Friday, November 3, 2017

How Twitter (not a President) could start World War III

I work in TV news, an industry that gets a lot of crap (much of it deserved) for ginning up fear to attract attention.

And yet, we seemed to have mostly moved on after something that really is worth being terrified about.

This week we got a legitimately horrifying look at perhaps one of the dumber ways the world could end.

Not with a bang, but with a...

Well...

This:

In all, this lasted 11 minutes of our Thursday, briefly sparking all kinds of theories which varied depending on peoples' politics:

"I bet the liberals who run Twitter are trying to censor him!"
"Did he actually delete his account? Oh what a wonderful world it'll be now!"
I wish it was one of those things. I really do.

Because the truth-- at least as Twitter tells it-- is soil-yourself-worthy:


Now at first blush I can see how this explanation would seem hilarious to some people: "Last day on the job and Billy the customer service rep really flipped his bosses the bird on his way out the door!"

And perhaps that's why the general reaction was: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Which makes me think maybe we collectively missed the point of this moment.

The real story is that a low-level employee at a tech company was able to hijack the primary route of communication for THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES!

What if someone-- twitter employee or no-- wanted to put words INTO the mouth of the President instead of just screwing with his account for a minute?

One does not have to strain too much to imagine how that could go.

For sake of our little thought experiment, let's say the following two things are true:

  1. It's a year or so in the future and North Korea actually has a working nuclear-armed ICBM that is reliably capable of hitting the United States. Tested, tried, and true.
  2. A tweet appears from the President's @realDonaldTrump account-- complete with the blue little checkmark and everything-- that says something like: "Just left the sit room. Told the generals to take out Rocket Man for good! Special ops in the air!"

What if that tweet stays up for eleven minutes?

What if it stays up for 45 minutes?

What if the White House can't put the President in front of a camera quickly enough to debunk the tweet?

What if they do put him in front of a camera and North Korea doesn't buy it?

I'm sure there are other safeguards. I'm sure there are many things that could be tried to prevent the worst from happening.

But I'm just saying-- I can imagine how this current societal vulnerability of ours could be the ballgame, folks.

I admit, I've jumped a scenario on the extreme end of the spectrum. But again-- this is voice of the PRESIDENT we're talking about. One doesn't have to strain too hard to see how a wayward unauthorized tweet from him could directly lead to loss of life or serious economic damage.

I didn't write this to give you another reason to stay awake at night. I wrote it because we need to think this through.

First of all, companies like Twitter should probably find a way to keep employees from being able to tinker with the accounts of people who have nuclear codes. Like, maybe a C-level employee should get a push alert or something if there's a customer service need for the President's account.

But more importantly, we should rethink whether we want our leaders to talk to us on these platforms as primary form of communication.

I'm on twitter all day when I'm at work and, little blue check boxes notwithstanding-- I really don't ever know with 100 percent certainty what I'm looking at. I don't know it it's real.

I don't really know if the guy trolling me is a local 40-year-old in his mom's basement or a Russian bot any more than I really know what tweets come personally from the President's fingers.

Maybe Donald Trump wrote that tweet. Maybe it was an intern's last day and POTUS left his phone lying in the Mural Room. Maybe it was hacked. Maybe it was a low-level Twitter employee. Who really knows?

My point is, I see the promise of direct access to the people from the candidate's perspective.

President Trump says he wouldn't have that title were it not for the existence of Twitter.

But it's not foolproof.

With that in mind, in an era of distrust of the news media-- ask yourself which is less troublesome: seeing the President say the words into a camera (or quoted by a reporter who heard him directly)-- or looking at some words on a screen next to a blue check mark?

Some words you're pretty sure belong to him.

Pretty sure.

But not certain.

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