Markets and the perils of Twitter

“Breaking: Two Explosions in the White House and Barack Obama is injured”, tweeted the Associated Press on Tuesday.

“Breaking: Two Explosions in the White House and Barack Obama is injured”, tweeted the Associated Press on Tuesday.

Within six minutes the Tweet was read by two million followers, re-tweeted 1,181 times and sent the Dow Jones Industrial average and Standard & Poor’s 500 Index tumbling 1 per cent (erasing $136 bn) and dramatically weakening the dollar. Spectators rushed to the White House to see... absolutely nothing.

Following these six minutes of utter horror, AP sent out another Tweet: “That is a bogus @AP tweet.” Its account had been hacked.

After the markets re-stabled, investigations announced and reassurances given that President was unhurt, the wave of analysis begun. Commentators and experts were exacerbated at the ability of social media to influence markets. They noted how key words put together like "White House" and "Explosion" can cause algorithmic trading computers to sell, sell, sell. Twitter’s power has already played its part in toppling dictators in the Middle East, but now it is bringing down financial markets.

But then another twist emerged: The Tweet actually was directly linked to the protests in the Middle East – it came from the Syrian Electronic Army, a hacking organisation that supports the Syrian regime.

What are we to make of all of this? This bizarre scenario of events sounds like something out of a Robert Harris thriller combined with the warnings of Nicholas Taleb’s Black Swan. Hot topics now thrown into the air include the use of algorithmic trading computers and the reliability of Twitter as a news source.

Then there is Syria’s part. Cyber warfare has long been an understated part of the Syrian uprising. Two years ago in Damascus I was warned that internet cafes were under constant surveillance with regular hacking of Twitter and Facebook. The government, I was told, was particularly influential online – Assad was in fact president of the Syrian Computer Society.

 Then, last year, anti-government "hacktivists"(to use the newly created term) hacked into the Al-Assad’s personal email account and exposed all through the Guardian.

This unofficial online war has only grown alongside Syria’s physical uprising. The Syrian Electronic Army first occupied itself by posting slander against the rebels and praise of Assad on websites including the BBC. More recently, the Syrian Electronic Army, which many to believe to be unofficially connected to the regime, has attacked state supporters of the rebels. Qatar is a particular target: postings on Saudi Arabia’s news side, al-Arabiya, announced a coup against the emir and others said that the Qatari prime minister’s daughter was arrested in London.

Tuesday’s cyber attack on American markets was the Syrian Electronic Army’s most dramatic yet, but it surely won’t be its last. Who knows what they hope to achieve, but they have at least put into question the trust of markets in social media. The Syrian Electronic Army is crying "wolf" on Twitter and so far followers and algorithms have listened. But they won’t for long and Twitter is sure to  suffer the consequences of mistrust.

Photograph: Getty Images

Oliver Williams is an analyst at WealthInsight and writes for VRL Financial News

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Grandpa was ill and wasn’t keen on climbing the volcano – but we forced him up all the same

I squinted. Apart from a gleam of turquoise, the view was of one big cloud. Slowly the words started to form in my head. Just. Like. Scotland.

At first, Grandpa was sceptical about the volcano. “I used to be into that kind of thing,” he said, “but not now.” He did not mention that he was 88.

The guidebook to Indonesia – which he disdained – described how, once you got to the crater, the mist would rise to reveal a shimmering lake. His fellow travellers, my sister and I, often joked about our family’s tendency to declare everything to be “just like Scotland”. This was a living, breathing volcano. It would be nothing like Scotland.

But as Grandpa reminisced about his childhood in the Dutch East Indies, he began to warm to the idea. We set off at 7am and drove past villages with muddled terracotta roofs and rice paddies spread across the valleys like glimmering tables. We talked excitedly about our adventure. Then it began to rain. “Perhaps it will blow over,” I said to my sister, as the view from the windows turned into smears.

Our driver stopped at a car park. With remarkable efficiency, he opened the doors for us and drove away. The rain was like gunfire.

To get to the crater, we had to climb into an open-sided minibus where we sat shivering in our wet summer clothes. Grandpa coughed. It was a nasty cough, which seemed to be getting worse; we had been trying to persuade him to go to a pharmacy for days. Instead, we had persuaded him up a cold and wet mountain.

Five minutes passed, and the minibus didn’t budge. Then another bedraggled family squeezed in. I thought of all the would-be volcano tourists curled up in their hotels.

“Look,” I said to the attendant. “My grandfather is not well. Can we please start?”

He shook his head. “Not till all seats are full.” We exchanged a glance with the other family and paid for the empty seats. The driver set off immediately.

The minibus charged up a road through the jungle, bouncing from puddle to puddle. Grandpa pulled out his iPhone and took a selfie.

The summit was even colder, wetter, rainier and more unpleasant. We paid a small fortune to borrow an umbrella and splashed towards the lake. My sister stopped by a fence.

“Where is it?” I said.

“I think . . . this is it,” she replied.

I squinted. Apart from a gleam of turquoise, the view was of one big cloud. Slowly the words started to form in my head. Just. Like. Scotland.

I thought remorsefully of the guidebook, how I’d put my sightseeing greed before my grandfather’s health. Then I noticed the sign: “Danger! Do not approach the sulphur if you have breathing problems.”

Grandpa, still coughing, was holding the umbrella. He beckoned me to join him. I didn’t know it then, but when we made it back to the car, he would be the first to warm up and spend the journey back telling us stories of surviving the war.

But at that moment, in the dreich rain, he gave me some advice I won’t forget.

“If anyone tells you to go and see a volcano,” he said, “you can tell them to fuck off.” 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution