Twitter falls under a gorilla attack

Twitter is increasingly the medium of choice for PR pros and pranksters alike. Can it survive the onslaught of attacks from flacks and hacks?

There were two big news stories about Twitter over the weekend, and I'm not sure which was more disturbing.

The first was an inexplicably long piece in the New York Times about how the Web --- but especially social media -- has changed how PR people operate. (Apparently, the Times had run out things to say about Michael Jackson and Sarah Palin.)

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Bottom line? No only do newspapers, magazines, and other traditional media outlets have big signs saying "stinky" on their backs, even oh-so-hip blogs like TechCrunch and GigaOm have caught a bad case of the PR cooties.

The real action: obsessive tweeters. It seems flacks hope to skip right over people who might ask pesky questions about their clients and spread the manure -- er, I mean, the good word -- directly among the people themselves.

The real influentials are people with large Twitter followings, which also happens to largely coincide with folks who have a vested interest (and possibly also investments) in helping Web 2.0 startups succeed.

Per the Times:

Gone are the days when snaring attention for start-ups in the Valley meant mentions in print and on television, or even spotlights on technology Web sites and blogs. Now P.R. gurus court influential voices on the social Web to endorse new companies, Web sites or gadgets -- a transformation that analysts and practitioners say is likely to permanently change the role of P.R. in the business world, and particularly in Silicon Valley.

So it's not how good a product or company is that matters, or even how good its sales pitch is; it's how many of the Twitterati they can pull over to their camp through any means possible.

Which brings us to disturbing story number deux: the increasing number of attacks on Twitter. This past weekend brought yet another, but this was the first one I've seen attached directly to a moneymaking scheme.

Someone (or a group of someones) created an unknown number of fake accounts designed to push the hashtag #gorillapenis (don't blame me, I didn't do it) into the trending topics on Twitter.

Each tweet contained a tiny URL directing you to a site where you're asked to take a "survey." The survey offered coupons for discounts on pharmaceuticals or pet food in exchange for completing more surveys, each of which captured your name, phone numbers, and e-mail address. Once you complete a survey, you get rewarded with "premium content" -- a brief forum post comparing, yes, the size of the gorilla, chimp, and human members. Fascinating, no?

Best-case scenario: Marketers will use this data to send you oodles more spam. Worst case? Hackers will use it as social engineering fodder for identity theft.

Judging by the way my browser redirected itself en route to these surveys, I'd guess we're looking at an affiliate scheme whereby whoever was doing the redirects was collecting a few pennies for each sucker who bit.

According to Cnet blogger Harrison Hoffman, the source of the Twitter hack may have been 4chan, the merry pranksters of the Web responsible for the anonymous attacks on Scientology, for hacking Time.com's 100 Most Influential People on the Web, and scads of other juvenile japes.

If so, this is very bad news indeed. Until now, 4chan seems to have been motivated by pure "lolz," or the sheer adolescent thrill of making large numbers of Netizens look like tools. If they've decided to go into business, we're in deep kimchee.

The Twits in Charge responded quickly by taking the hashtag out of trending topics and nuking many of the fake accounts (though I still found a fair number of them last time I checked). For that they should be commended. But it seems in 86ing the fake accounts, they also took down a number of legitimate ones by mistake (according to "social geek" blogger Jesse Stay). Not so commendable.

Which brings us back to disturbing story No. 1. If Twitter is indeed the medium of choice for future news about products, companies, or really, anything, and it can be this easily gamed -- that's a dangerous combination. When the gatekeepers for information are the folks who fall for some monkey business about a primate's privates, it's time to worry.

Can Twitter be trusted? Post your thoughts below or e-mail me: cringe@infoworld.com.

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