organizations that should really know better. The problem is us. You and me, sitting here in front of our screens, rabidly awaiting the next distraction or update or tidbit of information. We have become addicted to speed -- the digital variety, not the pharmaceutical. Until we finally break that habit, get ready for a lot more misinformation, panic, and propaganda in our lives.

How do we eradicate the Net's misinformation epidemic? Post your cures below or email me: cringe@infoworld.com.

This article, "Breaking bad: The problem with news on Twitter," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe toCringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.

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