Congress is raising hell about Twitter’s account hacks, but it’s probably just a sideshow

Quick Take

  • Members of Congress are demanding answers from Twitter and its CEO Jack Dorsey about Wednesday’s account hacks
  • But you shouldn’t hold your breath if you’e expecting much action during an election year defined by the COVID-19 pandemic

U.S. Senator Josh Hawley wants answers about this week’s wave of account hacks on Twitter.

He’s not alone in Washington. The chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, Sen. Robert Wicker, and Rep. James Comer of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform have also each thrown their hat in the give-us-answers ring. According to POLITICO, members of the Senate Intelligence Committee are also seeking answers. And according to Reuters, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation has opened a probe into the hacks.

Even if the politicians get their answers, though, chances seem low that we’ll see new legislative action on this front any time soon — or least not in this hyperpolarized, pandemic-in-the-background election year.

That’s too bad, because if we put aside the Bitcoin aspect of what remains is a frightening breach of a system — Twitter said late Thursday that as many as 130 accounts had been affected — that has become a critical source of real-time information about the world. It would seem like politicians should be able to agree with this, particularly in an election year.

"Last night’s attack on Twitter raises serious concerns about data security and how platforms like Twitter could be used to harm public debate,” New York Attorney General Letitia James wrote in a recent letter announcing her state’s own investigation into the matter.

But if Sen. Hawley's second letter represents the Republican side of thinking, expect more partisan bickering. Hawley seems focused on the possible user risks of the hack — well, Republican users, and one in particular: U.S. President Donald Trump (among Wednesday's targets were former vice president and 2020 contender Joe Biden as well as former president Barack Obama).

Here is a snippet showing some of the answers Hawley is after:

"Please define the terms “Search Blacklist,” “Trends Blacklist,” “Bounced,” and “ReadOnly.” Please also explain, for each term, whether such flags on user accounts affect the visibility of tweets within users’ timelines.... Does Twitter indicate to users affected by these flags or other similar measures that reduce user reach that their accounts or tweets have been flagged in such a manner? If not, why not?... Have any of these flags, or other flags with similar functions limiting the visibility of user tweets, ever been applied to the account or tweets of President Trump or other U.S. elected officials? If so, please include a record of each such flag."

The letter’s content clearly stems in part from the longstanding contention among many conservatives that Twitter is intentionally targeting and silence conservative voices. Such claims have fueled lawsuits, prompted the launch of competitors like Gab and Parler, and earned the occasional ire of politicians like Hawley and Trump.

Hawley’s questions suggest that Wednesday's hacks — a historic debacle and black eye for the 14-year-old social media giant — could simply provide further fodder for America’s ongoing social media culture wars.

This disappointingly misses the point. An attack that tried to trick people into sending bitcoin could have been used for far more nefarious purposes, using major Twitter accounts in an effort to cause panic. What if Elon Musk's account had announced that he was shutting down Tesla? What if someone took over the President’s account and declared a war? We saw how social media interference played a role in the 2016 election. What if this was a test-run for some election-themed information attack in November?


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