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'BarackObama assassinated': False tweet shows dark side of social media

Hackers allegedly took control of Fox News' Twitter account and posted false messages that President Obama had been assassinated. It's a cautionary tale about social media.

By Staff writer / July 5, 2011

Hackers allegedly hijacked Fox News's Twitter feed on Monday and Tweeted that President Obama had been assassinated.

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Allegations that hackers hijacked the Fox News Twitter feed Monday and used it to tweet incorrectly that President Obama had been assassinated have showed the dark side of social media.

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The incident is a cautionary tale about how online mischief-makers are using social media as an important tool to spread misinformation or even gain access to personal computers.

In some cases, the attack is a direct intrusion, as might have been the case with Fox Monday, with pranksters taking control of social-media accounts. But hackers are also bending social media to more subtle purposes, snaring unsuspecting users with messages that appear to be funny chats or videos.

As social media takes shape, it is another example of what many experts say should be a primary rule for users: beware.

Both the Secret Service and Fox have opened investigations into the Monday incident. Jeff Misenti, vice president and general manager of Fox News Digital, said in a statement: "The network was not in control of the account once it was hacked, and Twitter was unreachable until late morning eastern time yesterday. The tweets were taken down as soon as Twitter gave back control of the account to the network.”

The Hacker News, a website, reports that a new group called the Script Kiddies is behind the digital takeover. “I have faith that the members of the Script Kiddies will remain hidden,” an alleged group member told The Hacker News. While the source didn't divulge any plans for future attacks, “we have brainstormed several ideas.”

The incident is a reminder that detecting misinformation in social media is a crucial first step, says Richard Goedkoop, a professor of communication at La Salle University in Philadelphia.

In some cases, this can be easier than in others. Social media's greatest virtue – its variety of voices – is also its greatest weakness as a news source, given that many of those voices have no professional standards for reporting.

Too much social media – “including Twitter – bypasses traditional editorial judgment,” says Professor Goedkoop via e-mail. And “some members of the public are prone to egregious mischief,” he adds.

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