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Monday, 4 July 2011

No one died - literally. 'Obama Dead' Fox News Twitter hack shows nothing to fear from social capital

A few months ago I planned a whole series of blog posts about trust and social content, covering citizen journalism; and, in particular, viral messages and the propensity to worry about the social internet and its capacity for harm.

I stalled after the first instalment, but my analysis of the verified  @foxnewspolitics twitter account hack, where President Obama was declared assassinated early this morning, will serve as the second episode in the series I never wrote.

Two key points: it took almost two hours for the news to reach my Twitter stream, despite keeping an eye on trends and several keyword searches, as I do; and, within minutes of RTing (with a preceding disclaimer) it was rebuked.

Well, of course it was rebuked - we expect the channel footprint for any given news story to be roughly proportional to the magnitude. The fact that BBC news continued with its coverage of Mladic at The Hague immediately confirmed my suspicions.

But what might have happened had the hackers used a verified Twitter account from an established news agency in a more subtle way?  Could they have caused e.g. the collapse of a company stock on Wall Street?  Well, this happened already, to Apple; twice! (At least..)

In May 2007 a false story appeared in Endgadget, alleging the iPhone and Leopard OS would be delayed, knocking $4bn off the stock price.  Earlier this year, a blogger reported Steve Jobs was back in the hospital - which he wasn't.

But some stocks are inherently unstable because dealers are prepared to act on rumours, in the full knowledge that they may turn out to be false.  The potential losses from being caught out - late to the party - can sometimes be huge compared to the losses from acting in haste; so the dealers act in haste. It's simple mathematics in the risk calculation.

So, stock markets aside, has a blogger or Tweeter ever caused serious menace from a deliberate false rumour?

How about the premise that Twitter and other social mesh networks (mesh: where messages are passed or promoted from person to person; a network of individuals connected many-to-many) are actually more reliable than traditional broadcast media?

Of course I have no proof, it's just a hunch; but I suspect the information mesh not only works collectively as an effective filter of what is in the public interest (almost by definition!) but it also learns and adapts from past mistakes.

I believe natural cynics and sceptic play an important role - as antibodies, or truth arbiters. I'd say they are far fewer in number than the honest repeaters in the mesh, but they have a higher social capital. If they say "wait on a minute, where's the proof?" it takes the impetus out of a false story.

A case in point last year, a false rumour started by parody Tweeter @DMReporter, who asserted that Vince Cable had resigned in the wake of a Daily Telegraph expos√© into what he tells his constituents at surgery.  The story was quashed after a brief trend pretty quickly on Twitter.  But not quick enough for a few old school media outlets to embarrass themselves.

Of course the effectiveness of the mesh as a filter depends who we choose to connect ourselves to.  But the same is true of broadcast media - do we choose to buy the Daily Star, or the Independent?

I also suspect that natural 'antibodies' in the network are evolving to filter out marketing spam.  Aptly-named viral videos work once and once only.

There can never be a formula for viral success, as the participants of the social mesh seem to be easily bored of some subjects - yet never tire of other, seemingly more mundane topics.

The capacity for the blogosphere to be outraged by governments of all colours seems endless, but is driven by our natural self-interest in public affairs.  Yet our pleasure at watching footballers perform flawless long-distance kicks is tempered by our collective natural aversion to being controlled, be it by governments or brands.

Next time you see a truly viral video, see how easy it is to spot the brand message?  My guess it will be well hidden.

And the lesson to be learned from Obama, "assassinated" on the 4th July?  No one died! The mesh proved quite resilient, and the hackers essentially failed.


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