“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.