The National-Security Case for Fixing Social Media


On Wednesday, July 15th, shortly after 3 P.M., the Twitter accounts of Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Warren Buffett, Michael Bloomberg, Kanye West, and other politicians and celebrities began behaving strangely. More or less simultaneously, they advised their followers—around two hundred and fifty million people, in total—to send Bitcoin contributions to mysterious addresses. Twitter’s engineers were surprised and baffled; there was no indication that the company’s network had been breached, and yet the tweets were clearly unauthorized. They had no choice but to switch off around a hundred and fifty thousand verified accounts, held by notable people and institutions, until the problem could be identified and fixed. Many government agencies have come to rely on Twitter for public-service messages; among the disabled accounts was the National Weather Service, which found that it couldn’t send tweets to warn of a tornado in central Illinois. A few days later, a seventeen-year-old hacker from Florida, who enjoyed breaking into social-media accounts for fun and occasional profit, was arrested as the mastermind of the hack. The F.B.I. is currently investigating his sixteen-year-old sidekick.

In its narrowest sense, this immense security breach, orchestrated by teen-agers, underscores the vulnerability of Twitter and other social-media platforms. More broadly, it’s a telling sign of the times. We’ve entered a world in which our national well-being depends not just on the government but also on the private companies through which we lead our digital lives. It’s easy to imagine what big-time criminals, foreign adversaries, or power-grabbing politicians could have done with the access the teen-agers secured. In 2013, the stock market briefly plunged after a tweet sent from the hacked account of the Associated Press reported that President Barack Obama had been injured in an explosion at the White House; earlier this year, hundreds of armed, self-proclaimed militiamen converged on Gettysburg, Virginia, after a single Facebook page promoted the fake story that Antifa protesters planned to burn American flags there.

A group called the Syrian Electronic…

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