Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an associate professor of public relations at Hofstra University, is the author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She was spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @karaalaimo. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion at CNN.
An attack on Twitter this past week exposed an alarming reality less than four months before the United States’ presidential election: social media companies, the government and American citizens are all dangerously unprepared for the “black swan” events that could throw the election into chaos. On Wednesday, about 130 Twitter accounts of prominent people, including Joe Biden, Barack Obama, Bill Gates and Elon Musk, were hacked. The hackers sent out tweets from the compromised accounts asking people for Bitcoin payments. While it was fixing the problem, Twitter temporarily suspended all verified accounts.
The incident revealed that, four years after Americans learned how easily an election can be manipulated via social media, the country is still not close to safeguarding the 2020 election. A big part of the problem is that, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote in his book “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable,” when people try to predict future events, they tend only to think about things that have happened in the past, while ignoring things we have never seen before that could happen in the future. Taleb calls such things “black swans.”
But Taleb’s black swans tend to be highly unpredictable, like the emergence of the Internet or new schools of art. This hacking should not have taken Twitter or anyone else by surprise, given how many hacks have come before. For example, just last year, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s account was breached, and two Twitter staffers were accused of helping Saudi Arabia spy on critics. Since hackers have breached innumerable companies and even the CIA in the past, Twitter should have been well aware that it was likely to be targeted again in the future and prepared for every contingency.
But, clearly, it was not. The people who followed the instructions on the fake tweets and initiated 518 Bitcoin transactions likely didn’t realize the tweets were a hoax, either. And law enforcement officials weren’t able to foil the attack and haven’t identified suspects yet.
That’s a major problem because another hack like this on or around Election Day could actually throw the election for a particular candidate. It’s not hard to imagine how fake tweets from Biden or President Donald Trump sharing distasteful views or inaccurate information about voting could influence the decisions of many citizens about whether and how to cast their ballots.
So, what do we all do now?
First, social networks need to get savvier about preventing hacks – fast. While the investigation into how the hackers accessed the accounts this past week is ongoing, one possibility that is reportedly being explored is that an employee sold his or her password. A 2016 study found that 27% of Americans who work in offices would sell their passwords to a third party – the majority for less than $1,000. The stakes are higher for a Twitter employee. The government also needs real plans for predicting and disrupting hackers. Currently, government officials and analysts who are responsible for preventing election threats are focusing mostly on protecting voting systems rather than addressing social media threats like this, according to reporting in The New York Times.
Second, we all need to be skeptical of the information we consume. Over the past four years, Americans have heard many warnings that we need to check the trustworthiness of our sources to make sure we’re not receiving fake news. But now, we also need to be skeptical of information that does come from trusted sources – like verified Twitter accounts – that may have been hacked. The best way to do this is by consulting multiple sources.
Before acting on information we see on social networks, for example, we should confirm it with the mainstream media – that is, news organizations that conform to standard journalistic practices of fact checking and appropriate balance – and then take the time to cross reference with other mainstream media. This is because news organizations could potentially also be hacked. For example, in 2011, hackers posted a fake story on PBS’s website claiming that the dead rapper Tupac Shakur was alive in New Zealand. So, if an online story seems suspicious, tune in to broadcast news, for example, or check other credible news sites.
Finally, organizations – including the government, politicians and businesses – need to find multiple ways to reach their audiences and not assume social media will even work at critical moments. For example, on Wednesday, the National Weather Service was unable to issue a tornado warning for Illinois because Twitter had locked down its verified account along with the rest. This means that, especially on and just before Election Day, Joe Biden, President Trump, government officials sharing voting information, and others need backup plans for how to reach their constituencies – through texts, emails, community officials and organizations, and a variety of media – to immediately warn about false information that is gaining traction through fake news reports, inaccurate claims, or hacks.
Wednesday’s “black swan” caught a lot of people off guard – even though the threat was far from implausible or difficult to predict. But it’s not too late for us all to act now to prevent a similar attack from upending the election.