Lessons Learned From The AP Hack

Rob Bailey
30th April 2013 1 Comment

Last week, the official account of the Associated Press (@AP) was hacked and the account was used to Tweet the false news that the White House had been bombed and President Obama was injured as part of a potential attack. The Dow Jones Industrial Average proceeded to plummet almost 150 points, as did several other market indices around the world. I think this is an incredibly important moment in time and important learning experience, but not for the reasons you think.

1. Twitter has become an absolutely vital source for breaking news.

I can’t think of a stronger sign of the importance of Twitter for the distribution of news than the market moving dramatically from one pretty obviously fake Tweet. (How could the AP know so instantly that Obama was hurt as the explosion was happening?) All companies should think deeply about what the growing importance of social networks, and Twitter in particular means for them.  Especially news organizations. If you don’t have a strong presence on Twitter, you will be eclipsed by competitors who do.

2. Security is as important to your Social Media strategy as virality.

The AP hack incident underscores the importance of carefully thinking through security around your Social Media accounts.  Several AP employees claim the hack was preceded by phishing attacks at AP, which leads me to the conclusion that the security breach itself may have just as likely been at AP or somewhere else, not Twitter.  There are plenty of signs that hacking attacks are increasing in number and sophistication.  For example, during the last week, Living Social was hacked and 50M accounts were compromised.  Even the CIA got hacked last year. (http://ubm.io/15VtjJ0).  It’s probably time to move on from keeping the password to your company’s Twitter account on a Post-It note by someone’s computer.

3. Social networks are an amazing platform for validating news.

The hacked Tweet about the White House was posted at 1:07 pm and within 5 minutes, there were thousands of Tweets correcting the false news. That’s impressively low latency for news correction. Compare that to TV/cable or printed news, where corrections can take days or weeks. I’m constantly amazed how quickly social media users correct news/facts they think are incorrect.  For example, I posted an article last week about how some news outlets had incorrectly reported that a Brown alumni was a suspect, and that reporting may have led to his death. Turns out the news was false (http://bit.ly/ZQTde9).  Someone corrected me within minutes of my post and I took the post down. Indeed social networks used intelligently can be an incredible platform for not just validating whether something happened, but also *what*  happened, *where* it happened, and how bad.  Last year, I found Twitter invaluable for getting direct, first hand insights into such unfolding events as Hurricane Sandy (yes, the warnings were right, the hurricane was actually turning out to be as severe as weather forecasters predicted) and Occupy Wall Street (a very vibrant online global community on Social, but it was a bit hard to figure out what exactly the movement’s specific calls to action were).

4. The AP Hack means companies should invest more in mining the web and social networks.

I’m obviously biased on this topic as the CEO of a Social Data platform company. Still, I think perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from the hack and subsequent market plunge is that Twitter and other social networks have become such an important news source that mining them intelligently is now critically important and doing it incorrectly can be very costly. For example, any funds or news organizations that caught the Tweet about the White House could have almost instantaneously checked out the validity of the news using social networks. They could have checked for other confirming Tweets about the incident, even focusing their search on the DC area. Even the average individual investor could have checked the news out by doing a Twitter Search, or even just checked out the White House web cams: http://whitehouse.gov1.info/webcam/oval.htm.  News reporters every day validate breaking news using multiple sources–the same should be true for Social.  HFT funds that had automatic triggers kick on the White House Tweet without validating signals should be investing more in their engineering teams so they can build more sophisticated monitoring systems.

We live in exciting times where news is being revolutionized. News is getting faster and more viral. It’s crucial that a company’s processes and technologies keep pace with this quickening rate of progress.

At DataSift, we have built the world’s most powerful and extensive infrastructure for intelligently processing large volumes of social and finding signal. We have hundreds of corporate customers (including many major US news organizations) using DataSift to power ever more sophisticated monitoring and tracking of Social.  We also have a team with deep experience in using Social to power applications more intelligently.

There’s a saying in investing: “You never know who’s swimming with no shorts until the tide goes out.”  I’d update that saying to say: “You never know which funds/news companies are using outdated technology/platforms until there is a news hack.”

Give us a call, we’d love to help you.

Rob Bailey

Written by Rob Bailey

Rob Bailey is the CEO of DataSift.