In case you didn't hear about it: on Tuesday the Twitter account of the Associated Press, one of the most authoritative news agencies in the world, posted this tweet at 1:07 PM Eastern time:
"Breaking: Two Explosions in the White House and Barack Obama is injured"
The news triggered a Wall Street selling frenzy, causing the Dow Jones Industrial average to plummet by 143 points.
The tweet was then discovered to be a fake and was corrected within a few minutes, after which the market quickly recovered.
What can you learn from this incident?
Twitter Is A News Source, But Consider The Source
Though anyone can start a Twitter account and post anything they like, very few accounts gain the 1.9 million followers that AP's feed has. Twitter has gained so much cultural traction in its brief existence that any media outlet worth its salt uses it, and it's easy for someone to generate their own personal news feed that offers a steady stream of headlines with links to the relevant content.
However, it doesn't appear that too many people were taken in by the ruse, so why was Wall Street affected? This article in the Guardian addresses the question. Turns out that many high-frequency traders use computers with algorithms that constantly crawl news items and execute trades automatically based on what the machine reads.
Does that mean that anyone can post something online and manipulate the market? Not quite. It's easy to select only trusted sources of information for your algorithm. Nonetheless, the market was susceptible in this case.
Why? Because the algorithms were set to implicitly trust the Associated Press. If you just blindly trust whatever a machine spits out, don't be surprised if you get it wrong every now and then.
Lesson learned: computers are not a substitute for our critical judgment. If you had used your critical eye at the time, you'd have noticed that the tweet didn't follow AP's official style guidelines.
Trust Is Key
It wasn't that long ago that people didn't trust digital information. "You read it online? But anyone can make up anything online!"
I haven't heard that sentiment too much lately. But incidents like this are a stark reminder that we might need to remember to flavor our digital information consumption with a grain of salt.
It's up to everyone who engages in online activity to become savvy about what goes on out there. There are numerous pitfalls that can befall teenagers taking pictures of themselves, online banking customers, and yes, news consumers who feel the need to know what's going on in the world right now.
Hackers are everywhere, and they're ruthless! In this incident, they got in through phishing. AP hasn't said anything official on this matter, but AP reporter Mike Baker used his Twitter feed to suggest that the fake tweet came less than one hour after staffers received "an impressively disguised phishing email." (Neither Baker nor AP have confirmed the time frame.)
If you haven't heard the term "phishing" before, you'd better get familiar with it fast: phishing emails are disguised to look like they are from official sources, and they ask you to provide login and password information. The phishers then access your account and do whatever nasty business they wish.
Lesson learned: You just can't trust the goodness of people online without doing a bit of checking first.
Regular people didn't seem to be taken in by the AP Twitter ruse, and when I think of my own online news consuming habits, I can understand why. Typically, when I read a news story, I'll search for the story and see what else has been said. Usually, it's so that I can see what has been left out of the version I'm reading, because there's no such thing as unspun news.
But as much as it's fun to get information from around the world in a matter of seconds, we need to remember to exercise our savvy.
Lesson learned: it takes time for information to be verified.
When a startling tragedy occurs, like the recent events in Boston, it's not uncommon for a flurry of hearsay and conjecture flood the digital infoscape, especially now that anyone with a smartphone can contribute photos and tweets within seconds.
But the race to be the fastest, to be first, can lead to embarrassing trip-ups. Remember the eve of the 2000 U.S. Presidential elections? NBC News declared that Al Gore won Florida early in the evening, and their rivals quickly followed suit, not wanting to be left out. Within two hours, CNN backtracked, and the rest is history.
Here's something to consider about how unsound our information can be: we still don't know who really won that election, and we never, ever will.
What Does This Mean For Your Website?
Determine the best strategy for your audience: is your priority to be fast or to be accurate? If you're in the habit of rushing out Tweets, be ready to follow them up and correct your mistakes.
Trust is essential. Verify what you read, and make sure you trust whoever voices your Twitter feed. Once you tweet, you can't unring that bell, even if you delete it afterwards. If you messed up bad enough, someone will copy it and distribute it. Witness the Onion's post-Oscars comments.
Educate yourself about the dangers of hackers. As this incident shows, they can fool you quite easily, and they're getting better at it every day. Make your passwords unguessable, and don't give them out!
Finally; people are using Twitter for reading news, communicating with each other, and building relationships.
Lesson learned: Be savvy, but be there!