The Washington Post published a fascinating article last week about the fake Associated Press twitter post by hackers. It provides insights into the incident that triggered a stock market landslide of 1000 points. The article by Dina ElBoghdady and Craig Timberg appeared in the April 24, 2013, issue. According to the Post, a hacker group called the Syrian Electronic Army allegedly hijacked high-profile twitter accounts owned by Western organizations that cover the civil war in Syria. In addition to the AP account, the accounts of NPR and CBS “60 Minutes” have also been hacked.
In the Associated Press case, the hackers posted a false story about explosions at the White House that injured the President. “Breaking: Two Explosions in the White House and Barack Obama is injured,” read the tweet. The “news” came shortly after the Boston Marathon Bombing. As a result, there was heightened sensitivity; the hoax seemed plausible.
“The episode, while lasting only several minutes, has drawn scrutiny from the FBI and a bevy of regulators while also highlighting the hair-trigger nature of today’s markets, where the demand for greater speed clashes with the occasional reality of misinformation,” say ElBoghdady and Timberg. They continue:
“Automated high-speed trading accounts for about half of daily stock market volume, and while few traders admit to having their algorithms make decisions based on a single tweet, several said the use of social media is growing. This kind of computerized trading tends to exacerbate market fluctuation, especially during sudden drops in prices, critics say.”
However, the article also points out that some dispute whether the stock market plunge involved computerized trading. “It’s not clear whether Tuesday’s market drop was caused by fast-fingered humans or computers seeing the words “explosions” and “White House” in a tweet,” say the authors.
They interviewed people who claim that computerized trading was not the cause of the market drop because of a 23 second delay between the tweet and the plunge. “That’s not compatible with computer trading,” said one. “If it was computer algorithms that were trading, the market would have moved in a fraction of a second.”
Regardless of whether humans or computers acted on the misinformation, the incident underscores how vulnerable we all are to unknown assailants who may be half a world away, sitting in a coffee house somewhere, armed with nothing more than a latte and a laptop.