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.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.