Twitter hackers with ideas for hilarious stunts should get a move on

Twitter is finally on to you.

Last week I wrote about Twitter's upcoming hospitality to targeted advertising, and what this means for its users (almost definitely a dystopian nightmare). But Twitter is strangely inhospitable to advertisers in other ways - making a branded account something of a liability.

Branded accounts only have the same security as the rest of us - just the one username and password. As a result, a growing number of official accounts have fallen victim to hacking. Last week it was Burger King, which got taken over by Anonymous-affiliated hackers. It was soon branded with the Mcdonalds logo and issuing tweets like this:

We just got sold to McDonalds! Look for McDonalds in a hood near you @DFNCTSC

And then earlier this year there was the HMV clusterfuck, courtesy of some employees in the process of being fired. From the official account:

There are over 60 of us being fired at once! Mass execution, of loyal employees who love the brand. #hmvXFactorFiring,

Sorry we've been quiet for so long.Under contract, we've been unable to say a word, or – more importantly – tell the truth.

Just overheard our Marketing Director (he's staying, folks) ask 'How do I shut down Twitter?'

It's also happened, in various ways, to Jeep, NBC News, USA Today and Donald Trump, and all of those incidents were likewise funny. The thing is that official Twitter accounts are nigh on irresistible to hackers. There's something of the getting-down-with-the-kids about branded Twitter accounts, with their ulterior motivated chattiness and their thinly veiled desperation, and it's always tempting to remind them that they're still not really one of us.

So should Twitter be doing more to protect these accounts? At the moment it is running several paid options for advertisers - none of which include the option to up their security. But then why should it offer this? It would be a canny move to introduce it only later in the game, when more hacker attacks have increased the fear, and companies have accumulated more followers, raising the stakes.

The trouble is that at the moment this potential revenue is being siphoned off by third parties like Hootsuite, whose products let you manage your account a little more securely, and which get a boost everytime a company is publicly hacked. Unsurpisingly therefore, last Wednesday Twitter introduced a product facilitating ad promotion through third parties like this. It looks like the start of a move to finally get offical accounts a little safer. But is Twitter too late to the party, or too early? Either way, it's starting to twig, and potential hackers better get a move on with their hilarious stunts, before it's too late.

 
Twitter may be about to clamp down security. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.