The Syrian Electronic Army’s war on Twitter

by Toby Manhire / 01 May, 2013
A series of hacks show up Twitter security shortcomings – and the limits of automated share trading.
The Syrian Electronic Army logo.

This week it was Guardian Books, but before them it was the Associated Press, and before that 60 Minutes and al-Jazeera - even BBC Weather.

All have been surprised to find their Twitter accounts trumpeting pro-Assad-regime propaganda after getting hacked by an outfit calling itself the Syrian Electronic Army.

The group, thought to be funded by a cousin of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, describes itself as a mouthpiece for “enthusiastic Syrian youths who could not stay passive towards the massive distortion of facts about the recent uprising in Syria”.

Their cause, they say, is "to contribute with us in supporting the cause of the Syrian Arab people by armaments with science and knowledge against the campaigns led by the Arab media and Western on our Republic by broadcasting fabricated news about what is happening in Syria".

The Guardian, the attack on which the SEA says "came after this newspaper preying sometimes lies and slander about Syria", has dubbed them “Assad's shadow warriors”.

It seems unlikely that the hacks, reportedly the result of phishing attacks, will be converting many to the cause of Syria’s brutal leadership.

Some of them are borderline comedic – such as this on the BBC Weather Twitter timeline: “Chaotic weather forecast for Lebanon as the government decides to distance itself from the Milky Way.”

But most agree that Twitter itself should look at boosting security by introducing two-stage password authentication for users, especially for news organisations. As tech news site CNET tweeted, “Dear Twitter, Please improve your security. Signed, everyone.”

Twitter has said it’s working on that two-stage authentication process, but in the meantime, it has issued a bunch of advice for news organisations, including both sensible stuff including password renewal and protection, and limiting the numbers that have access. But they are a little hopeful, if not downright deluded, to imagine that media are going to be able to limit their tweeting to a single computer that has no other connections online.

“Designate one computer to use for Twitter," they say. "Don't use this computer to read email or surf the web, to reduce the chances of malware infection.”



While the Syrian Electronic Army's antics sometimes have the air of an adolescent grunt, they are not trivial. The most dramatic, and prominent, effort came in the recent hacking of the Associated Press Twitter account.

Pedants delighted in pointing out the numerous breaches of AP style that made clear its fraudulence, but you could forgive the burst of alarm at the appearance of this now infamous tweet:

Breaking: Two Explosions in the White House and Barack Obama is injured.

The markets certainly took it seriously, with the value of the US S&P 500 index plunging by an extraordinary US $136bn in less than three minutes.

The market quickly stabilised, but it was enough to leave many vexed by this fresh demonstration of the vulnerability to robot trading. It appeared that one automated process, social media sentiment analysis algorithms, had triggered another automated process, stop-loss orders, which, as Bloomberg explains, “automatically sell stocks when declines of a specified threshold are reached”.

As long as the computers fall for it, however, there’s room for human beings to prosper.

As one equity trader tells Bloomberg: “No human believed the story. Only the computers react to something that serious disseminated in such a way. I bought some stock well and did not sell into it. Humans win.”




Twitter is looking for two-stage

Twitter’s advice to news organisations
MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage


NZ spied on Japan to help US - NSA document
71615 2017-04-26 00:00:00Z World

NZ spied on Japan to help US - NSA document

by Craig McCulloch

Leaked US documents reveal Kiwi spies gathered information about Japan at a whaling conference, then passed it onto the NSA ahead of a crucial vote.

Read more
Mustard with your mustelid? The future of ethical protein eating
70342 2017-04-26 00:00:00Z Innovation

Mustard with your mustelid? The future of ethical …

by Margo White

If we want to feed the masses without wrecking the planet with more intensive agriculture, we might need to reframe our attitude to insects.

Read more
Thomas Oliver is in a soul frame of mind
71574 2017-04-26 00:00:00Z Music

Thomas Oliver is in a soul frame of mind

by James Belfield

Last year’s Silver Scroll winner has a new album and is all set to go on tour.

Read more
Art of disruption: Fafswag's alternative look at the Pacific body
70635 2017-04-26 00:00:00Z Arts

Art of disruption: Fafswag's alternative look at t…

by Anthony Byrt

A group of young artists are making sure their voices are heard in the discussion of decolonisation and the representation of Pacific bodies.

Read more
My life in clothes: Rebecca Zephyr Thomas on glamour and grunge
70622 2017-04-26 00:00:00Z Style

My life in clothes: Rebecca Zephyr Thomas on glamo…

by Rose Hoare

Photographer Rebecca Zephyr Thomas describes how an anti-fashion phase has stuck with her through her life.

Read more
Phil Goff's half year looms with big fiscal hopes still alive
71557 2017-04-25 00:00:00Z Politics

Phil Goff's half year looms with big fiscal hopes …

by Todd Niall

Auckland's mayor Phil Goff is approaching his six-month mark in office saying he believes his two big budget ideas will eventually come through.

Read more
The forgotten tragedy of Kiwi heroes and the inspiration of The Guns of Navarone
71507 2017-04-25 00:00:00Z History

The forgotten tragedy of Kiwi heroes and the inspi…

by Charles Hamlin

A forgotten tragedy befell our first Special Forces in Churchill’s second bid for the Dardanelles.

Read more
Passchendaele centenary: New Zealand's blackest day in Flanders fields
71543 2017-04-25 00:00:00Z History

Passchendaele centenary: New Zealand's blackest da…

by Matthew Wright

Historian Matthew Wright describes our worst day, a century ago this year, when 845 Kiwis died trying to take a small Belgian village.

Read more